Monday, June 29, 2009

Linux Distributions and the Paralysis of Choice

Linux Distributions and the Paralysis of Choice

Linux advocates like to brag about the number of choices people get with open source software. Windows offers very few choices, beyond dropping to your knees and begging "please, PLEASE let me keep XP! How much is a downgrade from Vista?" And Mac World even locks you into the hardware.

Linux offers literally hundreds of niches, a distribution for every need. But is that so much of a good thing that it's scaring people away?

Too often, someone dipping their toes into the waters of Linux is met by enthusiastic geeks who, in an over-eagerness to show off their knowledge, move too fast into debates over the merits of Arch vs. Mandrive vs. Slackware vs. Damn Obscure Linux. (I've been guilty myself and I promise this post will be command line free.) The newbie (n00b in 733+speak) gets overwhemed and retreats.

Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University studies consumer choice and finds that too MUCH choice can be de-motivating. (See full paper or nice summary by Derek Sivers). Iyengar went to the grocery store to get her data. Customers were offered jam samples, and the people who chose between six kinds of jam were ten times more likely to buy jam than those who had two dozen flavors to choose from.

Or, as Sivers writes, "if you ask your customers if they want extensive choice, they will say they do – but they really don’t."

It's pretty much the same problem with Linux, although the jam aisle may be the wrong place to look. "The tortilla chip is a perfect comparison, because the basic chip is always the same: it is made of corn," writes Carla Schroder. "Every brand has its own variation on this basic chip: more salt, less salt, more grease, less grease, more crispy, less crispy, thicker, thinner, different shapes, white, blue, yellow corn, different flavorings. Underneath all Linuxes are pretty much the same; the differences are things like bundled software, user interfaces, configuration tools, and customized functionality."

Clearly she's an experienced geek, because as we all know the tortilla chip is one of the primary geek fuels along with pizza and caffeine. She know that each chip, micro or tortilla, has its purpose. But the analogy shows that we cope with greater numbers of choices all the time, whether it be foods or even other large-ticket items like cars.

We're able to do this in part because we can categorize. Sivers says we can handle a menu of about three to six choices, so we cope better if our choices are clustered. We choose the breakast menu or the lunch menu or the kids menu, then we choose within that menu.

But with open source, there's no one person in charge, so the menu gets jumbled. Since I'm just as qualified as anyone else, I'll offer my own menu. I assume that if you're here, you're a relative beginner.

I've never run a server, never run a netbook, never done extensive system recovery, never set up a full-blown media center.I've set up general purpose desktops, and I've run some distributions designed to run on old, low-resource desktop machines.

My preferred distribution is Ubuntu, currently the most popular. But if I were recommending something for the absolute beginner, I would go with Linux Mint. It's based on Ubuntu, and thus the new release schedule runs about a month behind, but the functionality is almost identical so the online help that's available applies to both.

Why Mint over Ubuntu? The Ubuntu project leaves a few things out for assorted legal and copyright reasons. Most of those are related to media playback. There's many variations of this 10 Things to do After Installing Ubuntu Linux post. And they aren't hard things. But Linux Mint does a lot of them for you. Erlik at From Windows To Linux explains the advantages of Mint over Ubuntu in a bit more depth.

If you have an old machine that you want to make functional, the leaders are Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux. I found Puppy just a little bit easier and have it running on one machine.

And if you have kids, Qimo is very good. It's also Ubuntu based, but it installs with a kid-friendly interface: large icons and lots of educational games. It also works well with older low-resource machines, a smart move since the kids often get the hand-me-down computer.

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