Fragmentation Is GOOD: Why We Still Need New Linux Distros

Some fascinating data has emerged about the market share of various Linux distros as it relates to gaming. Depending on the distribution we’re talking about, that same data can be sobering. I have several takeaways from the ProtonDB data recently compiled by BoilingSteam. But the first issue I want to tackle is a potentially divisive one: fragmentation.

I’ll cut to the chase: I believe fragmentation is good for the desktop Linux ecosystem, and I’d like to explain why.

One Distro To Rule Them All

Two years ago I interviewed Alan Pope, who at the time was employed by Canonical. The conversation inevitably veered toward the often overwhelming choice new Linux users have. I asked Alan a tough question. Listen to it below.

This should play at the correct timestamp, but just in case, browse to 1:00:16

Here’s a short transcript of the relevant bits:

Jason: “What needs to happen in order to have a complete sea change in user perception and adoption of desktop Linux. One thing that has to happen for the mindshare and the market share to explode?”

Alan: “I’ll give you the controversial answer. Stop making other distros and only focus on Ubuntu. If you promote all these other distros, all these other niches, you paralyze the users with choice. […] give them just one option, like there’s one option for Windows and one option for macOS.”

That’s certainly a contentious (but unsurprising) answer from someone employed by the company developing Ubuntu.

Yet, there was some compelling logic behind Alan’s response. Could desktop Linux be stronger if the massive open-source community — which is collectively creating hundreds of Linux distros with different package managers, desktop environments, and operating principles — joined forces to dramatically improve one distro like Ubuntu? Absolutely!

Would the Linux-curious out there be more willing to ditch Windows and macOS and evaluate Linux as a daily driver? Perhaps!

Would this result in desktop Linux continuously pushing the envelope and remaining competitive against a juggernaut like Windows? Welllll… I’m not entirely convinced of that.

The chance of us ever living in a “one distro to rule them all” timeline is extremely low. Linux is as diverse as the people using it; as malleable and customizable as we need it to be at any given moment.

Choice can be paralyzing, but choice is also necessary to drive innovation.

The New Challengers

Now that I’ve painted some backstory, let’s dive into what inspired me to explore this topic: this brilliant bit of data-driven journalism from BoilingSteam.

The site pulled more than 3 years of data from ProtonDB’s gaming compatibility reports to chart out long-term trends in Linux distribution usage among gamers. And not just gamers, but the technically-savvy gaming enthusiasts who love tweaking configurations, using custom versions of Proton, and submitting compatibility reports to a site like ProtonDB.

Click here for full-size image | Data by ProtonDB and analyzed by BoilingSteam.com
Click here for full-size image | Data by ProtonDB and analyzed by BoilingSteam.com

If you want to jump straight to the sobering takeaway, train your eyes to that diminishing Ubuntu Orange strip. As we enter 2019, Steam Proton has existed for several months, and Ubuntu has a commanding 41% of the reports generated. Specialized Arch-based gaming distribution Garuda doesn’t even register because it won’t see its initial release until March 2020. And System76’s Pop OS has barely clawed its way onto the chart.

Fast-forward to the present tense. Ubuntu’s share of reports has shrunk by a dramatic 56%. Meanwhile, brand new distribution Garuda is going toe-to-toe with Fedora. PopOS has nearly tripled its representation, and Arch-based Endeavour OS is putting up respectable numbers. Manjaro has grown, Arch itself has more than doubled, and Ubuntu and even Linux Mint have declined.

(It is absolutely no coincidence that Canonical is hiring a Desktop Linux Gaming Product Manager, and I sincerely hope they find the right candidate to restore Ubuntu’s leadership in the Linux gaming space.)

It’s Not About Arch, It’s About Forward Progress

BoilingSteam’s headline “All Roads Lead To Arch” obviously puts the emphasis on Arch being the key to success. And we could postulate that Valve’s decision to switch SteamOS to an Arch base for the Steam Deck has some influence on Arch’s reign.

But it goes deeper. Ubuntu and Mint haven’t fallen because of Arch. They’ve fallen because they remained stagnant. Meanwhile, the newer kids on the block understand how to appeal to a demanding and equally passionate gaming demographic.

Garuda looks absolutely stunning out of the box | Screenshot: Jason Evangelho
Newer Linux distro Garuda looks absolutely stunning out of the box | Screenshot: Jason Evangelho

New Linux distro Garuda is practically a baby, having debuted in early 2020. But it definitely knows its audience. Garuda features an aesthetic that appeals to gamers young and old, from the icon-theming to the sci-fi, fantasy, and game-inspired desktop backgrounds. It also aggregates a ton of curated software both gamers and content creators consider essential: Heroic, Lutris, Steam, GameHub, OpenRGB, and more.

