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Can You Make A Linux Distro And Sell It? An Analysis!

In the last article, we saw how bigger organizations like RedHat and Google built their businesses around open-source Linux distros. If you haven’t read that already then go-ahead to the link below and once you finish reading it, come back to this one.

How Do Linux Distros Make Money? Strategies Explained!

To recap it briefly the strategies and principles big companies use to make money from open-source Linux distros are the following.

Top 5 Strategies To Monetize Linux Distros

Strategy#1: Keep it free and keep the monetization as unobtrusive as possible

Strategy#2: Have a vibrant community following

Strategy#3: Tie open source software with some hardware

Strategy#4: Tie open source software with some customer requirements

Strategy#5: Tie open source software with some of your other products

But that’s the story of big organizations, what about small teams (less than 4) or even a “lone-developer” with some motivation and skills? That will be the focus of this article.

Let’s analyze if it is feasible for a lone-developer or a small team of developers to actually develop a Linux distro and sell it or earn money from it.

So let’s begin!

Status of the Linux distro world

Let’s start our discussion by looking at our competition. Distrowatch listed 904 distros on their website(link) at the time of writing this article, and only 278 of them are popular enough to be even ranked.

Distrowatch ranks distros based on user ratings, which means the remaining 626 out of 904 distros are not getting enough attention from the community to be even ranked. This is the true status of the Linux distro world.

This is because the process of making and releasing a distro is very easy. All you need to do is just take a good distro, customize it, compile it, package it and release it as your own distro. Maybe you customized it according to your profession or hobby and released it to help people in the same situation as you.

After a few years, the users will lose interest in it gradually and soon it will be one of those inactive unranked distros. This is due to the reason that maintaining a distro by giving patches and updates, takes a lot of time and effort.

This doesn’t mean you can’t make a distro, capture the attention of the open-source developers’ community and soon become one of the top-ranked distros. In fact, Linux and the open-source community were formed that way. If you wish your distro to succeed then your distro can’t be another copycat distro which is formed by cloning a famous one and tweaking it a bit. You need to bring something unique to the field, which means a lot of development time and effort. We are looking at decades if you wish to go at it alone, all the while living off pennies and peanuts before your distro is at a level to compete with the big boys like Ubuntu and Red Hat.

If you look carefully at the above paragraph, I bolded the letters “capture attention of the open-source developers’ community”.  To understand the reason behind that let’s have the look at how the Linux world is presently funded.

How is the Linux open-source world funded?

By Stephen Cass

Before every major release of the Linux kernel, the Linux foundation releases statistics on the contributors and the image above is a compilation of such articles for a period of 5 years duration.

As you can see in the image above (source),  if you look at all the code contributed to Linux kernel project only about 20% of the code came from independent developers, the remaining 80% of the code came from big named companies like Red hat, Intel, Google, IBM, etc., where professional developers have been paid a good salary to write this code.

Thus if you wish to compete with these giant companies, alone or with a small team, unless you have some strong community support with passionate people backing your efforts, there is s very small chance of success. 

Recipe for a successful home-based distro without any organizational support

Developing a Linux distro takes a lot of effort, which is not restricted to just writing code. You need the following to make a successful monetizable Linux distro

  1. A big pocket or a bank account to support yourself and development costs or 
  2. a fantastic idea that attracts a lot of community support, donations, and crowdfunding or 
  3. An idea using which you can find industrial partners so that they can contribute to your project financially. 
  4. Experts in Market research, business analytics, etc in your team as the game is not centered just on software development anymore.
  5. 5 to 10 years of time.

So the short answer is it is not a feasible plan and this is not a path you can take, at least not alone.

Best way to go for a lone-developer

So now that we have established what it will take to make our own distro and make our living from it let’s see a more practical approach through which we can actually contribute to the open-source world while still making our livings from it.

If not distros then what else can a lone-developer do?

So if you are a lone-developer, and you wish to contribute to the open-source community while making some money in the process then instead of making a Linux distro altogether, its easier to focus on a small aspect of it. By “small aspect” I mean, applications. Applications are much easier to develop as a lone-developer.

Where to get ideas for an application?

Some places to get ideas include the following

  1. Just look at what Linux lacks when compared to its closed-source cousins, windows, and mac, and you will find plenty of apps to write. 
  2. Linux’s main weakness is the lack of a non-techie friendly UI in its applications. So you can just take an open-source app and make the UI better and publish it. 

Whatever app you choose, just make sure that it addresses market preference more than your own preferences and try to make one which is in more demand.

How to monetize your applications?

There are 2 ways you can monetize your product.

  1. By selling it on app stores like ubuntu’s software center, or you can always make a website around your app and sell your app directly through it to skip the middleman. 
  2. In-app ads: If you make a really good app, then you can make some money off your app. This is non-intrusive to the end-user and is a strategy that is widely used in the android app makers communities.
  3. Ads on your website: If you have a good enough app, then you will get millions of visits, and you can support yourself financially by renting out a corner of your webpage for ads. 

Make sure you add some free tutorials on how to use the app and if your app is complex enough and important enough, you can also offer paid online consultations and support.

The trend in the Linux world is moving slowly towards revenue-generating apps either through ads or through direct purchase as people are beginning to understand that the development of software takes time and effort.

Future of Linux Distros

As we have seen throughout this article, making Linux distros are moving away from being a lone-player game to a giant’s game. But it is not necessarily a bad thing. Linux as a product is getting better and efficient all the time with its source code in the open, which enables us, the end-users to change the software anyway we like to suit our needs.

Even though right now the main market for Linux is in industries like cloud computing and servers, a time will come, where just as android took over the smartphone market, a big player from the personal computer hardware industry will step in to put a  Linux machine in every home!

Alright, I hope you guys enjoyed this article and learned something useful. 

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