The launch of Ubuntu was first announced in September 2004. Although a relative newcomer to the Linux distribution scene, the project took off like no other before, with its mailing lists soon filled in with discussions by eager users and enthusiastic developers. In the few years that followed, Ubuntu has grown to become the most popular desktop Linux distribution and has greatly contributed towards developing an easy-to-use and free desktop operating system that can compete well with any proprietary ones available on the market.
What was the reason for Ubuntu's stunning success? Firstly, the project was created by Mark Shuttleworth, a charismatic South African multimillionaire, a former Debian developer and the world's second space tourist, whose company, the Isle of Man-based Canonical Ltd, is currently financing the project. Secondly, Ubuntu had learnt from the mistakes of other similar projects and avoided them from the start - it created an excellent web-based infrastructure with a Wiki-style documentation, creative bug-reporting facility, and professional approach to the end users. And thirdly, thanks to its wealthy founder, Ubuntu has been able to ship free CDs to all interested users, thus contributing to the rapid spread of the distribution.
On the technical side of things, Ubuntu is based on Debian "Sid" (unstable branch), but with some prominent packages, such as GNOME, Firefox and OpenOffice.org, updated to their latest versions. It has a predictable, 6-month release schedule, with an occasional Long Term Support (LTS) release that is supported with security updates for 3 - 5 years, depending on the edition (non-LTS release are supported for 18 months). Other special features of Ubuntu include an installable live CD, creative artwork and desktop themes, migration assistant for Windows users, support for the latest technologies, such as 3D desktop effects, easy installation of proprietary device drivers for ATI and NVIDIA graphics cards and wireless networking, and on-demand support for non-free or patent-encumbered media codecs.
The beginnings of openSUSE date back to 1992 when four German Linux enthusiasts -- Roland Dyroff, Thomas Fehr, Hubert Mantel and Burchard Steinbild -- launched the project under the name of SuSE (Software und System Entwicklung) Linux. In the early days, the young company sold sets of floppy disks containing a German edition of Slackware Linux, but it wasn't long before SuSE Linux became an independent distribution with the launch of version 4.2 in May 1996. In the following years, the developers adopted the RPM package management format and introduced YaST, an easy-to-use graphical system administration tool. Frequent releases, excellent printed documentation, and easy availability of SuSE Linux in stores across Europe and North America resulted in growing popularity of the distribution.
SuSE Linux was acquired by Novell, Inc. in late 2003. Major changes in the development, licensing and availability of SUSE Linux followed shortly afterwards - YaST was released under the General Public License, the ISO images were freely distributed from public download servers, and, most significantly, the development of the distribution was opened to public participation for the first time ever. Since the launch of the openSUSE project and the release of version 10.0 in October 2005, the distribution became completely free in both senses of the word. The openSUSE code has become a base system for Novell's commercial products, first named as Novell Linux, but later renamed to SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.
Today, openSUSE has a large following of satisfied users. The principal reason for openSUSE getting high marks from its users are pleasant and polished desktop environments (KDE and GNOME), excellent system administration utility (YaST), and, for those who buy the boxed edition, some of the best printed documentation available with any distribution. However, the recent deal between Novell and Microsoft, which apparently concedes to Microsoft's argument that it has intellectual property rights over Linux, has resulted in a string of condemnation by many Linux personalities and has prompted some users to switch distributions. Although Novell has downplayed the deal and Microsoft has yet to exercise any rights, this issue remains a thorn in the side of the otherwise very community-friendly Linux company.
Although Fedora was formally unveiled only in September 2004, its origins effectively date back to 1995 when it was launched by two Linux visionaries -- Bob Young and Marc Ewing -- under the name of Red Hat Linux. The company's first product, Red Hat Linux 1.0 "Mother's Day", was released in the same year and was quickly followed by several bug-fix updates. In 1997, Red Hat introduced its revolutionary RPM package management system with dependency resolution and other advanced features which greatly contributed to the distribution's rapid rise in popularity and its overtaking of Slackware Linux as the most widely-used Linux distribution in the world. In later years, Red Hat standardised on a regular, 6-month release schedule.
In 2003, just after the release of Red Hat Linux 9, the company introduced some radical changes to its product line-up. It retained the Red Hat trademark for its commercial products, notably Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and introduced Fedora Core, a Red Hat-sponsored, but community-oriented distribution designed for the "Linux hobbyist". After the initial criticism of the changes, the Linux community accepted the "new" distribution as a logical continuation of Red Hat Linux. A few quality releases was all it took for Fedora to regain its former status as one of the best-loved operating systems on the market. At the same time, Red Hat quickly became the biggest and most profitable Linux company in the world, with an innovative product line-up and other interesting initiatives, such as its Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) certification programme.
