It's Not About the Distro


This summer, I'm changing our entire 250+ workstation infrastructure from Fedora to Edubuntu. Under the hood, our computers will be very, very different. Not a single one of my users, however, will notice.

Last year, I kept Fedora, but switched the desktop manager from IceWM to XFCE. There was mass chaos, and many of my users were so confused, they couldn't believe they were using the same computers.

For a non-techie person, a computer is only what you see when you log in. While diversity and options are well and good, it does make our job as "Technology Evangelists" more difficult. Think about the number of different window managers in common use. With Windows, you get (1) choice. With OSX, you get (1) choice. One of the wonderful things about Linux is the number of choices you get, but it is truly a double edged sword. How many drastically different desktops can you name off the top of your head? Things like (I'll miss a ton, I know):

  • KDE
  • Gnome
  • Enlightenment
  • IceWM
  • XFCE
  • WindowMaker

I have no intention of starting a Gnome/KDE/other war, but sometimes I wish all the desktop managers for Linux weren't so good! There is no obvious winner, and some are better than others in given situations. Again, that's a strength of Linux. It's just too darn good!

If world domination is truly the desire of the Linux community, our vast number of options will slow us down. I'm not suggesting we standardize, or have a Desktop Deathmatch (fun though that may be) -- but it's silly to pretend we don't struggle a bit because of our diversity.

Superiority is such a burden.


Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing.


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Alex Stone's picture

As a fairly new user of Linux, i was initially overwhelmed by the choices available, and enthusiastically experimented with the various options. It would be fair to say, as a former Win and Mac user, that my perspective was one of pictures, as rightly or wrongly we're driven that way by commercial intent. It's a lot easier to get people interested if they like the pictures, and human nature aside, the 'others' have been keen to put as much or more into presentation, than they are good code. The same could also be said of some Linux window managers, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing, in what seems a global linux community intent towards saving as many commercial os users from pain and sufference. I'm all for different choices, but i don't think it's a coincidence that the most user friendly window managers are those that most emulate commercial counterparts.
I also think this is about learning curve. If a young game wielding tyro has cut his teeth on the Win paradigm, he or she may feel they have paid their dues, so to speak, and see a different paradigm as somehow going backwards, or on the more extreme end, an 'insult' of assumption that they'll have to learn all over again. Many people can also be inherently lazy, so the task of relearning is beyond them by choice, and apathy. Then there's cool, and the application of it in front of peers. Are the window managers 'cool?'
The right click menu wielding tribe might think so, as they operate gleefully within a minimalist environment, gleefully crying out with a roar of success as they minimize the impact on machine resources further. That's ok, and objectively, very sensible for those who enjoy that sort of thing, but for the average user, quite possibly boring, and perceived as intimidating.
There's little doubt KDE and Gnome propelled linux into the ordinary household box, and with the advent of Ubuntu, Suse, etc., the average win and mac driven user has never had it so good for a genuine, easy to use, linux alternative. But with the glut of window managers, many specific to a particular task or workflow, we're fighting the 'one pic per box' mentality so profitably engineered into the heads of Mr. and Mrs. Joe average, and all the little averages. That's hard to counter when profit is at stake, and recent developments within the sulfuric labyrinth of the big evil show there's no sign of that abating. So where to from here? Does linux as a community continue to innovate, offering many alternatives?. I hope so. but i also wonder if a 2 stage approach would be useful here. A common, or default 'face' to represent, as an identifiable brand, the linuxOS, with a secondary stage for users who wish to venture further and explore other faces, once they've tucked the slippers a little more comfortably under the tux desk.
Or, the variety of options available are presented as a feature of linux, and we do more work as a global community to move perceptions in another direction, possibly that of 'we've got a face for every occasion, not just one...'
Personally, i think the second approach would be a more successful tack in the long run, but in this age of 5 minute society, engineered to accept 'One face, One OS', i may well be in the minority.

Two roubles worth,


Quality and choice is more important

KimTjik's picture

To conquer the world is a secondary question, and maybe not even an interesting one. As my subject says I hope Linux continue to evolve with sustained and improved quality, and likewise continues to provide users with the option to personalize the environment.

To the list of valuable window managers could also be added the tiling ones like Xmonad, which proves that alternatives are developed to improve productivity while not being everyone's cup of tea. I mean by that that the choices aren't there because somebody simply had to much spare time, or tried to make the desktop look even fancier, but because we humans think and work differently. This is an asset that few if any operating systems beside Linux and in some aspects BSD can offer.

Eventually there'll be some kind of general view about how a Linux systems look like, or can look like. Probably many future users will be just as clueless as many Windows users are today about what an operating system is, or what they're even using.

Missed it.

oiaohm's picture

Standards part key to the solution to the problem.

Linux is highly competitive with each other so there will be always options.

Package manager diversity and no common way to install and no common api covering everything is slowing us down.

Now when the day comes were you can put any distribution in a threw network secure it with the same limitations the user had on a different distribution from a central server running on a different distribution then we are there. At that point diversity would not be a issue for network. User able to use what fits and it be secured is key. Linux Standard Base may see some interesting changes.

The package manager is still a factor

Micah Elliott's picture

I agree with the points in this post completely. But on the other side, it is still *a little bit* about the distro. I think that sysadmins grow affections for their package manager. I choose Ubuntu because of apt-get. So I'd probably not hesitate to start using any other *buntu, or even debian. I haven't used Yum much, so now I'm mostly avoiding Fedora. I avoid SUSE like the plague for several reasons, but the main one being YaST. To just sit down at a machine I have to immediately run my apt-get meme. When it's a non-deb, I've already hit a hurdle.

So in addition to having a "most-blessed" desktop manager, it would also be nice to see more in the way of converging the package managers, or at least the package names.

More window managers

OwenJH's picture

blackbox and fluxbox are other minimalistic window managers. Check out has a great list.

What you are saying is that its not the distro but the window manager that your users are used to? Does this mean if Vista had kept the look of XP people would hate it less? There are differences between distributions that certain users will notice, but it depends on the level of your users I suppose.

It's funny

Shawn Powers's picture

It's really funny you bring up the XP/Vista look thing. I know so many people (myself included) that when XP came out, changed the theme back to "Classic" look right away, because things made more sense that way. As to whether or not more people would like Vista with an XP look, I think all you'd have is a slower, more annoying XP then. But I'm just cynical. :)

Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing.


Seth Galitzer's picture

I, for one, have never liked the Windows95-style interface (Start Menu, TaskBar, etc.). I have always found it cumbersome and have always been disappointed that Gnome, KDE, et al have emulated that in their out-of-the-box setup. Lucky for me, they all have the flexibility and give me the opportunity to change them to my personal liking. Not to mention, I have several UIs to chose from, at my whim. The only "choice" I get with newer versions of Windows is bigger and bigger icons. Viva la choice!