Philosophy and Fancy
The last axis that distributions tend to fall along isn't exactly philosophical, but it still is a real consideration. If you're putting together a distribution, who is your end user?
A distro put together for a hacker will, by default, install a raft of security-auditing and coding tools, and perhaps a handful of black hat tools as well, just for fun. These utilities almost always are available on other distros, but rarely do they install by default. Slackware is aimed squarely at this demographic.
On the other hand, a distro designed with the end user in mind might install some games, an office suite, a media player or two and a handful of toys, but generally its goal is to not overwhelm users with options. Give users one tool that works reasonably well and a good package manager, and let people fill up the corners as they need to. A small footprint and an idiot-proof setup is the name of the game here. Xandros and Linux Mint are prime examples of this type of targeting successfully taken to its logical extreme.
Power users are another animal entirely. These users want to be able to tinker with the system right up to the end of their expertise, and one tool for one job is never enough. After all, when was the last time you saw a perfect tool? Power users want it all and know how to milk the last bit of functionality out of their systems. They want an OS that is heavily optimized, that crashes rarely (if ever), and that they can control down to the process level without necessarily having to get their hands dirty. Systems designed for power users tend to be both slick and decadent, armed to the teeth with the kind of tools that would make most end users crawl into a straitjacket and whine for their mommies. The studio distributions, such as PlanetCCRMA and 64 Studio, tend to be this variety.
The administrator is the last major species of user, and distros designed for these users tend to be thin on flash and heavy on function. They also tend to run in environments where no end user would ever dare to tread, like server farms, render clusters and data centers.
The plethora of Linux distributions can be enough to make anyone's eyes glaze over, and it's tempting (particularly for a newcomer to the F/OSS world) to chalk up the diversity in distro design as just another symptom of a fractious, political hacker culture with more time than sense. The reality is a little different. The axes outlined above demarcate the major design considerations that distro packagers have to weigh, and where you put your pin on each axis also generally will have knock-on effects in terms of what kind of hardware you want to support, whether and when you will ship kernel source, whether you ship with a modular kernel, what kind of package manager you'll use, and how you'll manage the community that springs up around your product.
Likewise, understanding these considerations can help make the F/OSS space look a lot less like a battleground or a junkyard and lot more like what it really is: a rich ecosystem, more than a bit jungle-like, of different designs evolving to serve different economic and ecological niches, always filled with interesting experiments—some of which succeed handsomely.
Dan Sawyer is the founder of ArtisticWhispers Productions (www.artisticwhispers.com), a small audio/video studio in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has been an enthusiastic advocate for free and open-source software since the late 1990s. He currently is podcasting his science-fiction thriller Antithesis and his short story anthology Sculpting God. He also hosts “The Polyschizmatic Reprobates Hour”, a cultural commentary podcast. Author contact information is available at www.jdsawyer.net.
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