10 days ago Linux creator Linus Torvalds gave an interview in which he talked about what he likes and doesn't like in a Linux distribution:
I've used different distributions over the years. Right now I happen to use Fedora 9 on most of the computers I have, which really boils down to the fact that Fedora had fairly good support for PowerPC back when I used that, so I grew used to it. But I actually don't care too much about the distribution, as long as it makes it easy to install and keep reasonably up-to-date. I care about the kernel and a few programs, and the set of programs I really care about is actually fairly small.
And when it comes to distributions, ease of installation has actually been one of my main issues - I'm a technical person, but I have a very specific area of interest, and I don't want to fight the rest. So the only distributions I have actively avoided are the ones that are known to be "overly technical" - like the ones that encourage you to compile your own programs etc.
Yeah, I can do it, but it kind of defeats the whole point of a distribution for me. So I like the ones that have a name of being easy to use. I've never used plain Debian, for example, but I like Ubuntu. And before Debian people attack me - yeah, I know, I know, it's supposedly much simpler and easier to install these days. But it certainly didn't use to be, so I never had any reason to go for it.
When I reviewed Slackware last month three of my four main criticisms all boil down to ease of use. I drew the ire of some Slackware users for stating that, in my opinion, Slackware isn't user friendly due to it's lack of graphical administration tools, lack of a package manager with dependency checking, and lack of a decent repository of additional software packages. Some even took issue with my using a conventional definition of user friendly, specifically that a distribution be intuitive and relatively easy for even a non-technical user to install, configure, and maintain.
Ease of use isn't just for newcomers. Nobody would question Linus Torvalds' expertise when it comes to Linux or his technical skills yet he stresses ease of installation and ease of keeping a distro up to date. In that context his preference for Fedora and Ubuntu over what he calls "overly technical" distributions makes a lot of sense. While he only names Debian I think we can safely assume that Gentoo and Slackware would fit into this category.
The reason Ubuntu, Fedora, Mandriva, and SUSE are leading desktop distributions is that they all try, and to a great degree succeed, in allowing users to concentrate on something other than the OS, like the work they want to do with their computer in the first place. All of these distributions allow you to get under the hood to customize and tweak to whatever extent you might want or need. What they don't do is force you to get under the hood just to get configuration done. A large repository means that you aren't forced to compile from source on a regular basis. Linus Torvalds' comments on distributions are in line with what the majority of Linux users I've worked with and talked with over the years prefer, even highly technically competent users.
Linus makes one other point which is worth noting:
The freedom of choice that the plethora of Linux distributions offer pretty much guarantees that Linux users will always be able to choose a distribution that suits them best. It's clear that for a sizable number of Linux uses that choice will be a Linux distribution like Debian, Gentoo, or Slackware.
Me personally, I'm a believer in choice. Yes, it can be confusing, and yes, it can cause the market to look more fragmented, but on the other hand, it also begets competition. And competition is good - and it's good even within a project. It's what makes people try different things, and it ends up being very motivational.
So I don't personally think we'd have gotten anywhere without all those wild-and-wacky distributions. I'd rather have a bit of spirited discussion and even infighting than a staid landscape with a single vendor (or a couple of vendors who carve out the market)