And yes, with its Arch base it can offer significantly newer kernels to support a larger range of newer PC hardware.

Btw, An Ubuntu Base Is Not A Handicap

But that doesn’t mean having an Ubuntu base instantly makes you unappealing to gamers. In the grand scheme of things, Pop OS is a relatively new Linux distro too. It has enjoyed a surge of popularity thanks to major promotions alongside Linus Tech Tips (and multiple features by yours truly at Forbes), System76 has consistently been mindful of gaming enthusiasts and content creators.

Pop OS led the charge with on-ISO Nvidia drivers and hybrid graphics switching. System76 was the first to fix the infamous AMD Zen 2 boot problems. And the company is aggressively testing the newest kernels and MESA drivers for inclusion in Pop OS. The distro isn’t necessarily bleeding-edge, but I’m comfortable calling it “leading-edge.”

Endeavor OS, Garuda, Pop OS and other, smaller Linux distros have learned to be more agile. They can more quickly respond to the needs of their audience. They have less red tape to tear through to get initiatives moved through the pipeline and accomplished.

Perhaps most importantly, and with all due respect to Ubuntu (the distro responsible for my switch to Linux in 2018), these Linux distros that are rising up put a stronger emphasis on the desktop. That is their bread and butter, after all.

Go Ahead, Paralyze Me With Choice!

Without newer Linux distros like Garuda elegantly collecting all that important software in one place, would Ubuntu Budgie be adding that excellent gaming tab to its Welcome App in version 22.04? Without Pop OS pioneering the inclusion of on-disc Nvidia drivers and easy graphics switching (and users, in turn, showing that they use and appreciate it), would those features have come to Ubuntu or GNOME?

It sounds cliche, but the status quo is being challenged, and gamers are reaping the benefits. Without these newcomers, I honestly believe desktop Linux would be, well, much more boring. Sit back and consider how the landscape looked in 2018. Compare that to now. It’s a ridiculously exciting time to be a Linux user.

The big takeaway here is that yes, we need the new Linux distros to challenge the comfortable veterans. We need them to challenge our traditions. We need them to push the envelop forward and inspire others to do the same.


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5 Responses

  1. What an absolutely excellent take. When I first started using Linux I very seriously thought that fragmentation is a huge problem. The more I got into Linux though I started realizing exactly what’s being analyzed in this article. Varierty and choice is what make Linux flourish and innovate and drive the whole of the PC experience forward.Tiling Window Managers, Desktop Effects, Flatpaks, Appimages, different filesystems, backups, immutability and so many more things that Linux does and does great would have never happened if we only had Ubuntu or only had Fedora or only had anything else. Linux is freedom not only for the user but for the creator as well and that’s its greatest advantage.

    1. I was in the same boat when I first started, for probably the first 18 months in fact. I was so enraptured by Linux, that I became an evangelist trying to get people to switch. And THAT mentality is maybe what drives the “one distro to rule them all’ mentality. You WANT new users to have it easy, you WANT Linux to seem so appealing without feeling crippling.

      But then you evolve as a user and see the broader picture, as you’ve elegantly pointed out in your comment.

      1. Exactly my experience as well. That need to make people realize how great Linux is no matter the cost is definitely something that can, apart from make you make statements your future self would definitely not agree with, also make you drive people away from Linux as you pressure them into using it. It’s a weird period in general. XD

  2. But what if you are a legacy game gamer, then which distro is best?

    Does Pop_OS or Arch support 2012-2016 Nvidia cards properly?
    How about games from 2000-2013 properly?
    Oblivion, NW Nights, Civ2, Warlords 2, old stuff like that?

  3. If we were to restrict the distros, I would recommend Ubuntu and Red Hat/Fedora/CentOS. That’s it.
    You could still have a Budgie desktop, but it wouldn’t be a standalone distro.

    I like having multiple distros, even if I don’t use them. It leads to innovation, and makes Linux better for everyone. Let users have the choice to put it on the desktop, or to customize Linux for the entirety of the Top 500 supercomputers. (There was a proprietary Data Center OS at one time, but not any more.) It means, among other things, they you aren’t restricted to the desktop that the vendor wants you to use.

    I have a long history with *nix: Microsoft Xenix -> AT&T System V -> HP-UX -> Solaris -> Ubuntu -> and [drum roll] Fedora.
    For work, I use Red Hat. Then there are all of the specialty distros: Knoppix, Puppy, System Rescue CD, Kali.

What's your opinion?