Linux: Paradox of choice

Every so often every Linux advocate is subjected, yet again, to the question: “Are there too many Linux distributions?”

The answer is both simple (“no”), while at the same time being a lot more complicated than that.

The problem is that there are certainly too many choices for first-time Linux users. And yet, for users with specialist needs, expert demands or specific objectives, the almost endless array of Linux flavours is a bonus rather than a hurdle.

For users coming from a Windows, or Apple, background the possible Linux choices are overwhelming: Ubuntu, Debian, Mandriva, Suse, Fedora or one of the lesser known Linux flavours. It’s all too much.

It’s not that there isn’t choice in the Windows world – think Home, Professional, Enterprise, School editions – it’s just that the choices appear to be much clearer. For one, you may not actually choose the version you buy. It probably came installed on the PC you bought. And if you did buy an off-the-shelf version of Windows then you probably bought the Home edition for your home PC and Professional for your office. It all makes sense.

In the world of Linux, on the other hand, pre-installed versions of Linux are few and far between. Users are generally expected to make their own decision on which Linux version to install. And because cost is generally not a factor in which freely-downloadable version of Linux you choose, it becomes even more challenging as the options grow in number.

Paradox

The problem is not that there isn’t a “right” version of Linux for each and every user it is that users are likely to be overwhelmed by the options and ultimately find their final choice unsatisfactory. It’s called the “Paradox of Choice”, a term coined by writer Barry Schwartz.

In his 2004 book by the same title, Schwartz argues that despite the common perception that choice is better for consumers the opposite is often true.

Among Schwartz’ arguments is that in many cases more choices lead to greater dissatisfaction. In part this is because users often simplify down the options using the wrong criteria, which leads to the wrong conclusions.

More importantly for the Linux world is the argument that given a wider array of choices end-users are more likely to be unhappy with their eventual choice. It’s a case of constantly second-guessing themselves, so no matter how good the product that they eventually choose is there remains a niggling worry that one of the other options would have been better. Is Suse better for home users or should they have downloaded Ubuntu Server rather than Ubuntu Desktop? The options are endless. 

Buying a PC with Windows installed largely eliminates this self-doubt: It came with the PC so it must be the hardware that is at fault if it doesn’t work well. Or they can take solace that they got what they paid for.

Choice is good

The problem is, however, that choice is good for users that want it or need it. And besides, who has the authority to decide on exactly which Linux distributions should remain and which should go? Who decides that users should only be allowed to choose between Windows, OS X and Linux? Why not Unix, Solaris, FreeBSD, Chrome or Web OS?

After all, who would be happy if only two makes of cars were allowed? There would be general outcry.

I love the fact that there are infinite varieties of Linux. I have one for my desktop, one for my netbook, and one for my laptop. I also have versions better suited to my children who don’t (yet) need all the bells and whistles. And I love that almost all of these versions are free, so I can experiment and tinker.

But I can completely see why for first-time Linux users the variety is too much. And perhaps there is a lesson in that for Linux makers: Sometimes simplicity is actually what makes users happiest.

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Linux: Paradox of choice