Although Fedora's direction is still largely controlled by Red Hat, Inc. and the product is sometimes seen -- rightly or wrongly -- as a test bed for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, there is no denying that Fedora is one of the most innovative distributions available today. Its contributions to the Linux kernel, glibc and GCC are well-known and its more recent integration of SELinux functionality, Xen virtualisation technologies and other enterprise-level features are much appreciated among the company's customers. On a negative side, Fedora still lacks a clear desktop-oriented strategy that would make the product easier to use for those beyond the "Linux hobbyist" target.
Debian GNU/Linux was first announced in 1993. Its founder, Ian Murdock, envisaged the creation of a completely non-commercial project developed by hundreds of volunteer developers in their spare time. With sceptics far outnumbering optimists at the time, it was destined to disintegrate and collapse, but the reality was very different. Debian not only survived, it thrived and, in less than a decade, it became the largest Linux distribution and possibly the largest collaborative software project ever created!
The success of Debian GNU/Linux can be illustrated by the following numbers. It is developed by over 1,000 volunteer developers, its software repositories contain more than 20,000 packages (compiled for 11 processor architectures), and it is responsible for inspiring over 120 Debian-based distributions and live CDs. These figures are unmatched by any other Linux-based operating system. The actual development of Debian takes place in three main branches (or four if one includes the bleeding-edge "experimental" branch) of increasing levels of stability: "unstable" (also known as "sid"), "testing" and "stable". This progressive integration and stabilisation of packages and features, together with the project's well-established quality control mechanisms, has earned Debian its reputation of being one of the best-tested and most bug-free distributions available today.
However, this lengthy and complex development style also has some drawbacks: the stable releases of Debian are not particularly up-to-date and they age rapidly, especially since new stable releases are only published once every 1 - 3 years. Those users who prefer the latest packages and technologies are forced to use the potentially buggy Debian testing or unstable branches. The highly democratic structures of Debian have led to controversial decisions and gave rise to infighting among the developers. This has contributed to stagnation and reluctance to make radical decisions that would take the project forward.
Mandriva Linux was launched by Gaël Duval in July 1998 under the name of Mandrake Linux. At first, it was just a re-mastered edition of Red Hat Linux with the more user-friendly KDE desktop, but the subsequent releases also added various user-friendly touches, such as a new installer, improved hardware detection, and intuitive disk partitioning utility. As a result of these enhancements, Mandrake Linux flourished. After attracting venture capital and turning into a business, the fortunes of the newly established MandrakeSoft fluctuated widely between a near bankruptcy in early 2003 to a flurry of acquisitions in 2005. The latter, after merging with Brazil's Conectiva, saw the company change its name to Mandriva.
Mandriva Linux is primarily a desktop distribution. Its best loved features are cutting edge software, superb system administration suite (DrakConf), excellent implementation of its 64-bit edition, and extensive internationalisation support. It had an open development model long before many other popular distributions, with intensive beta testing and frequent stable releases. In recent years, it has also developed an array of installable live CDs and has launched Mandriva Flash - a complete Mandriva Linux system on a bootable USB Flash device.
Despite the technical excellence, Mandriva Linux has been losing momentum in recent years. This has partly to do with the emergence of other user-friendly distributions that have caught up with Mandriva, but also with some controversial decisions by the company which have alienated a large sector of the distribution's user base. Mandriva's web presence is a messy conglomeration of several different web sites, while its "Mandriva Club", originally designed to provide added value to paying customers, has been getting mixed reviews. Although the company has been addressing some of the criticism, it continues to face an uphill battle in persuading new Linux users or users of other distributions to try (and buy) its products.
PCLinuxOS was first announced in 2003 by Bill Reynolds, better known as "Texstar". Prior to creating his own distribution, Texstar was already a well-known developer in the Mandrake Linux community of users for building up-to-date RPM packages for the popular distribution and providing them as a free download. In 2003 he decided to build a new distribution, initially based on Mandrake Linux, but with several significant usability improvements. The goals? It should be beginner-friendly, have out-of-the box support for proprietary kernel modules, browser plugins and media codecs, and should function as a live CD with a simple and intuitive graphical installer.
