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Choice or Chaos? The High Cost of Linux Fragmentation

Like it not, there's a considerable price tag associated with the question, "What distro do you run?"

Freedom of choice is one of the great benefits of Open Source Software in general and Linux in particular. This freedom gives consumers the ability to select, without fear of litigation, what software they will use and how they will use or modify it. As a principal, this freedom is extremely valuable. However, a couple of announcements this week seem to indicate that market value of freedom of choice has dipped considerably. The biggest hurdle Linux adoption faced this week wasn’t Microsoft, it was an enemy from within: Linux fragmentation.

Maybe we should clarify that. While obviously the core Linux Kernel isn’t fragmented, its community is. No one uses Linux (apologies to the two people that actually do, in advance). What they use is some flavor of Linux. And since those flavors aren’t uniform in nature vendors can’t predict their behavior. When Dell looks at their IdeaStorm website they probably don’t see Linux users massing around a few key ideas, they see Red Hat users, SUSE users, Gentoo users, Unbuntu users, Whatever users. Maybe they see a Linux community but from Dell’s point of view it’s a very fragmented one and not one they can make happy on a broad basis with pre-installed Linux.

Dell confirmed that this week by announcing they would certify a number of their desk and laptops for Novell’s SUSE Linux. The story was widely, widely misreported as Dell offering pre-installed Linux, however, that’s not the case. To understand what certification means, check out the language on HP’s Linux certification and support matrix:

HP does not sell bundled hardware including or offer HP support of this Linux distribution. Customers can purchase the Linux distribution and obtain support for the certified platform from our Linux partner.

In other words, certification is handy but it’s certainly not pre-installation.

I can’t really blame Dell though. Why go to the trouble of pre-installing Linux on a desktop that won’t earn you the same amount of revenue as the Windows variety (it’s estimated that 20-30% of PC revenue comes from the software component) when there’s a 50% chance or more that the buyer will just re-install their favorite Linux distro on it or, even worse for the company, an older version of Windows.

The other announcement this week was IBM’s refusal to certify Oracle’s Unbreakable Linux. Again, it’s an issue of too much choice. While Unbreakable Linux is supposed to be an exact clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which IBM fully supports, IBM is choosing to play it safe and wait for customer demand to dive their adoption of yet another distribution. Probably a wise decision by IBM, but if you really like Unbreakable Linux for some reason you’re probably a little disappointed about this.

Welcome to the era of post-choice, where a market’s overwhelming variety limits its overall growth either by discouraging partner commitment or drowning consumers with mixed messages.

The solution? There really isn’t one. Choice is a fundamental aspect of the Linux experience and one deeply ingrained in this community. If you look through the comments on the IdeaStorm website you’ll see a number of people seriously suggesting that Dell should just create their own Linux distribution that they can easily support. That’s madness.

It’s absurd to think that anyone can release a version of Linux and suddenly be a successful Linux company (right, Oracle?) But that’s the mindset that exists around Open Source. And the dizzying array of choice that emerges from that way of thinking creates a real problem for Linux. Linux on the desktop fights a war on two fronts: first against itself and then against every other unified OS available.

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