Mike Ashley

Linux Distributions

November 09, 2014

I switched my personal computer from Debian 7.7 to Ubuntu 14.04 this weekend. I ran Debian for ten months after leaving OS X, but I never got a desktop setup I was happy with.

There’s nothing wrong with Debian. I’m running it for my family cloud. Debian believes in maximizing choice and providing a distribution based on open source software. Unfortunately, it didn’t support my hardware very well (Lenovo W500), and the desktop environment was unstable. You could argue the latter was my fault. I could also argue that Debian didn’t provide enough configuration guidance, and that led to me making a mess of things. There’s only so much time I have to think about my configuration.

Isn’t making choices for you the point of a distribution? I chose Ubuntu and drunk the kool-aid: accepted defaults and recommendations and didn’t think too hard about it. The result is a nice desktop environment. I have a working desktop email client. I have music, video playback, and photo management. I have working bluetooth audio. This is along with the development and work tools I had when running under Debian. What desktop manager am I running? I don’t know, and I don’t care.

Choice in the free software world is a tough thing. As a base lien look at Apple and OS X. They’ve built a nice environments on Unix. They’ve limited choices in a few significant ways.

Apple and its developer community live in these constraints to give users a great experience. Users pay for this experience in the cost of Apple hardware and the cost of applications. Apple uses the revenue to fund more software development to keep improving.

Linux-based distributions work in a different model. Software is almost always free, and distributions rely on the open source software development community for new software and improvements to existing software. They need a very large base of developers for this to succeed.

That’s the rub. If a distribution limits choices to provide a better experience for the customer, they will also limit the development community to engineers working on software in their distribution. This leads to fragmentation and loss of critical mass to get work done. Distributions are afraid of this and don’t want to alienate their development community. Thus, I think distributions are afraid to take a stand on what a distribution is trying to accomplished and say what’s in and out of the distribution as a result.

While not user-facing, the threatened fork of Debian is a good example of what happens when a distribution wants to make a decision. I get the debate around init. It is pretty important. Choosing UI frameworks and desktop environments also have big implications. As a user, though, I don’t really care. I want someone to make a decision and then show me what my choices are in the sandbox they’ve put me. If I don’t like the sandbox, I’ll find another one.

When I use a distribution, I am signing up to be part of a community of users and developers. Apple is becoming a lifestyle company. Its user base is becoming more and more mainstream. It wants its developers to target applications for those users. I am not interested in being either a user or a developer in that community.

Is using a Linux distribution any better? There are hard questions.

I can’t answer these questions today.