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February 10th, 2015

When Linux Distros Are Abandoned

It was a hard lesson learned.

The problem was, it wasn’t just me who suffered. It was dozens of people in my organization, and had this happened a month later than it did, it could have been hundreds.

We’ve had some fairly high profile Linux distros fold up their tents and move along. Whether due to a lack of financial support or the project growing larger than a one man dev team can manage, distros do go away. It’s never for a good reason but the fact remains: When a distro ceases to exist, a lot of people get left in the lurch.

Abandoned HouseMost recently, it was CrunchBang which rang the bell. I could feel the conflict and sadness in lead developer Philip Newborough’s statement. He didn’t want to do this, but for his own reasons he did. But what struck me in the middle of my being was his statement:

“As for me, while I’m deeply sad to let go of a project that in many ways has defined my existence for many years.”

A project that has defined his existence for many years. That hit me pretty hard. I myself am the center of a project which affects hundreds of people and I cannot fathom what it would be like to make a statement like this. While I know the day may come, it still bothers me to even think about that day. And I do acknowledge that one day it will come.

But it’s not just Phillip. The same fates befell two other well known distros not that long ago. Andrew Wyatt brought Fuduntu to an end, a premature end many felt. Not too long after that, Ikey Doherty announced that he would no longer develop his extremely popular SolusOS. I personally covered that announcement here on FOSS Force. Both distros ended for their own reasons. Whether it was the lack of funding or developers who were not able to juggle their professional and home lives with projects that seemed to have a life of their own…

The fact remains that those distros are gone. Neither project’s user base was insignificant. At one time, SolusOS had clawed its way to the fifth place on DistroWatch. Argue the validity of a DistroWatch ranking or not, a distro’s popularity can be at least empirically noted by that measure.

How many users were left afloat amid the wreckage of those distros? I say it was in the tens of thousands. But it could have been much worse. My organization Reglue had become deeply invested in the progression and development of both these distros. Reglue was ready to throw full in to SolusOS 2.0. Fortunately we had a plan B.

If you are going to rely upon a Linux distro, you would probably do yourself a favor by having a plan B yourself. Many of us distro hop as a hobby…seeing what the new various releases bring. But some of us use a Linux distro as a means of conducting our business. Reglue depends on a stable Linux distro to bring computing into the homes of hundreds of kids who cannot afford a computer. We bring the full force of the Linux community to bear within those computers.

We’ve learned that it’s prudent to build our house on rock and not sand. It seems the sands under our feet are more than capable of swallowing entire Linux distro projects whole. We’ve placed our trust in distros that are built on rock. Sure, the same thing could someday happen to them…but my bet is that it won’t. I’ve staked a lot on that belief.

But it is not all doom and gloom when it comes to Linux distros that go away. Recently, it was a good thing to see one of them come back. Welcome back Jeff Hoogland. You were sorely missed. Your return was, indeed, good news.

Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

18 comments to When Linux Distros Are Abandoned

  • John Lauro

    Sad to see distros go, but it is the result of too many distros… and in the long run it is better to have a few dozen stronger great distros (perhaps with more theme or repo add-ons instead of full distros) than hundreds of good but struggling distros.

  • Tim Greening-Jackson

    Linux is still – relatively speaking – in its infancy, and like a lot of new technologies there are various different products which briefly flourish and then things settle down and consolidate.

    A few years ago there were something like 100 distros out there, many of which were little more than vanity projects and offered little that was better than the competition. The winnowing out of various distros is no doubt sad for the individuals involved, but is actually a necessary part of evolution.

    So far as I can tell we are moving to three main families of distro: RedHat and its cousins (e.g. CentOS), Debian (plus Ubuntu etc.) and Suse. You could also segment the market functionally: eg server O/Ses like Debian, RedHat, FreeBSD; desktop ones like Mint or Ubuntu and specialist ones like Scientific Linux or the variants of Linux used on various single-board systems like Raspbian. Unless and until a distro comes along which solves some currently unsolved problem then why should the market adopt it?: any new product has to do something useful.

    Finally to the vast majority of user the distro really doesn’t matter that much: the kernel is the same, the Gnu (emacs, make…) utilities are the same. So the only real difference to most folks is the desktop and the package manager.

  • Mike

    > “any new product has to do something useful”

    It’s a mistake to think of Linux as a product. It’s a tool, and each craftsman has to choose a tool that suits his working style. Maybe business enterprises need Linux packaged as a product, but many people do not.

    > “So the only real difference to most folks is the desktop and the package manager.”

    I think the whole “most folks” argument is unimportant. If you go that route, then you have to recognize most folks have never even heard of Linux, let alone know what it is or use it, and everyone should just give up and use Windows. There are many reasons to choose a distro: the software in the repositories is a big deal for some, while for others the attitude towards including proprietary software is critically important. A lot of other reasons exist too.

