The number of Linux distributions is declining. In 2011, the Distrowatch database of active Linux distributions peaked at 323. Currently, however, it lists only 285. However, exactly why the decline is taking place and how much it matters remains unclear.
Distros have always come and gone. In fact, Distrowatch lists 791 distributions that have existed since it was founded in 2001, although less than forty percent have ever been in active development at any given time. These tallies may not be complete, since some distributions probably never register with Distrowatch, but they are as accurate as anyone is likely to offer.
But until about 2011, the number of active distributions slowly increased by a few each year. By contrast, the last three years have seen just a 12% decline -- a decrease too high to be likely to be coincidence. So what's happening?
Part of the reason for the decline maybe that Linux is becoming much less a hobby and much more of a business strategy. Where hobbyists may tinker, commercial businesses are more concerned with results -- specifically in decreasing time to market and lowering development costs. With these concerns, businesses are less likely to experiment for experiment's sake, and more likely to base their development on an existing concern.
Perhaps, too, Linux supporters are aging, and, like businesses, have become less time for hobbies and more concern with immediate results. However, statistics about such a diverse group make this possibility impossible to confirm.
Another reason for the decline may be that the center of innovation has shifted in recent years from the distribution to the desktop. Although most distributions have a default desktop, most of the major ones offer at least half a dozen desktop environments, many of which encourage different work habits in users.
Except for the branding wallpaper and themes, it is usually easier these days to tell at a glance what desktop you are logged in to than which distribution you are using. Because of the almost universal tendency towards graphical package installation, you cannot even tell easily what package management system you are using, let alone the distribution.
The odds are, however, that the technology you are using is Debian's. At least part of the decline in distributions may be that Debian's technology dominates, and there are already Debian derivatives for every purpose that users can easily conceive.
This idea is supported by the fact, while the number of distributions has decreased, the number based upon Debian or its most popular derivative Ubuntu has gone from 63% of the total number of distributions in 2011 to 70%.
The number of Debian-derivatives has declined in that time, with a loss of four distributions based on Debian, and seven on Ubuntu. Yet these figures amount to 1.5% losses, one-eighth of the general decline in distros. This decline is so small that it may represent a statistical blip rather than a trend. At the very least, Debian-derivatives are disappearing more slowly than any other distributions.
Whatever the reason for the decline in distros, it looks as though the frontier is starting to close. Some might say that the decline hardly matters. After all 285 distributions is still more than even the most avid user can hope to try in their lifetimes unless they devote their lives to nothing else.
Some might say, too, that many of the distributions are so minor and so personal that few people will notice their loss. Their loss might could even be a benefit, because fewer distributions means more contributors to the surviving one.
Outsiders, too, are likely to find developing for Linux easier if they have fewer distributions to design for. However, despite the disappearance of some promising distributions like Fuduntu, few of those that have disappeared could be considered major. As minor distros have disappeared in the last three years, the top ten for pageviews on Distrowatch has changed little, except to rise or fall a position or two.
Still, even if most of the losses have been minor, the trend is disturbing. Linux advocates have always prized diversity, and the loss of even a little diversity seems cause for concern, even if it proves beneficial in some ways. If nothing else, the trend suggests that Linux is straying from its roots, and perhaps becoming a little less adventurous and more stodgy.
What, if anything, could or should be done about the trend is uncertain. Still, the trend is worth keeping an eye on -- just in case.
Also see: Best Linux Desktop: Top 10 Candidates