30 years of Linux history told through distributions

Happy birthday, Linux. At 30, you have made a great reputation for yourself. After driving the boom in open source software, you turned the world of proprietary computing upside down.

Of course, you had a somewhat premature start. You entered the tech world with little more than a core to call your own. That was the intention of a young computer science student from Helsinki named Linus Torvalds while carrying out this personal fun project. In 1991, he created your code that would become the basis for a whole new approach to computer operating systems.

The rest of this story, as they say, is history.

You first underwent a name change. You started out by calling yourself Freax, as in “free”, “freak” and “x” (referring to the operating system of the Unix computer). But eventually, your creator ended up sharing his own lineage with you, calling you Linux.

Linus and his so-called computer cohorts have backed you up with other code components to talk to. This combination has formed a growing list of Linux distributions to power a variety of free computer operating systems.

Among the first, in 1992, Slackware was created by Patrick Volkerding. You both have been a hit for years by owning 80% of the market for non-proprietary computers. A few years later, you were in good company. However, some of Slackware’s popularity waned with the arrival of Red Hat Linux. But your kernel has remained the soul of what makes Linux, well, Linux.

In 1992, four guys – Thomas Fehr, Roland Dyroff, Burchard Steinbild, and Hubert Mante – introduced you to a new playmate called the Suse Project. This creation formed Suse Linux. A few years later, Suse created separate enterprise editions for desktops and servers. OpenSuse joined parents as a free open source version.

More family diversity

Debian joined the family line as one of the first full-fledged Linux distributions in August 1993, created by Ian Murdock. It took him three more years to release the first stable version. What made your Debian cousin so important was Murdock’s design for a Linux distribution that anyone can download and use for free. It eliminated the need for users to compile their own applications from source files.

Murdock made Debian Linux user friendly and easy to adopt using a live CD. This allowed new users to try Linux without installing it to run it.

Business users enjoyed a particular uptake when Red Hat Linux, released in 1995, released Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) in 2003 as a paid support distribution. Business-oriented home users benefited from a free community edition. Fedora has become the testing ground for many features promoted in RHEL releases.

In 2000, Daniel Robbins introduced Gentoo Linux to the Linux world. It targeted developers and corporate users with a strong connection to an alternative Unix-like BSD operating system that made network management easier.

That same year, Judd Vinet introduced Arch Linux to the world. It was based on the concept of deploying updated components in existing installations in order to eliminate major reinstallation steps. This advanced concept oriented the new distribution towards more experienced users who were better equipped to handle the maintenance and more complex configurations required by Arch coding.

A touch of modernity

A major development in the adoption of the Linux operating system for industry and the home occurred in 2004 with the release of Ubuntu Linux. Its founder, South African mogul Mark Richard Shuttleworth, developed Ubuntu to be an easier and more user-friendly way to use the young Linux operating system. His business targeted home users and small businesses as well as large enterprises.

A new entrant in modernizing the popularity of Linux is the Linux Mint distribution. Launched in 2006 by Clément Lefèbvre, it is based on Ubuntu and is intended to be very user-friendly and particularly suitable for beginners.

Linux Mint is the result of a major design change in Ubuntu. Lefèbvre managed to pick up where Ubuntu left off. One of its pillars is the internal development of the Cinnamon desktop environment.

Another reason for the growing popularity of Linux Mint is its blending of certain proprietary software to improve the convenience of the user when installing the available options themselves. Other modern Linux distributions do this as well. But Linux Mint makes it a central point of its user interface standard.

Seemingly limitless options

Depending on the counting process and the source, the actual number of Linux distributions is much larger today than during the first two decades of the Linux kernel. Some sources put that number at over 600 Linux distributions with around 500 in active development. Yet other sources estimate the number of Linux distributions to be over 1,000.

It all depends on how you categorize the wide variety of form factors ranging from desktops, servers, laptops, netbooks, mobile phones, and tablets. Some distributions are managed by a single developer. Others encompass large communities of volunteers, designers, coders and testers globally. It seems that for every Linux distro that goes inactive or disappears altogether, one or more newcomers fill the void.

This is all the result of you, Mr. Birthday Linux. Your power and influence are awesome!

Inclusion with diversity

The Linux operating system has unwittingly become a place for all the old and new computer concepts possible. Distribution developers made many versions that mimicked and improved the features and innovations of other distributions. Depending on the whims of the Linux developers, different distributions have been offered for the computer styles of different people.

Two main avenues of development have emerged. Either a new distribution version would follow the design and operating philosophy of a particular Linux family – be it Gentoo, Arch, Debian, Suse, Fedora, etc. – or it would be an independent offer not based on a particular Linux family. In addition, subfamilies exist under Linux.

For example, a cast could be based on a major family line but create some of its own unique elements. Consider that a very popular Linux line is Ubuntu, which is technically based on Debian. New distributions have appeared, based directly on Ubuntu rather than the larger Debian ecosystem.

Part of the derived distribution would be the unique app choices bundled together in the release. Some derivatives do not have access to many software repositories from the major Linux families. Others have different update processes and package management tools for adding software.

Another distinctive element of the Linux operating system is the concept of desktop environments. Some distributions only offer one chosen desktop. Others offer a wide range of desktop options. Some distributions are lightweight, which means they run on older hardware that requires less RAM and less powerful internals.

These scaled-down designs often rely on window managers instead of full desktop environments. The same can be said of the structure and operating components built into independent Linux distributions.

Design factors

This is what sets the Linux operating system apart from other alternatives like macOS and Windows operating systems. The operating environment can be of classic Linux design. It can be minimal, or it can be something more feature rich. It all comes down to user interface (UI) and user preferences.

Just as distribution developers slice and slice UI components and the Linux family, they often modify existing functionality in the desktop design. So two different distributions running the same desktop environment can look very different.

Not all Linux distributions run the same Linux kernel either. Some distribution developers avoid potential compatibility issues with the latest kernel versions by waiting for a release cycle or two of their own distribution products. Other distribution developers are basing their latest distribution upgrade on a newly released kernel version.

Add a modern touch

The Linux kernel, although 30 years old as the core of the Linux operating system, is not the same today as it was when it first started. Torvalds oversees an ongoing process of updating the Linux kernel to provide improved hardware, software and security reliability.

Just as Linux kernel developers and distribution managers update, modify, and improve (or sometimes worsen) performance, so too do desktop environment communities. Once popular designs and features can fall out of favor. Design changes can send users yelling at other options in Linux.

It’s also the power and flexibility that Linux has gained over the past three decades.

So again, happy birthday Linux. You’ve had great success dominating corporate server jobs and taking control of cloud computing.

Yet you haven’t given us the year of the Linux desktop yet. But keep growing. I hope you will have reasons to celebrate this holiday on a future anniversary.

The options you provide make modern Linux an operating system like no other. You’ve even established your family ties on Android and Chrome OS. But these are accolades for other anniversary celebrations.

About Jon Moses

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