  • Andrew

    > When a distro ceases to exist, a lot of people get left in the lurch.

    All of those people could have and should have rolled up their sleeves and helped keep these distros from closing down. Maintaining a distribution is a lot of work. Now, don’t get me wrong I am not trying to detract from your article, but the majority of users who have to go find a new distro when one dies are definitely only left in a lurch because of their own inaction if they didn’t do anything at all to help their distros survive..

  • Al

    So what distribution does Reglue use?

  • Al, thanks for asking. We use a modified versio of Linux Mint KDE as our prime mover. However we have Linux Mint Cinnamon or Mate respins as well. It depends on the user and the resources of the machine. For the machines with challenging resources, we use Lubuntu but we will only put out less than a dozen of those computers a year.

    We also have a Studio-rolled OpenSUSE ISO as a backup. That being said, our volunteers are mostly just folks that want to help us from time to time. The majority of them wouldn’t know a package manager if it stepped on their toes. They all have acceptable training in the Debian-based distros. Should I decide to one day implement the OpenSUSE Studio version without telling anyone, there would be a mass revolt on my end.

    Torches and pitchforks are not in my plans. We’ll stick with the Debian-based distros forever if we can.

  • The Prince of Dorkness

    Linux is in its infancy? Really? Granted, it’s not like we have to use punch cards to boot our systems on it but to say it’s in its infancy?

    1991. Linux has been around twenty-four years. If Linux is in its infancy, so is Windows, and Mac OS X is absolutely a newborn.
    ————

    Someone says “it’s all the same kernel between distros”. It’s really not. Maybe the same basic kernel, but each version has differences to the others that — while minor in most cases — can be a big deal when you rely on things to work a certain way. I still haven’t figure out IPTables and now they’ve been using what, NFTables for how many years? As I understand it, these are parts of the kernel. Maybe I’m wrong.

    Then they say, “it’s all the same underlying GNU utilities”. Again, they’re not. Especially when you consider there are some distros that don’t even include MAN pages, or others don’t include INFO, and some have both. You get used to how one looks and behaves, then try a different distro and everything’s different.

    What about the user interface? One distro uses one GUI WiFi network connections manager. Another distro uses another. A third distro has none, a fourth has multiple — some of which won’t work once one of the others has been used. Options, features, choice — it’s all good and great, but one linux distro is certainly rarely equal to another, and even when they are equal, there are differences (or else the twain would be one).

    Don’t even get me started on hardware detection.

    Like many, I distro-hop from time to time, but the impetus is always — ALWAYS — the same. The distro I’m currently using has an update that breaks the hell out of it. Every single distro I’ve used that has been fully useful to me has been screwed up by an update. Granted, sometimes it was my own fault (like that one time I added an Ubuntu repository on my Debian machine to be able to edit a video for a DVD — at which I succeeded, at the cost of my functional system), but usually it was through no fault of my own outside of wanting a current system (Arch, Vector, Mageia, others). Currently I’m running PCLinuxOS and aside from it using a few packages of which I’m not a fan (Pulse being one), it seems solid enough to be worth learning the differences.

    That’s the point, though, the differences… It’s not like your Mac OS X install versus mine, or your Windows 8.1 install versus mine, because Linux has so much customization and so many options… Unfortunately, this is like having so many reinventions of the wheel instead of people teaming up to make the existing wheel better. If they’d team up with a common goal, they could do better with less work.

  • Mike

    @TPoD – Well said. I agree with nearly everything you said except the last:

    “Unfortunately, this is like having so many reinventions of the wheel instead of people teaming up to make the existing wheel better. If they’d team up with a common goal, they could do better with less work.”

    While that may be true in some cases, there are a lot of forces that developers see, and users can’t, which can prevent developers form working together on a single project versus multiple. It could be something as simple as personality or control issues, but in my experience it is more often related shared vision with regards to expected functionality, configurability, expandability, aesthetics, and architecture. I can point to almost any point of an OS/software stack and see things I’d do differently. This is not reinventing the wheel, but rather reenvisioning it and is the single biggest strength of FOSS.

  • Dantalion

    All is consequence of >>> DEBAUCHERY !!!

  • I managed DreamStudio, which has now moved from being a top 50 on distrowatch distro to a cross platform software bundle. In doing so, I realize that some people have been left to configure their own systems rather than have it preconfigured. And I believe this is the case with any distribution. Whether Crunchbang, Bodhi, or Dreamstudio, we all create these distributions to scratch our own itch, and when that’s no longer necessary, there isn’t a lot of reason to continue unless there is money to be made. If a chef makes an amazing recipe, and decides to share, that doesn’t give him incentive to write more for others just because they expect it. In my case I continue to make the tools available (for an even wider audience I might add), but one can hardly blame a single developer working for free for closing shop when the project becomes a strictly philanthropic effort.

