The Age of Distros
By the mid-2000s, with the arrival of reliable, attractive GUIs and an increasing supply of new applications software, Linux was not just for geeks any more. An enthusiastic worldwide network of users and developers began packaging and distributing their own favourite ‘flavours’ of Linux. These ‘distros’ usually consist of a Linux kernel, a bundle of essential and useful applications, and a GUI – GNOME, KDE or XFCE – customised with icons, colours and pictures. They were sent out on CD, or later made available on the Web, in easy-to-install packages. Some came with the backing and support of large corporations; others were produced by a small team or a single developer.
There were – and still are – Linuxes in dozens of different languages. There was a Muslim Linux, a Christian Linux, a Buddhist Linux, a Linux made to look like Windows, a Linux made to look like the Apple Macintosh, Linuxes designed for security, Linuxes designed for children, Linuxes small enough to fit on memory sticks or even floppy disks, Linuxes so comprehensive they required several DVDs to distribute. It’s been an astonishingly productive period of evolutionary development, and sadly there have been massive die-offs as distros and the people and organisations that produced them went to the wall. Hundreds of distros have vanished from sight, hundreds of others have appeared. But through the dust and the smoke it’s been possible to discern a few trends.
The first has been increasing standardisation. Developers have adopted each others’ good ideas and discarded the bad ones. It’s become possible to run GNOME programs on KDE systems and vice versa. Closed software collections have been opened up and shared. By now a modern Linux user can be reasonably sure that whatever combinations of hardware and software they use will work together happily and productively.
The second has been a technical development – the provision of ‘Live’ CDs (and later ‘Live’ DVDs) that can be used to run Linux directly, off the CD itself, prior to installation and without affecting the contents of the user’s hard disk. This makes it possible to demonstrate and trial Linux distros to new users without the troublesome and sometimes dangerous process of installing them first. Along the way, the other aspects of installation have also become much easier.
One important distro from the mid-90s was Debian, released in 1993 by a German student called Ian Murdock, and named after himself and his then-girlfriend Debra Lynn. Debian was a large compilation of open-source software with a strong focus on community support and development. Although Debian itself never became a widely-used distro, it provided – and still provides – a basis on which other distros could be constructed.
The most influential of these was Ubuntu, released in 2004 by the Canonical company, headed and bankrolled by the South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth. Canonical’s goal was to package Linux as a good-looking, easy to install and user-friendly alternative to Windows. The high quality of Ubuntu and its many customisable features – plus the fact that Microsoft was facing a poor reception for its Vista Windows release at the time – quickly made Ubuntu most widely-used and best-known Linux distro in history.
Just as Ubuntu was based on Debian, many Linux distros have been based on Ubuntu, keeping the basics and repackaging the bits and pieces into a new form which is intended to be smaller, faster, prettier, more secure or in some way better than the original. Most of these have fallen by the wayside, but Linux Mint is an exception.
Linux Mint was developed in France, and released in 2006, by Clement Lefebvre. Lefebvre is notoriously reclusive and reluctant to give interviews – his online biography, in total, is ‘Nothing much to say… ;)’ – but he has repeatedly stressed that his aim in modifying Ubuntu was to achieve ‘elegance’. In practice this meant focusing on ease of use, incorporating user feedback, and choosing pleasant colour schemes and layouts.
Mint has been steadily in development since that time, put together by a growing team largely based in Europe, with new releases every six months. In addition to the ‘standard’ GNOME-equipped Ubuntu-based Mint, they have produced releases running KDE and XFCE, and even a Mint based directly on Debian, cutting out the Ubuntu middleman. By 2010 Mint was on to its ninth release, and gradually acquiring a reputation as a friendly, stable, and reliable operating system. It was abruptly pushed into the limelight by a series of unexpected events.
First, the distributors of the popular GNOME interface decided to make some radical changes in moving from Version 2 to Version 3. These alienated many GNOME users. They might have switched to KDE systems – except that at the time KDE was going through similar convulsions in transitioning from Version 3 to 4. At the same time Ubuntu switched its own default interface to a touch-screen layout called Unity, which alienated many users still more. There was a rapid swing in the Linux community towards older, simpler, distros – and Mint was the most polished and familiar of these. Its user base grew rapidly between 2010 and 2013, and eventually rivalled that of Ubuntu, the former champion.
Lefebvre and his team responded to their new-found prominence with charm and aplomb. They took the new version of GNOME on board and ‘tamed’ it by adding their own interfaces – first MATE (pronounced Matt-ay, as in Maté tea), then the more exotic Cinnamon, both of which remain available as choices for users. For real traditionalists they have developed a Mint version using the older, simpler XFCE GUI. Despite their relatively small team, they have proved adept at anticipating and meeting users’ needs. It will take a very strong opponent distro to knock Mint off the pedestal that it has come to occupy, and there are no signs of that happening soon.
The choice of a distro is a very personal thing. You may try Mint and find that you don’t like any of its varieties for some reason. Or you may use it quite happily for a while and then feel in need of a change. That’s fine: there are plenty of other distros available. There’s no need to rush back to Microsoft Windows or the Apple Mac just because one version of Linux is not to your taste.
Without leaving the Mint ‘family’ there are still Ubuntu and Debian to try, in both KDE and GNOME versions. Further afield, there is the popular Fedora distro, produced by Red Hat, the first Linux company to achieve an annual turnover of $US1 billion. Mageia is the latest incarnation of a line of distros going back to Mandriva and the very earliest days of Linux. OpenSUSE is a very disciplined distro backed by Novell. And there are literally hundreds of specialised distros for every purpose and topic under the sun. Most of what I have to say about Linux Mint applies to other Linux distros as well.
For an unbiased overview of what’s currently popular in Linux distros, check out DistroWatch: distrowatch.com.