Regarding so-called fragmentation in Linux

There are some people who operate under the delusion that if Linux developers could just all work on one project, Linux would dominate the desktop/laptop/netbook computing sphere. Windows and Mac OS X wouldn’t stand a chance.

I disagree. Here are the reasons why:

  1. One of the appeals of Linux and its related projects is open source and the ability to fork and make changes. Telling Linux developers “You can’t work on what you want. You have to do things this way” would be like telling people at a vegan conference that they’d be a lot more successful in winning supporters if they just ate meat. Okay. That isn’t the best example. After all, plenty of Linux developers and users also use proprietary software (very few are of the Richard Stallman I-use-only-Free-software persuasion). Nevertheless, the open source nature of Linux and related projects is a major part of the appeal for both Linux developers and users. Forcing the community into a closed development model (no forking allowed, no individual projects allowed) would essentially force out the community.
  2. Herding cats isn’t easy. Let me ask you a question. If you wanted to get the best recipe, which do you think would be a better way to get it—getting 100 chefs to all work on one recipe together or having the 100 chefs all work on their own individual recipes while simultaneously sharing with each other what’s worked and what hasn’t? For the gains in talent you get by everyone having to agree on working in only one direction, you lose a lot of efficiency through disagreements, in-fighting, and ego bruising, let alone bureaucracy and management structures. 1000 people working together do not make a project that is 1000 times better than one person working alone.
  3. Along those lines, Linux developers already are working together. Do you really think Ubuntu does everything from scratch? Quite the opposite. Ubuntu does almost nothing from scratch. Don’t believe me? Right-click the Network Manager applet in Ubuntu and then select About. Guess what it says: Copyright Red Hat. Copyright Novell. Firefox is from Mozilla. The beauty of open source is that you don’t have to start from scratch. You share. Want a file manager? Great. You don’t have to create your own. Just use an existing one. No weird licensing hassles. Able to program and want to add functionality to an existing open source application? Add it in. You don’t have to write it from scratch, and the original developers can benefit from your improvement (the added functionality).
  4. Choices aren’t confusing if they’re informed choices. Should there be only one restaurant? One burger? And one cheese to put on it? Should there be only one type of car? Only one color yarn? Choices are paralyzing only if they are meaningless choices. If you have information that actually helps you make an informed decision, having choices is a good thing. The solution to “too much choice” isn’t getting rid of options. The solution is making the options clearer. For more details, read Making sense of an abundance of choice.
  5. Not all distros have the same aims. Even if it were theoretically (and it is not, for all the aforementioned reasons) possible for Linux projects to consolidate into one distro project to win “the desktop” (shortcut for not the server or embedded), not all distros have that aim. Most distros have no concern about winning the Linux desktop. Many are personal projects or are targeted specifically at advanced Linux users and not the mythical “Jane [or Joe] Sixpack.”
  6. Most importantly, meritocracy is a myth. Even if a Linux distro or several Linux distros were to exist that had perfect hardware detection and compatibility ran all commercial software (neither of these is possible without cooperation from third-party vendors, but let’s just say the ridiculous were true), if it’s not preinstalled and marketed correctly, forget it. Only a tiny minority of computer uses download, install, and configure their own operating systems. Most people don’t even know what an operating system is. They just use whatever their computer came with. For more details on this, read Linux-for-the-masses narratives.

So should all the distro developers band together on one ultimate distro? No. It would be in direct conflict with open source principles, it wouldn’t be more productive than what’s currently in place, and it wouldn’t make a difference against Windows and Mac, anyway—and that’s not something everyone wants anyway.