Several years and development releases later, PCLinuxOS is rapidly approaching its intended state. In terms of usability, the project offers out-of-the-box support for many technologies most Windows-to-Linux migrants would expect from their new operating system. On the software side of things, PCLinuxOS is a KDE-oriented distribution, with a customised and always up-to-date version of the popular desktop environment. Its growing software repository contains other desktops, however, and offers a great variety of desktop packages for many common tasks. For system configuration, PCLinuxOS has retained much of Mandriva's excellent Control Centre, but has replaced its package management system with APT and Synaptic, a graphical package management front-end.
On the negative side, PCLinuxOS lacks any form of roadmap or release goals. Despite the growing community involvement in the project, most development and decision-making remains in the hands of Texstar who tends to be on the conservative side when judging the stability of a release. As a result, the development process of PCLinuxOS tends to be long and a new version is not released until all known bugs are solved. There are currently no plans for a 64-bit edition of PCLinuxOS.
MEPIS Linux was first announced in 2003 by Warren Woodford and his company, MEPIS LLC. The idea was to turn the Debian unstable branch into a beginner-friendly distribution, complete with automatic hardware configuration, support for popular media formats, and latest software packages. MEPIS Linux pioneered the concept of an easily installable live CD - a user could simply boot the CD, investigate the content, and then install it to a hard disk with just a few mouse clicks.
In the following years the developers focused on providing reliable hardware support for all kinds of troublesome hardware, including software modems and wireless network cards. In 2006, largely due to the volatility of Debian's unstable branch, the base system of MEPIS Linux was switched from Debian to Ubuntu, but it has returned to its Debian roots with version 7.0. Originally MEPIS Linux consisted of two editions - a desktop-oriented SimplyMEPIS and a developer-oriented ProMEPIS, but the latter edition was later dropped. Currently, the project provides both 32-bit and 64-bit editions of SimplyMEPIS.
On the negative side, the distribution lacks any clear roadmap or release schedule, but it appears that periodically updated versions will be released with older code base and newer technologies, such as the 3D desktop features. As a consequence, SimplyMEPIS is no longer as up-to-date as it once was. Beta testing tends to be extremely long and final releases are frequently delayed by months from the original projection. While SimplyMEPIS CD images are available for free download, MEPIS LLC encourages satisfied users to sign up for paid-for access to a premium server, which constitutes the company's only source of income.
The first public release of KNOPPIX was made in early 2003. This event was quickly followed by an astonishing number of highly positive reviews in the Linux media; this was the first Linux live CD that required no manual configuration. The KNOPPIX CD was meant to be placed in the CD-ROM drive and a few minutes after boot, the computer would run a full-featured, graphical Linux operating system with thousands of applications - all without the need to install anything on the computer's hard disk. Although KNOPPIX certainly wasn't the first Linux live CD, its creator, Klaus Knopper, went further than any other developer before him in scripting a hardware auto-detection and auto-configuration routine that put similar scripts produced by commercial Linux companies to shame.
The Debian-based KNOPPIX became such a huge success that many Linux users found it an indispensable and portable tool for a variety of tasks. It could be used to recover files and data from hard disks, to demonstrate the capabilities of Linux to new users, to test Linux hardware compatibility of laptops and desktop computers before purchase, or to boot it in Internet cafés and use it as a full-blown Linux operating system for every-day tasks. In fact, it became such a popular tool that within a short period of time dozens of similar projects sprouted all over the Internet, using Klaus Knopper's hardware auto-detection scripts and developing KNOPPIX-based variants ranging from full desktop systems to highly specialised forensics, testing and recovery tasks.
While KNOPPIX can be considered beginner-friendly in terms of its hands-off auto-configuration, it also includes many advanced features better suited for more technical users. Especially the recent DVD editions of the product came with a large number of software packages, including all popular desktops and many server applications pulled from Debian's unstable and testing archives. This increase in software numbers brought some problems, however; KNOPPIX has become slow (especially the DVD edition), buggy (Klaus Knopper does not seem to believe in public beta testing) and messy (in terms of menu arrangements on the different desktop systems). There is no release planning, but new KNOPPIX versions appear roughly twice a year, usually shortly after major Linux exhibitions in Germany, where new KNOPPIX versions are first unveiled to the public. It has lost some of its original glory due to the fact that most major Linux distributions now also offer live CD/DVD editions of their product.
Slackware Linux, created by Patrick Volkerding in 1992, is the oldest surviving Linux distribution. Forked from the now-discontinued SLS project, Slackware 1.0 came on 24 floppy disks and was built on top of Linux kernel version 0.99pl11-alpha. It quickly became the most popular Linux distribution, with some estimates putting its market share to as much as 80% of all Linux installations in 1995. Its popularity decreased dramatically with the arrival of Red Hat Linux and other, more user-friendly distributions, but Slackware Linux still remains a much-appreciated operating system among the more technically-oriented system administrators and desktop users.
