Review: Distrowatch

Distrowatch.com is certainly the most popular site for people interested in GNU/Linux distributions and related operating systems. Among its main features, it includes a click-to-download-based popularity ranking and a distribution search engine. When a new distribution or distribution version is released, a brief description of its main characteristics, goals or changes with respect to previous versions is featured on the front page.  In addition, a weekly newsletter informs the audience of the new developments on the field. Users are allowed to comment on the contents of the newsletter.

On the whole, the portal is a necessary and  useful tool both for the curious fellow learning to navigate the GNU/Linux ocean as well as for the more experienced user seeking fresh information, not to mention the distro-hopper. Even publicity on this site may be a focus of interest as it often showcases useful books both for the newbie and the system administrator.

However, the portal has also faced criticism from the community:

1. Distribution selection. There currently are over  320 distributions on the official Distowatch database and there is a ever-growing waiting list (not surprisingly, for some distros have been waiting to gain official acceptance since the year 2004). Many people argue that most of the distributions on the official list are mere re-spins without merit or substance. Namely, Ubuntu re-spins. The official policy for accepting a new distribution states only a few requirements, including the need for a support section on the distro website. However, certain have accused the Distrowatch maintainers of arbitrarity or even censorship. A notorious case was made by the developers of Ubuntu Satanic Edition, whose developers saw this distro banned from Distrowatch while other superstition-promoting operating systems such as Ubuntu’s Christian and Muslim editions were accepted and backed by the portal.

2. Distribution ranking. Many think that the rankings displayed in Distrowatch are inaugurate or even entirely unreliable. They are supposed to be click-to-download-based. However, many GNU/Linux users download their operating system just once and then keep it up-to-date using the system’s package manager or other means, whereas others download an installation CD each time that a new version of the operating system is available. Therefore, the first category of users would possibly be under-represented. There are other considerations that lie beyond the scope of this review.

3. Search engine. Some people have noted that the categories used in the search form are outdated and arbitrary.

4. Censorship on the comments. Many users, including the author of this review, have accused the administrators of DistroWatch of censoring the comments at the bottom of the newsletter for no good reason. Pertinent and respectful comments are also removed without explanation. It seems that typically the censored authors are those who have shown some kind of criticism, even if mild and constructive, with some of the newsletter’s contents (namely with the weekly distribution review). Strikingly, non-critical comments from the same users also tend to disappear with no further explanation. This is very frustrating for the community.

5. Reviews. The first article of the Distrowatch weekly newsletter is typically an “in-depth” review of an arbitrarily chosen distribution. Most of those reviews are authored by a distro-hopper named Jesse Smith, who also happens to be one of the portal administrators. Smith’s reviews tend, in my opinion, to be biased and shallow. Biased because he tends to favour distros allegedly following the “just works” philosophy over more technical distros. Shallow because, in coherences with the previous point, he focus mainly on the “look-and-feel” and obviates other considerations (paradoxically,  he does not appear to be so concerned with the outdated looks and functionality of the DistroWatch website). Furthermore, the final verdict will also depend on how well his specific (arbitrary) hardware was auto-configured, thus penalising distros not including non-free drivers. A good example of this  is his latest review on the Debian’s GNU/kFreeBSD project (a system that I installed myself in two computers without any problem using a netinstall CD image). In addition, Smith is a notorious Ubuntu fan-boy and, as a consequence, Ubuntu and its myriad of useless derivatives tend to be overrated in detriment of their “competitors” (significantly and “paradoxically”, he also tends to favour pure Ubuntu over more “user-friendly” derivatives). This is not surprising, for DistroWatch is a private pro-profit initiative and therefore they have to be where the money is.

Of course, as promoters of a private initiative, as opposed to a community-driven initiative, DistroWatch administrators have the right to do whatever they want with their portal and to showcase the degree of arbitrarity and censorship that best suit their particular objectives and interests. But, even if I really appreciate the valuable work that these guys are doing, it is also true that a growing number of users would prefer a more democratic and community-oriented portal. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, right now there are not any acceptable alternatives to DistroWatch. The LWN Distributions List, being quite updated and comprehensive, lacks most of the features that a newbie will appreciate, such a news section, a search engine or maybe a popularity ranking. Some people may also find interesting the Comparison of Linux distributions at Wikipedia. That is basically all we have at the moment. Is it time for a new project?