  • Bubba

    Most of the distros I’ve seen are just Debian with a custom theme and wallpaper. To me that just screams lazy narcissist, waste of people’s time, and an unnecessary division of the Linux community.

  • LinuxUser42


    Andrew
    February 10, 2015 at 8:38 am

    > When a distro ceases to exist, a lot of people get left in the lurch.

    All of those people could have and should have rolled up their sleeves and helped keep these distros from closing down. Maintaining a distribution is a lot of work. Now, don’t get me wrong I am not trying to detract from your article, but the majority of users who have to go find a new distro when one dies are definitely only left in a lurch because of their own inaction if they didn’t do anything at all to help their distros survive..”

    Support is more then a one way street. Librenet, Bohdi, and Crunchbang are all examples in this. People can donate/buy the distro’s, etc. to help the developers, but that won’t help if something happens to the developers, and they have no plan in place, that others could take over. Jeff at Bodhi stepped down with someone else in place. (however by his writing, it didn’t sound like he left any details that he had planned out) He came back and will hopefully learn about communication.
    Librenet was Ken Starks first distro, and that can be read about here: http://fossforce.com/2015/01/saying-goodbye-to-java-the-hard-way/
    Poor planning on the developers part, caused it to die with him.
    There are people on the Crunchbang forum talking about rebooting it under another name, why couldn’t the developer have stepped down and let one (or a commitee of them) step up? Did he try and it isn’t public knowledge, or was it “I am taking my ball and going home” sort of thing?
    This does make me wonder about long term ones that preach stability, like Slackware. What happens when Pat goes?
    I seem to remember a talk where Linus talked about who would take over after him, and he has stepped down some in day to day stuff, several years ago. It seems to me that he is having the foresite to enable Linux to go on after him.
    Why can’t distro creators understand that example?

  • kilgoretrout

    @LU42-That’s “Libranet” not “Librenet” and it was a great distro. It was one of the first distros to try and make Debian user friendly at a time when a Debian install was all but impossible for anyone except advanced users. Years later it was Ubuntu that picked up on the same idea but Libranet was one of the first. The reason Libranet folded was because the developer died at a very young age.

  • LinuxUser42

    Kilgoretrout
    “The reason Libranet folded was because the developer died at a very young age.”

    That was in my post: “Poor planning on the developers part, caused it to die with him.”

    Is it any different then estate planning, or having life insurance to cover things like funeral expenses, loss of income etc? The nature of open source is someone can run with it, why should we not expect any distro we make, someone might choose to do the same if they also worked on it?
    Something for all developers to think about IMHO.

  • Dantalion

    JUST 24 DISTROS: 6 from Debian,6 from Slackware,6 from Red Hat and 6 mixed !!! MUST BE regulated the Linux DEBAUCHERY !!!

  • Eddie G.

    As I see it, the distros that closed up shop served a purpose, no matter how seemingly random or arbitrary. I used Fuduntu, I LOVED it! And when it closed down I was for a bit worried as to what I would do, but having used Fedora….CEntOS and quite a few other distros that have “long term potential” I realized: I could distro hop all year long…as long as I had the steady and stable distros I would be ok. I’ve been using Fedora since release number 14, and Ubuntu since 11.04, my main driver is an openSuSE desktop and the backups are Fedora and Ubuntu on laptops. I feel these distros are here for the long haul as they have the financial backing of their commercial offerings. I like playing and reviewing a lot of the distros out there, but as was stated some people use their computers for more than just Facebook and Twitter…from typing up documents in LibreOffice to creating network diagrams using VYM or DIA…so while I do mourn this passing of CrunchBang, I can reast easy knowing that “my” distros won’t be going away anytime in the near future. (And yes…I know…”Never say never”..!!)

  • […] sad occasion, after all, it signals an improving Linux landscape. Ken Starks, however, was a little less philosophical. He figured "tens of thousands" users were left hanging by CrunchBang’s demise and […]

  • Abdel

    Thank you, Ken, for this excellent article. My knowledge of the technicalities that most of the comments are mentioning here is not that big. I respect every opinion, though. What I care about is the Linux distro (I mean any existing Linux distro) itself. And it doesn’t matter whether I use or not. What matters is that it’s there. And because it’s there , I love it and it hurts me so much to see it departing. It’s that simple.
    By the way, one week before Philip Newborough announced the closure of Crunchbang, I was showing it to my niece and bragging about how it flies even on an old dell latitude with one 1.73 single processor and just one gig of ram.