Anyone who has done that enough knows that sooner or later you're going to break your Linux distribution in such a way that the mess could take hours to untangle.
Scott McNeil, former SuSE president and current open source strategist for VA Linux, founded a company called Zenguin to solve exactly that problem. Zenguin would have created a universal installer that resolved dependencies across distributions and even package formats. But Zenguin dissolved before the product was built. I think there is still a need for such a product, although eliminating the important differences between distributions must actually solve many installation problems.
Creating a standard
Linux Standard Base (LSB) will be the first step toward eliminating differences among distributions. Coincidentally (or not), the same Scott McNeil that started Zenguin was recently appointed executive director of the Free Standards Group (LSB's mother organization). That gives me more confidence that we will see an LSB standard emerge in the very near future. McNeil was my proposed candidate to be the executive director of LSB but I'm quite pleased to see him take an even better position.
But even though LSB should finally get off the ground, the distributions still need to agree upon a much more comprehensive standard. It makes no sense for dozens of distribution vendors to duplicate efforts and create products that perpetuate the incompatibilities that hinder their growth. If instead they all agreed to start with a comprehensive Linux base distribution and add value from there, they could spend their time working on added value that means something to today's business Linux customers. Vendors would have a realistic chance to compete based on their added value because today's compatibility problems would no longer stunt their sales.
The only company that probably won't eagerly endorse such a standard is Red Hat, because it is currently the de facto standard distribution. But if all the other major distributions put together a coalition quickly, there is still time to put a lot of pressure on Red Hat to play ball. The other distributions combined have a larger worldwide market share than does Red Hat alone. If they can agree on a standard and get it out the door quickly, then the new coalition standard would become the de facto standard, and Red Hat would suddenly become the incompatible distribution.
Red Hat would inevitably hop on board. At that point, all Linux vendors could stop wasting time managing the base distribution and instead focus on developing and marketing added value in the form of high-level software and services.