Linux is an operating system, but really, there is no one entity known as Linux. Instead, you download a “distribution” (or “distro”) that bundles the Linux kernel with the additional software needed to provide a complete desktop experience. These distros, which we sometimes refer to as Linux operating systems, take money and manpower to make.
Some distributions have a company behind them. Ubuntu, the most popular desktop Linux operating system, falls into this category. It’s hardly alone.
Others don’t have a corporate sponsor and rely on other means to stay afloat. One such distribution is Debian. Ubuntu is based on Debian, meaning most of Ubuntu’s code ultimately comes from the Debian project.
The presence of a corporate sponsor changes the structure of a Linux distro’s community. This can impact the experience you have as a user, even if you’re not an active community member. So, should you go for a distro with a company behind it, or is it better to go with one of many that don’t? Here are six questions to consider.
1. Are People Paid to Work on This?
Very few Linux distros have paid employees, with Ubuntu being one large exception. Canonical formed in 2004 with the purpose of developing and spreading Ubuntu. It makes money by selling support and additional services.
Canonical has served as the open source alternative to Apple and Microsoft as a company designing a operating system for everyday folk. The company employs people to design and develop Ubuntu, maintains servers that provide software to Ubuntu and Ubuntu-based distros, and hosts websites for Ubuntu and official flavors. That said, Ubuntu is a community, and many contributors come from outside of Canonical.
Red Hat and SUSE Linux both take a different approach. Each sponsors a community-supported distro and provides a separate Enterprise option. You and I are likely to prefer running Fedora or openSUSE on our computers, while a major corporation with hundreds of computers would likely opt for Red Hat Enterprise Linux or SUSE Linux Enterprise.
Red Hat and SUSE Linux make their enterprise products using code from the community-supported distros (though with openSUSE, the difference is much smaller). Each employs people to support those systems for corporate clients. The Fedora and openSUSE communities are largely left to their own devices, with Red Hat and SUSE providing hosting for packages and websites.
In the end, very few distros have employees paid to explicitly work on the desktop. If you want that experience, consider Ubuntu or Pop!_OS (more on the latter later).
2. How’s the Infrastructure?
While free and open source software may be free to use, that doesn’t make it free. There are plenty of hidden costs all throughout the system. One of those is the price of maintaining servers that store and distribute all of the software we rely on. Canonical hosts software for Ubuntu, Red Hat does this for Fedora, and the same can be said for SUSE and openSUSE. These companies also host websites for these distros and many of the ones based on them.
The benefits aren’t limited to these distros. Many distros that lack a corporate sponsor base themselves on Ubuntu. On Elementary OS, the non-curated apps come from a server Canonical maintains.
Without operating as a company or having a corporate sponsor, it can be challenging to come across enough money to meet costs. Who’s going to pay for hosting? How do contributors afford to take time from their jobs, and how do they encourage other developers to support the distro? Finances can be unstable, with servers being slow or sometimes going offline. Sometimes donations are enough, and sometimes they aren’t.
Large company-backed distros tend to have reliable infrastructure. It’s unlikely that you will try to download an update or an ISO file for Ubuntu, Fedora, or openSUSE and come across a server that’s out of commission. However, alternatives such as Debian and Arch Linux tend not to have this problem thanks to the sheer number of people invested in the community.
3. Can I Buy This Distro Pre-Installed on a PC?
Companies are used to interacting with other companies. There’s a shared language. There are shared concerns. When a hardware manufacturer establishes a relationship with another company to provide the software, they know what they’re getting into. They know where to direct customers for help, and they know whom to work with when they need help themselves.
This is part of the reason why Dell and System76 provide PCs that run Ubuntu (though the latter will soon switch to Pop!_OS, its own distro based on Ubuntu). Sure, it happens to be the most popular Linux desktop operating system, but it’s also clear whom you’re working with: Canonical. For corporate clients, Dell sells servers running enterprise options from Red Hat, SUSE, and Oracle. All are well-established companies.
There are other hardware resellers that let you select your own distro, so I’m not implying that there aren’t places to buy other distros pre-installed. But many of these suppliers are selling refurbished machines, and you may find support limited only to the hardware.
4. Is This Distro Trying to Compete in the Market?
Are you someone who started using Ubuntu in the past few years and fell in love with the Unity desktop? In that case, you’re likely experiencing hurt feelings right now. The interface that you know and love is going away, all because Canonical has decided it’s financially non-viable for the company to continue investing in Unity. And from that perspective, they’re right. What we want isn’t always good for business.
The Ubuntu experience has swayed drastically over the past decade. People who have stuck it out the entire time have experienced a default desktop that began as a slightly-tweaked version of GNOME, underwent more extensive changes over time, eventually switched to an in-house interface called Unity, and then switched back to being a slightly-tweaked version of GNOME. These changes largely took place because Canonical wanted to enter the consumer market and needed to provide a unique experience that it could support.
When you’re not in it for the money, this issue is less relevant. You can continue developing an interface out of love for the project. You may not be able to devote as much time to the job, but you can nibble at the code indefinitely, and it doesn’t matter if only a few hundred people end up using what you produce.
Sure, interfaces can come and go, but so do entire distros. Linspire was an attempt to build a company around a Linux desktop operating system for personal computers. Development of that distro ceased by 2008. Years before, HP stopped working on its own HP Secure OS. How many people know HP ever had any interest in developing Linux?
5. Does This Distro Stick to its Values?
Free and open source software isn’t only about creating code, it’s about ideals. The free software movement says computing comes with rights, and the people who provide software should meet a certain ethical standard. A profit motive doesn’t inherently conflict with the ideals of free software, but at the same time, nothing corrupts quite like money.
When you’re an entity whose purpose is to turn a profit and you have to choose between the ethically right decision and the one better for your bottom line, you’re going to have a hard decision to make. If you have shareholders to satisfy, the pressure to go after the money is even stronger.
This isn’t that prominent an issue in the Linux world, but it has caused tension between Canonical and some Ubuntu users in the past. Starting with version 12.10, Ubuntu introduced Amazon ads in the app launcher and a pre-installed link to Amazon in the dock. These stuck around until 16.04.
Canonical is a private company looking to go public. That put more pressure on Canonical to let go of parts of the business that were not profitable.
6. Is This Distro Impacted by Regional Differences?
Ever wondered why Fedora doesn’t provide proprietary codecs? Part of the reason is out of a commitment to advancing free and open source alternatives. The other reason is that doing so could open up Red Hat to lawsuits. Red Hat is an American company subject to U.S. law. Ubuntu and openSUSE don’t ship with codecs pre-installed, though they both make it easy to download them later. These distros are affiliated with companies based in Europe.
Many distros without a company attached don’t have any form of official residence. You can think of them as global entities. Contributors come from all over, and it can be hard to determine if any country or region can be considered “home.” This can have the side effect of offering some protection. Which country has jurisdiction? And since there’s no profit being made, how much does anyone really care?
Then there’s the issue of language. Sometimes a translation is just fine, and other times it may leave you scratching your head.
What Other Impact Can Corporate Money Have?
Linux distros come in many shapes and sizes. The same is true of the communities that build them. Sometimes a company holds most of the power, and other times they’re happy to have a seat in the board. Then there are projects like Elementary OS, where the company steering the project, also called Elementary, consists of only a handful of people.
Do you trust a distro more if there’s corporate money behind it? Do you distrust the influence a profit motive can have? Which distro do you current run on your machine? Share your responses in the comments!