Look at any major service provider: Heroku, Google, Amazon, Apple. All of them offer different levels of access to what they offer, usually at different prices. There's even an established route to enticing customers towards the paid plans, via the well-worn 'freemium' model.
Let's be clear about this: Linux isn't dividing into paid and unpaid. It's not going the freemium route (although the cynical will suggest that Canonical might be thinking about it). What we're seeing, though, is the development of a clear split. A kind of meiosis.
And, much like the mythical beast itself, these heads enable the Linux beast to tackle both the herculean developer community while snapping up computer-averse consumers at the same time. If Linus Torvalds ran the Linux Foundation for-profit, this would be exactly the kind of business move that'd make sense: a two-tier system of Linux distributions, with one aimed at various levels of consumer and the other squarely aimed at the million unpaid developers who'll push the company forward.
Case in point 1: Zorin OSZorin's been hanging around the lower part of the top ten used distros for around a year, according to DistroWatch. The super-friendly distro - aimed at helping Windows and Mac users make the jump to Linux - was released a little under a year ago, and it's due for an upgrade.
Zorin is an important player, because it embodies one level of the two-tier system we're talking about. It's branded as "The gateway to Linux for Windows users". It's "much faster than Windows 7". The Zorin homepage boasts "immunity to Windows viruses".
Who is all this pitched at? It's aimed at the Windows-using masses, the droves shackled senselessly to Redmond's profit-generating machine. It's one of the bold new faces of Linux: user-friendly, familiar, swish, much better than Windows, runs on all the best laptop lines (check out Canonical’s choice placement of mainstream-brand laptops proudly chugging through its OS).
All those things are correct, of course, but it's a far cry from the muted homepage of Debian, which offers "37500 packages", "precompiled software" and explicit references to "free as in freedom".
Zorin, Mint and Ubuntu (on which the first two are based) are not aimed at developers. They're not even the "transitory mechanisms" they used to be (moving users from Windows to Debian via an intermediary). They are the bright young face of Linux, where the proof of a free, open-source Operating System is more 'in the pudding' than splashed across their homepages.
Case in point 2: DebianDebian 7's on the way. "Wheezy", they're calling it (in the Debian tradition, after the rubber penguin of Toy Story 2). Perhaps idiomatic naming is a tradition in the hardcore open-source dev community: after all, if you don't need to appeal to a wide audience of consumers, you can call it whatever you like.
Wheezy isn’t so much a bold statement that old-school Linux yet lives. It's more a quiet whisper: an under-arm nudge to the thousands of development teams that silently worship Debian's staggering stability, obsessive reliability and hassle-free maintenance.
It’s a hushed cry that tech admins the world over should think about readying the upgrade cycle on their servers: servers which, to this day, host around 2% of the top 100,000 websites on the Internet. In other words, Wheezy's release will interest large numbers of people and directly affect millions more (20% of Debian's websites state their business as 'Adult').
But it's understated and fanfare-less. Why? Because it's representative of the 'second tier' of Linux distributions: the ones which still care about free as in freedom and proudly splash lengthy Q&A essays on the philosophy of programming across their front page.
The two tiersI'm betting this kind of talk has a few developers riled up by now.
- "But Ubuntu is extensible!" they’ll say.
- "Where does openSUSE sit in this ridiculously simplified model?" they'll cry.
- "Do you not want to mention the thousands of other distributions available?" they'll quite rightly ask.
Zorin and Mint draw their users by offering functionality and usability at no cost whatsoever. They offer a product. Canonical's ill-fated experimentation with Amazon ads in Ubuntu last September epitomised this attitude: they were offering a product, and required a revenue stream to maintain it. In a way, they adopted Metafilter user blue_beetle's widely-quoted mantra: "If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold."
Debian, openSUSE, and (in some ways) Fedora don't intend to offer a product. They do, but it's more by accident than design (excepting, to an extent, Fedora). Instead, what they offer is a philosophy. A movement. The Debian Project, for example, states that it is "an association of individuals who have made common cause to create a free operating system". They are keen to explain that 'free' means a great deal more than 'costing nothing'. They openly ask the question "why would people spend hours of their own time to write software, carefully package it, and then give it all away?", and respond "The answers are as varied as the people who contribute." There's a sense that using Debian is about much, much more than using a sweet, slick product whose main selling point is that it doesn't cost anything.
So where do we go from here? Two-tiering isn't a bad thing. But Linux has, in the past, focussed much of its efforts in luring users away from closed-source operating systems and in to fully-featured open-source development environments. That's how Ubuntu started out. So, here's what I propose: a third tier. Something in-between. Something as accessible as Zorin, but with a gentle ramp to all the sexy Debian goodness that makes Linux great. And something that reminds you, continually, of the Linux philosophy of freedom.
Of course, there's nothing stopping me from forking a distro and making this myself. Who's in?
Sam Morgan is a developer and psychologist. He is the founder and CTO for Handcrafted Ltd, a boutique web application development company. If he's not at the terminal, you can find him experimenting with Dragora, Foresight or tinkering with embedded systems through KNOPPIX.