Unless you’re a motorhead to a varying degree — and an older one at that — you probably don’t know who John Cooper is. His contributions in racing circles — putting the engine behind the driver in his Cooper racing cars in the 1950s — would normally cement his place in automotive history, but he didn’t stop there.
The thing for which Cooper is more widely known is modifying the British Motor Corporation’s Mini in the 1960s, adding his name to make it the Mini Cooper while adding a higher degree of performance that won the little-car-that-could a warehouse full of rally trophies and Sports Car Club of America club racing victories.
[Arguably, there’s something to be said about the unique similarities in comparing the now-bloated Mini now made by BMW to the Mini Coopers of the ’60s with comparing distros of the past and now — but we won’t go there today.]
Around the same time as the development of the first Mini Coopers, across the pond in America Carroll Shelby took the Ford Mustang and with a vision of making it faster and better, he gave us the Shelby Mustang along with the whole Shelby Cobra series (not to mention, later, the Dodge Viper). Shelby’s association with Ford started a trend in the U.S. of taking a mass-produced car and making it into a high performance machine.
So go ahead and ask: “What the heck does this have to do with Linux and FOSS?”
Simple. Linux and FOSS have a wide cast of Coopers and Shelbys making high performance versions of mass-produced distros, building on the foundation of one of the “big three” Linux distros to make fire-breathing, pixel-burning distros; distros that are the digital equivalent of vehicles that are more than just for taking the kids to soccer practice or zipping over to the grocery store.
In fact, many of the less-than-mainstream distros out there — most of the nearly 300 Linux and BSD distros, as a matter of fact — are more than just a developer “scratching an itch.” In many cases, it’s a matter of chopping and channeling, boring out the engine, adding high performance parts, aerodynamic devices like spoilers and air dams, and even painting a flame or two on the side.
Not everyone can drive a Cobra or a Testarossa, nor does everyone want to. But knowing that the option is there, and that there are people out there providing high-performance options, is one of FOSS’s strengths.
We see this in distros like Korora, where Ian Firns and Chris Smart and his team once based their distro on Gentoo and switched “manufacturers” to use Fedora in producing a solid, quick distro that works well, and Internet-ready, right out of the box.
Jeff Hoogland and his band of developers at Bodhi Linux marry the lightweight Enlightenment desktop environment to Ubuntu. A combination of the lightweight desktop and the users’ choice of what to include in their own digital vehicle makes this perhaps the best combination of getting the best performance out of one’s machine.
Pixel-burning performance was one of the hallmarks at CrunchBang, until Philip Newborough stopped development on his distro which had the Openbox-based window manager with Debian rumbling under the hood. A successor distro is now in the proverbial garage under the banner of BunsenLabs and — with a release candidate ready from the same Crunchbang blueprints — it will be out on the track soon enough.
Examples are abundant, and forgive me if I don’t get to all of them. There are others which deserve mention, and you’re welcome to add your favorites in the comments section.
So when someone complains about the fact that there are nearly 300 distros out there, bear in mind many of them are not for everyone.
So buckle up, and let’s be careful out there.