Distro Watching

I read that Michael Dell, head of Dell computers, has a problem picking a Linux Distro out of the hundreds on Distrowatch:

“People are always asking us to support Linux on the desktop, but the question is: ‘Which Linux are you talking about?’,” Dell asked. “If we say we like Ubuntu, then people will say we picked the wrong one. If we say we like and support Ubuntu, Novell, Red Hat, and Xandros, then someone would ask us, ‘Why don’t you support Mandriva? The challenge we have with picking one is that we think we’d disenchant the other distributions’ supporters.” “It’s not that there are too many Linux desktop distributions,” Dell said, “it’s that they’re all different, they all have supporters, and none of them can claim a majority of the market.” “If you look at DistroWatch, you’ll see zillions of these distributions. Which one should we do? And, everyone keeps telling us that they want different distributions. So, our conclusion is to […] let the customer decide.” […] “These systems do come with hardware support,” Dell said, but “we can’t support all 300 Linux distributions.” […] So, what would it take though to get Dell to offer fully-supported Linux on its complete line of desktops? Dell replied, “We love Linux, and we’re doing our best to support the Linux community. We see lots of opportunity there. If the Linux desktops could converge at their cores, such a common platform would make it easier to support. Or, if there was a leading or highly preferred version that a majority of users would want, we’d preload it.” In the end, “we see [the Linux desktop] as a customer-driven activity. If customers want it, well, Dell will give it to them.”

Now, Mr. Dell does have a point (for a retailer used to Windows’ short list of variants, this certainly would seem confusing; even the leader at Distrowatch, Ubuntu, represents only about 11% (1/9) of the total), but the popularity of the distros is far from evenly distributed; if you look at the Hit Per Day info for the various distros, you can see that most of the hits are from just a small fraction of the total:

In fact, the top ten distros represent half of all the hits on Distrowatch and the top twenty represent two-thirds. This suggests that the ‘long tail’ is made up of distros that are either new, not popular, special purpose, or dying out. In any event, those can be ignored for the near future.

So now you’re looking at (at most) a couple dozen distros. Its at this point that you can begin to lump them into groups based on descent (see, that bio degree is good for lots of things ;) I’ve identified five major ‘families’ of Linux distros that represent all of the top-ten distros (as well as 20 of the top 24; BTW, of the four that weren’t, two were BSD) and which are the basis of many others. They are, with their 2005 ranks:

The Debian Family

Ubuntu (1), MEPIS (5), Debian (6), KNOPPIX (7), Damn Small (8), Xandros (12), Kubuntu (14), KANOTIX (18), Linspire (22), etc.

The Mandriva Family

Mandriva (2), PCLinuxOS (13), etc.

The Slackware Family

SUSE (3), Slackware (10), SLAX (16), Vector (17), Zenwalk (24), etc.

The Red Hat Family

Fedora (4), CentOS (15), Red Hat (23), etc.

The Gentoo Family

Gentoo (9)

Now, we can help Dell out even more. Gentoo doesn’t sound like it would be a good match for Dell ;) that in addition to the fact that major source-based distros have been declining in popularity at least since Distrowatch started keeping track in 2002; back then, Gentoo was third. And Sorcerer was fifth. Sorcerer isn’t even on the list anymore and its forks, Lunar and Source Mage are 57 and 89, respectively, for 2005.

For the other four, just pick one of each at most. That shouldn’t be too hard; just look at the most popular member in each family (Ubuntu in particular has had a meteoric rise; for the last three months it got almost as many hits per day as the three other most popular Debian-based distros (MEPIS, Damn Small and Debian itself) combined). Interestingly enough, that results in the top four distros on Distrowatch: Ubuntu, Mandriva, SUSE and Fedora. Those four alone represented almost a third of the hits in 2005. Even in the most recent three months, those four still maintain the top four spots (though Mandriva slipped to fourth place). And based on the historical data going back to 2002, you can see that those four families havn’t been out of the top ten, so it clearly isn’t random.

For a corporation as large as Dell, it would be fairly trivial to offer to preinstall those four distros on the machines they designed for Linux; and after the appropriate training, doing tech support shouldn’t be any more difficult than for Windows. Because of the relative state of flux the Linux world is still in, they probably should have a yearly review policy to determine if they have to change any of the individual offerings within the families. But since Dell only wants to deal with a single player in the Linux distro world, they’re going to have to wait a while. Even if Ubuntu were to double in popularity, that would still only give it 25% of Distrowatch’s hits; far short of Dell’s desire for a “highly preferred version that a majority of users would want”.  I’m thinking that it will be a while before Dell offers Linux preinstalled.

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