When Is More Open Source Too Much? - InformationWeek

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7/8/2008
04:05 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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When Is More Open Source Too Much?

It seems like once every few months there's another round of muttering about whether or not the open source world is just too diverse for its own good. Matt Asay at CNet called it the "too many scratches for too few itches" problem. And my own colleague Alex Wolfe so memorably described the world of Linux distributions as "

It seems like once every few months there's another round of muttering about whether or not the open source world is just too diverse for its own good. Matt Asay at CNet called it the "too many scratches for too few itches" problem. And my own colleague Alex Wolfe so memorably described the world of Linux distributions as "a forking mess" a while back. So, is more really too much, especially now that Linux is edging into the mainstream?

Like a lot of questions, the answer you get seems to depend not on who you ask, exactly, but what they want to do at any given point. The folks who grouse about duplication of effort and redundancy of functionality in open source are not doing so at the sole exclusion of the people who want diversity and choice, because there's nothing that says they're the same people at different points in time.

In the abstract, yes, two hundred Linux distributions is too many if you're only looking to run one. But most people will never bother to sift through two hundred in the first place-- they'll generally choose from a pool of three or four, if even that many, which closely fit their needs, based on guidance from an expert. Need a business desktop? Red Hat, or Novell SuSE. Need something for grandma? Ubuntu, or maybe gOS. Need something for the machine in the closet? Puppy Linux, or DSL. And so it goes.

It's the decision-making process that matters most, not the fact that there are "too many" choices. Sure, it doesn't hurt to promote standards that prevent further splintering and duplication of work -- but there needs to be more outreach from experts to help people make decisions about what's best for them. I fear that software developers themselves may not be the best people to do this, since they may well have a vested interest in supporting their project over someone else's.

I'd rather see more effort devoted to aiding people intelligently choose from existing open source solutions than trying to narrow down the total number of choices. If one of open source's big advantages is the way it stimulates plurality of choice to begin with, why give that up?

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