Slackware Linux is a highly technical, clean distribution, with only a very limited number of custom utilities. It uses a simple, text-based system installer and a comparatively primitive package management system that does not resolve software dependencies. As a result, Slackware is considered one of the cleanest and least buggy distributions available today - the lack of Slackware-specific enhancements reduces the likelihood of new bugs being introduced into the system. All configuration is done by editing text files. There is a saying in the Linux community that if you learn Red Hat, you'll know Red Hat, but if you learn Slackware, you'll know Linux. This is particularly true today when many other Linux distributions keep developing heavily customised products to meet the needs of less technical Linux users.
While this philosophy of simplicity has its fans, the fact is that in today's world, Slackware Linux is increasingly becoming a "core system" upon which new, custom solutions are built, rather than a complete distribution with a wide variety of supported software. The only exception is the server market, where Slackware remains popular, though even here, the distribution's complex upgrade procedure and lack of officially supported automated tools for security updates makes it increasingly uncompetitive. Slackware's conservative attitude towards the system's base components means that it requires much manual post-installation work before it can be tuned into a modern desktop system.
The concept of Gentoo Linux was devised in around the year 2000 by Daniel Robbins, a former Stampede Linux and FreeBSD developer. It was the author's exposure to FreeBSD and its "autobuild" feature called "ports", which inspired him to incorporate some of the FreeBSD software management principles into Gentoo under the name of "portage". The idea was to develop a Linux distribution that would allow users to compile the Linux kernel and applications from source code directly on their own computers, thus maintaining a highly-optimised and always up-to-date system. By the time the project released its 1.0 version in March 2002, Gentoo's package management was considered a superior alternative to some binary package management systems, especially the then widely-used RPM.
Gentoo Linux was designed for power users. Originally, the installation was cumbersome and tedious, requiring hours or even days of compiling on the command line to build a complete Linux distribution; however, in 2006 the project simplified the installation procedure by developing an installable Gentoo live CD with a point-and-click installer. Besides providing an always up-to-date set of packages for installation with a single command, the other important features of the distribution are excellent security, extensive configuration options, support for many architectures, and the ability to keep the system up-to-date without re-installing. The Gentoo documentation was repeatedly labelled as the best online documentation of any distribution.
Gentoo Linux has lost much of its original glory in recent years. Some Gentoo users have come to a realisation that the time-consuming compiling of software packages brings only marginal speed and optimisation benefits. Ever since the resignation of Gentoo's founder and benevolent dictator from the project in 2004, the newly established Gentoo Foundation has been battling with lack of clear directions and frequent developer conflicts, which resulted in several high-profile departures of well-known Gentoo personalities. It remains to be seen whether Gentoo can regain its innovative qualities of the past or whether it will slowly disintegrate into a loose collection of personal sub-projects lacking clearly-defined goals.
FreeBSD, a direct descendant of AT&T UNIX, has a long and turbulent history dating back to 1993. Unlike Linux distributions, which are defined as integrated software solutions consisting of the Linux kernel and thousands of software applications, FreeBSD is a tightly integrated operating system built from a BSD kernel and the so-called "userland" (therefore usable even without extra applications). This distinction is largely lost once installed on an average computer system - like many Linux distributions, a large collection of easily installed, (mostly) open source applications are available for extending the FreeBSD core, but these are usually provided by third-party contributors and aren't strictly part of FreeBSD.
FreeBSD has developed a reputation for being a fast, high-performance and extremely stable operating system, especially suitable for web serving and similar tasks. Many large web search engines and organisations with mission-critical computing infrastructures have deployed and used FreeBSD on their computer systems for years. Compared to Linux, FreeBSD is distributed under a much less restrictive license, which allows virtually unrestricted re-use and modification of the source code for any purpose. Even Apple's Mac OS X is known to have been derived from BSD. Besides the core operating system, the project also provides over 15,000 software applications in binary and source code forms for easy installation on top of the core FreeBSD.
While FreeBSD can certainly be used as a desktop operating system, it doesn't compare well with popular Linux distributions in this department. The text-mode system installer offers little in terms of hardware detection or system configuration, leaving much of the dirty work to the user in a post-installation setup. In terms of support for modern hardware, FreeBSD generally lags behind Linux, especially in supporting popular desktop and laptop gadgets, such as wireless network cards or digital cameras. Those users seeking to exploit the speed and stability of FreeBSD on a desktop or workstation should consider one of the available desktop FreeBSD projects, rather than FreeBSD itself.