13 Jun 2013

Divergence in the distros: how the Linux community is splitting into a two-tier system

Multiple revenue streams aren't a bad thing.

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 OS

Zorin'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: Debian

Debian 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 tiers

I'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.
To those developers and Linux aficionados, I say this: the two tier model is not meant to be proof of itself. I'm using it to illustrate a divergence in purpose within the Linux community.

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.


  1. This isn't really a new concept to me. I've always been a Linux user (consumer if you like), ever since i started using a Linux based OS in 2000, for a good percentage of my IT career, all that time I was a Windows programmer. Now that I'm retired I have no need of Windows.

    I've never developed software on or for Linux. I was too busy trying to earn a living on the only operating system I could get employed to develop software on.

    Linux based operating systems have been my preferred choice for personal computer since 2000.

    As a consequence of being a Linux consumer this I often have a great deal of trouble understanding the angst of many who complain about Canonical or Red Hat or some other Distribution prime mover taking away our freedom. My freedom, as I see it has never been greater than it is today, my choices have never been better, and thanks to the efforts of Canonical to promote development of applications that can run on phone, tablets and desktop/laptop devices, by attempting to provide tools that are more intuitive and simpler to use, in line with the sorts of tools I learned my craft on, in a Windows environment, I may begin developing software again.

    As far as I'm concerned the angst over community is rather silly. Never having been a developer of FOSS and Linux software I've never really considered myself part of THAT community.

    For me I've identified much more with the sorts of users I see Canonical/Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Zorin, Mageia et al attempting to promote their product to. That's the community I feel part of, and that is the community that is benefiting from the current state of Linux, and, in my opinion, not before time.

  2. Well, I've already told my story before on another article here; So I'll cut to the chase.

    I use Xubuntu, It's an official Ubuntu without Unity. I don't use it because It's easy to use or whatever; I use it because it gives me access to the Ubuntu Software Center where I can choose to by a Game or App. The keyword being Choice.

    I'm thankful I'm not stuck using pure Debian or Redhat where there isn't a kind of Store to buy things. I strongly believe a Linux user is using a crippled OS by not having an App store in his/her distro.

    Having paid software available is a benefit. It's not restricting your freedom in any way and you have a choice to buy or not to buy, as there will probably be Open Source alternatives near the Item in the Store.

    No, it's not the same as a Closed Source OS. For one, the source is not available to you, and two, you have to buy the OS and are forced to upgrade to newer versions. AKA Slavery.

    I'm a proud Linux user since last year and I'm glad I have choices. In fact, every time I post a Linux article to Facebook, I end up being unfriended by a few people. It's not my fault if they can't handle the truth their closed source OS is spying on them.

    What gets me, forums of other distros don't understand the Software Center in Ubuntu. When people come in asking if there is an App store, they are greeted by posters telling them to use the one included. They seemingly can't grasp the idea that people want to be able to buy Software when the Open Sourced versions in the Distros repositories doesn't cut it.

    To end, I'll never understand why people use Windows and I'll never understand why Distros are so afraid of offering Paid Software.

  3. i don't really care what route distro's may take.
    freedom is always about choice, no matter gratis or not, or designed for you or not. it's you who decide to use it.
    i use linux because i can't pay windows and i don't want to crack that like rotten people around me...
    it's an ultimate freedom for me...

  4. As for the question if this categorisation is appropriate or an oversimplification, I don't know. But I do know that I want to use my computer, and don't care about ideological restrictions or "movements" who try to communicate to me the advantages of free and open software in abstract metaphors and technical terms like "37500 packages". I like the possibility of buying software, most likely proprietary, like games from a well-integrated software center without having to read through manpages about how to add a new repository for closed-source software. I even like the idea of buying music, books or whatever really from the dash, but if I feel paranoid enough I can still turn this feature off to protect my privacy - although I think self-exhibition on platforms like Facebook is a far greater threat.

    I respect people who want to use more traditional Linux distributions, which don't even try to appeal with anything other than philosophical and political statements. That's cool, and I think distributions which concentrate on important inner values are necessary and important for Linux and Open Source as a whole. But there are also people like me who just want to use their hardware (even if it means to use closed drivers and firmwares), use software for which there's no open-source equivalent yet (even if it means to pay for it - and why not?), use a desktop environment more modern than old clunky Gnome 2 (even while it was perfectly usable in its own right).

    And I think these are reasonable enough wishes. I can't stand it when people claim or insinuate between the lines that Canonical would in any way harm "the" Open Source community. On the contrary, Ubuntu brought people like me to Linux, and made them open-source enthusiasts in the first place, who would otherwise not have made the switch.

