Making sense of an abundance of choice

When I was a child, I chose among thousands of movies, thousands of musicians, thousands of comic books to find the ones I liked and wanted to spend money on. At no point was I ever confused about what I wanted to consume. When I became an adult, I was confronted with a simple choice between two things, and I was baffled. PPO? HMO? What’s the difference? What do I want? How do I know what I want?

When it comes to choice, it doesn’t really matter how many choices you have. It matters more what information you have on those choices and how you can break them down. I have no idea how many universities and post-secondary schools there are in the world. I’m going to guess there are thousands, if not tens of thousands. Certainly there are at least hundreds. Sure, I felt a little overwhelmed when I had to decide what colleges (that’s what we Americans call post-secondary school) to apply to. But I never felt paralyzed by that choice. I loved that choice. I loved investigating my options.

So what’s the difference between choosing an HMO or PPO and choosing a college? Why did one (a choice between two things) get me confused and frustrated and another (a choice among hundreds if not thousands of things) get me overwhelmed a little but mainly excited?

I’d attribute the difference to several factors:

  • With HMO and PPO, I had choices with very little comprehensible information. No brochure had easy-to-understand explanations of what the differences were between the two and what the pros and cons were. With colleges, I had lots of brochures explaining what’s good about each college, and many colleges has reputations as well beyond the brochures.
  • Despite theoretically having the choice of thousands of colleges, I could eliminate whole groups at once. I knew I was going to study within the US, so all international schools were out. In fact, I knew I wanted to study close to home, so that knocked out even most US schools. I also had an idea of the caliber of school I wanted and just by reputation alone I could eliminate even more schools. The abbreviations HMO and PPO are completely meaningless to me, though, and when I first started working, I knew nothing about them or their reputations. They might as well have been fjbalbga and pfnirqbjkb.
  • The search for a college is part of the American dream narrative. If you want upward mobility or stability, it’s expected you spend some time searching and researching. The HMO and PPO choice is a form someone in Human Resources shoves in your face and expects you to make a choice about either immediately or within the next day. I have never heard any HR person say, “The HMO and PPO choice is something you want to do a lot of research on. Make sure you take about nine months to really look into each. Then come back to me, and I’ll counsel you a bit on your choice.”

We see this over and over again with choices in everyday life. Whether you’re choosing a restaurant to eat at or choosing an airline to fly on, you have to make sense of the choices you’re given. In some situations, society encourages you to take your time researching options (buying a car, for example). In other situations, society encourages you to just make a choice immediately (cart or basket for the grocery store).

One of the main criticisms of consumer Linux (Linux for desktops, laptops, and netbooks; as opposed to Linux for servers or embedded Linux) is the abundance of choice. Too many distros. The choices are confusing. How would new users even know what version of Linux to start with?

And, unfortunately, like the HMO and PPO choice for me, Linux suffers from all of the following problems when it comes to choice:

  • A lack of centralized information to distinguish one distro from another
  • A lack of easily apparent (to newcomers, anyway) groupings of distros so that large groups of distros can be easily eliminated as possibilities
  • A culture of choice in operating systems (since Windows and Mac don’t offer much choice, people aren’t used to spending time researching what operating system to use)

Unfortunately, a lot of people who have problems with the choices in Linux distros decide to cure the headache by cutting off the head. They want all the choices taken away. Have only one Linux distro. Unify Linux. Not only is this solution completely antithetical to the philosophies of Linux (which tend to involve freedom and choice), but it’s also completely unnecessary. If you’re overwhelmed by how many restaurants there are to eat at, you don’t suggest all the restaurants close down and combine into one restaurant. What do you do instead? You read restaurant reviews, get recommendations from friends, and try some out.

And that is the solution. When I first started looking into Linux, I had no idea what to start with. I went to Linux.org and that was no help. I went to DistroWatch and that was no help. All I got were lists of different versions of Linux, long lists. Nothing pointed me in a direction.

It wasn’t around when I first started looking into Linux, but the Linux Distro Chooser quiz is a good start to helping new users get less confused about the choices. Ultimately, though, we’ve just got to get people moving more to preinstallation. Most people don’t care or even know what operating system is on their cell phones or DVRs. And, frankly, most people don’t care what operating system is on their computers, as long as the computer does what they want it to do.

This current culture of find a distro, download it, burn it, boot from it, repartition your drive, install the Linux distro is so power user. It is not average user. It is not the future. Linux will get nowhere in the consumer space if everyone has to download and install and configure her own operating system. People generally don’t buy cars without the engine hooked up, and they also generally don’t buy computers without the operating system preinstalled.

Let’s start with the power users, though. Have them take the Linux Distro Chooser quiz. Or just give them a distro to start with (Linux Mint, PCLinuxOS, Fedora) and let them run from there. But let’s also realize that this is not a choice most people want to make. They will use… whatever comes with the computer.

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4 Comments

  1. Great post and really hits the mark as far as us Linux noobs are concerned. The distro choice is really confusing for a beginner. I take your point that noobs will use whatever comes with their computer. In my case, it was Linpus on my Acer Aspire One which I wasn’t very happy with. After reading around, I installed Easy Peasy Linux and found this is much better.
    But even once you’ve got past the distro choice, you have the desktop choice to contend with, then the great choice of open source apps, then the new unfamiliar file system and the installation problems. Luckily, there’s lots of info on the net to help out with all this but it shouldn’t have to be this way for beginners who will be easily put off and probably revert to an OS they are familiar with.

  2. Interesting point, nice article. There are some things where I thin could better Linux to narrow its focus, particularly with all the different packages types. Deb seems to be the most popular, maybe the entire community could benefit if we adopted Deb as the default packaging choice for Linux.

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