A typical desktop Linux distribution consists of various software components including the Linux kernel, a broad collection of programming tools produced by the GNU Project, a graphical server, and other free and open source software.
Due to Linux’s open source nature, there are many hundreds of actively maintained distributions or ‘distros’ of the OS. Linux distros are like Linux software in general. They come and (some) go.
Back in 2006, Distrowatch ranked the following distributions in terms of page hit ranking1. The top ranked distro was Ubuntu. The other places were taken by openSUSE, Fedora, MEPIS, Mandriva, Damn Small, Debian, PCLinuxOS, Slackware, Gentoo, KNOPPIX, FreeBSD, Kubuntu, VectorLinux, and CentOS.
It’s interesting to see how these distributions fared over the past 14 years. Are they still going strong, are they outclassed by other distributions, or are they only remembered like fingerprints on an abandoned handrail?
Distributions still placed in top 15 in 2020
Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, openSUSE are the only distributions that remain in the top 15. They were hugely popular in 2006, and remain so in 2020.
Ubuntu first burst into the Linux scene in October 2004 and is updated every six months. Ubuntu is perhaps the most heard-of Linux distro, and probably still the best. It is Debian-based and appears to outdo all its competitors because of its easy installation and excellent hardware support.
Debian is the most venerable among the 4, launching in September 1993, at a time when Microsoft was selling Windows 3.1.
Fedora and openSUSE are also hugely respected distros, backed by large and knowledgeable communities, and sponsored by RedHat Inc. and SUSE Software Solutions Germany GmbH respectively.
Active distributions that aren’t placed in top 15 in 2020
Nowadays, CentOS flirts around the top 15, but for the past 12 months has just been edged out.
CentOS provides a free, community-supported computing platform functionally compatible with its upstream source, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). CentOS is an extremely capable distribution popular among hosting companies, data centers, and businesses.
PCLinuxOS is a rolling release distro that’s still actively maintained and offers a distinct and somewhat unusual approach. PCLinuxOS was originally forked from Mandriva.
Like Debian, Slackware is a longstanding distribution created in 1993, and the basis for other distros. While its latest release was back in June 2016, work continues on this distro with daily updates to the current pre-release. It remains the longest active Linux distro.
Gentoo is another respected volunteer-driven distro that’s going strong although it doesn’t receive much press coverage.
KNOPPIX is designed to run from a Live CD/DVD or USB flash drive. It can be used as a productive Linux system for the desktop, educational CD, rescue system, or adapted and used as a platform for commercial software product demos.
FreeBSD is, of course, not a Linux distro. While it shares similarities with Linux, it’s an open-source BSD operating system, and the most popular of the BSD systems.
Kubuntu is an official flavour of the Ubuntu operating system. Like Ubuntu, it has a biannual release cycle offering a current version of the KDE desktop at each release.
Distributions that are no longer around
Mandriva used to be one of our favorite distributions. Sadly this French distribution saw its last release in 2011. But the project lived on in a way. Mageia is a fork of Mandriva Linux formed in September 2010 by former employees and contributors. It’s not nearly as popular today as Mandriva was in 2006 though.
MEPIS was a set of Debian/Ubuntu-based Linux distros designed for both personal and business purposes designed to be simple to use. MEPIS saw its last release in 2013.
Damn Small Linux was designed to run graphical software in older PC hardware. This was a mini-distro that could fit in a 50MB live CD. It saw its last (preview) release in 2012.
VectorLinux is effectively dead. It hasn’t seen a new release since 2017.
Other Distributions that are placed in top 15 in 2020
Many distributions have entered the top 15, with the top spots taken by MX Linux (Debian-based), Manjaro (Arch-based) and Mint (Ubuntu-based).
The other distros are elementary (Ubuntu-based), Pop! OS (Ubuntu-based), Solus (independently developed), Zorin (Ubuntu-based), deepin (Debian-based), KDE neon (Ubuntu-based), antiX (Debian-based), and Arch (independently developed).
1 It’s important to remember that the page hit ranking has never been an indicator of the popularity of a specific distribution. For a start, it’s easy for malicious users to manipulate Distrowatch’s page hit ranking. Just as important it cannot possibly reflect the usage of any distribution for many reasons.
All the articles in this series:
|Now and Then - See How Promising Open Source Software Has Fared|
|Programming Languages||Go, Rust, Dart, Julia, Clojure, Elixir and more|
|File Managers||SpaceFM, gentoo, Marlin, Eagle Mode, and Beesoft Commander|
|Distributions||The fate of 15 distributions|
|Lean Desktop Environments||Xfce, ROX Desktop, LXDE, FVWM-Crystal, EDE, and Étoilé|
|IDEs||Brackets, Light Table, Julia Studio, Dart Editor, and Aptana Studio|
|Music Players||qomp, Lollypop, Yarock, Pragha, and Volumio|
|Web Browsers||eww, Liri, Vivaldi, Ubuntu Internet Browser, Fifth, Dooscape, and Breach|
|Terminal Emulators||Terminology, Cool-Retro-Term, and Final Term|