  5. I enjoyed your article. I think you are right on the spot. This article reminded me on how the car companies operate. You have your Formula one cars and you have your everyday go back and forth to work car. I think of Debian and other "Pure" distros as the high end race cars that not everyone can afford or even learn how to drive. Ubuntu and Zorian and the others have developed a car that my 16 year old can drive. I think the Gap or the third tier is the high end sports car that is not a Honda Civic and it not an F1 but some thing in between like a Porsche it can handle itself and there is a set of everyday people that can drive them if they can afford it!

  6. I am glad we are not pitting one distribution over another. The better distributions (with more followers) percolate to the top, and become well known, bringing more users.

    I recently signed a contract with a large organization where the desktop is Windows 7. Linux does not have anything comparable to MS Office 2010. The functionality, their well-integrated office product just makes Windows 7 a must for organizations.

    For the very small organization, there is nothing wrong with Linux and the office product equivalents. But here too, I have been experiencing that there is a need for sleeker better functioning products. If these are not improved, Linux will remain a student's college distribution and not much more.

  7. OK, interesting dimension, "Newby friendly" versus "Developer friendly"

    One could add several other dimensions, such as:
    - stability (Debian) versus innovation (Gentoo, Arch, Fedora)
    - distros that build the foundations (Debian, Slackware, Gentoo, Arch, RedHat/Fedora, Suse/openSuse) and those that follow (Ubuntu, Centos, Sabayon), although the followers sometime add nice GUIs and Software centers

    I am a user, but I prefer distros such as Gentoo and Arch. I like to know what is going on behind the screens. So, I'm a user but I prefer "developer" distros. All the shiny stuff such as Compiz, KDE Plasma, or the funny wobbly windows in OSX are nice for 30 minutes, after that they irritate me. I prefer a keyboard driven Window manager without panels, title bars or icons. Call me nuts.

  8. @Leslie Satenstein: I also work in a large organization where the desktop is Windows 7 (OK, I bring my Linux laptop ;-) I agree that OpenOffice or LibreOffice are not as nice as MS Office 2010. However, the traditional MS Office model and the "document metaphore" is getting old. Do we really need to save information in (closed standards) documents, such as .docx files, and e-mail them to colleagues?

    The modern company puts information in wikis, in collaboration platforms, in online documents. Microsoft is NOT good at this, they come up with overly complex solutions that combine the worst of the web and local software: you need AND windows, IE, plus local software (Office 2013) AND you need to be connected to some web service. Plus the usual bizarro license schemes (Office 2013 Media Small Business Gold RT or something like that).

    Wanna collaborate with collegues who use iPads, Chrome Books or Android tablets? Good luck.

    Also, coming from a Linux background, I find many Windows solutions clunky. Editing some voodoo Registry? Really? Rebooting time after time? (Who designed that package manager of theirs?) Inconsistencies galore in their flagship office products - for instance, even though Word and Excell have been in the suite for 15 years, you still get an error message when you try to open and Excell sheet with Word. How hard is it to implement a rule, stating "if file = .xls, start Excell". In the 2010 version of Office a coloured button was introduced (upper left corner), only to disappear without a trace in the 2013 version. Why? And why introduce transparency (compositing window manager) in Windows 7 as "the next big thing" only to ditch it in Windows 8 for mega sized lego blocks?

    Where does Outlook store the emails? And where the attachments? Why do I have to 'archive' emails, what IS that anyway? Why is there a calender in my e-mail client? And if that calender is so important, why can't I see emails and appointments in one screen?

    I don't think that polished Linux distros, such as Mint or Ubuntu are "student grade". They are at least as friendly as Window programs. But, some people are unreasonable: "Why do I find these Linux programs, that I have worked with for 30 minutes, more complicated than my Windows programs, that I've been using for 15 years?" Hey - what do you think? :-)

  9. I enjoyed your artilce, and have been using linux (ok, GNU/Linux) exclusively since 1998. Started on RedHat 5.1 for a few years, then Mandrake, then Kubuntu, now Mint XFCE. I've discovered that I can compile things if I need to, but being able to get stable updates is more important to me. My system is stable and up all the time. I am a user of Linux. I've briefly tried the fancy do-dads but always go back to what works well. I actually still use pine (alpine actually now) as my mail program, and use the shell all the time and write small scripts to do day-to-day things.

    But I realize I am not in the norm. People use their systems in a variety of ways, and linux really offers the solution to that in a variety of flavors. Thinking back to when I started using it, I am amazed at the progress over the years. The fact that we can even HAVE the theoretical two tiers of linux is fantastic to me. I like where things are headed because the foundations that have been set up and continuously improved upon means we will progress and get better no matter what. Tiers of linux offerings? Yes please. :)