Linux has been around for 30 years, beginning back in 1991. Yes, it’s that old, and it did make history. If you are interested in the history of some of the major Linux distros, here it is in a nutshell – the history of various Linux distros, like Ubuntu, Fedora, REHL, Linux Mint, Slackware, etc. Finally learn more about why they were created and what makes each different.
Note: As there are plenty of distros out there, we are only focusing on a few major distros.
History of Linux Itself
I think it makes sense to have a quick look at the history of Linux itself before we go on with the distros. It all started in 1991 when a computer science student from Helsinki, named Linus Torvalds, created an operating system kernel, as he says, “just for fun.” Initially, Linus called it “Freax” (from “free” and “x” to signify it belongs to the UNIX family), but later it was changed to “Linux.”
The first release was just a kernel. A shell, compiler, libraries, etc. were needed in order to have a working system. These came from other GNU software. A year later, in 1992, the first Linux distributions were created.
Launched in 1992 by Patrick Volkerding, Slackware is the oldest surviving Linux distro, and until the mid 1990s, it had about an 80 percent share of the market. Things changed when Red Hat Linux came on the scene, and today Slackware is nowhere near its past popularity. The reason isn’t that it’s bad – on the contrary, it’s still a top Linux distro, but since Slackware is meant to be highly customizable and robust rather than user friendly, this affected its popularity.
If you want to learn the internals of Linux, this is the distro! Slackware uses the pkgtools package system; there is no official package repository, and there is a lot of manual configuration involved – but if it is working, it is really working.
openSUSE Linux got its start back in 1992 when Thomas Fehr, Roland Dyroff, Burchard Steinbild, and Hubert Mantel launched the SUSE project. Their company began with selling the German version of Slackware on floppy disks. SUSE Linux didn’t become its own independent version until 1996.
The company was acquired by Novell in 2003 and then Attachmate in 2010. After major licensing changes, the code was finally released publicly. It wasn’t until 2005 that SUSE Linux split into commercial and open source versions. Novell Linux became SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server with openSUSE as the base code.
openSUSE went on to become the free open source version and is no longer a part of Attachmate. It’s available in two versions: Tumbleweed with a rolling release update and Leap, which includes stable releases with years of support.
Debian was one of the first Linux distros. It was first announced on August 16, 1993, by Ian Murdock, though the first stable version was released in 1996. Basically, the idea was to create a stable distro anyone could download and use for free, instead of having users gather apps one by one and compile them on their own. If you want a more detailed Debian history, its maintainers have put together a wonderful document with everything important in Debian history since the beginning.
Debian uses the .deb package system – the dpkg package manager and its front-ends (such as apt-get or synaptic). It comes with a huge repository of apps users can download and install. Debian was also one of the first Linux distros to start offering live CDs, which make the entry barrier for a Linux newbie almost nonexistent.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Fedora
Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a successor of Red Hat Linux, which is one of the oldest Linux distros. The original version was published in 1995 and was replaced by Red Hat Enterprise Linux in 2003. It’s a paid distro, and as you can guess from its name, it’s aimed at business users.
Fedora is the free alternative for home users. It includes many of the features of RHEL, plus some experimental ones that are not yet implemented in RHEL. Both use the .rpm package format, so software from other distros, such as Debian, can’t be run directly. It’s often referred to as the test version for upcoming RHEL distros.
Gentoo Linux was created by Daniel Robbins in 2000, mainly for developers and enterprise users. What sets Gentoo apart is the Portage package management system. It follows the BSD port system, but is actually Python-based. It’s a much more advanced system to make managing networks easier.
Gentoo is typically installed as a bare bones system with pre-compiled additions being added as needed. It’s a highly flexible and customizable distro and often used as a website server. It’s even the base for the Chrome OS platform.
Arch Linux started in 2002 by Judd Vinet, who was inspired by CRUX, another minimalist distribution. It is a rolling release, which means you only need to install once, and it will always update itself to the latest version. This also means it’s more geared toward experienced users who can handle common glitches that come with this update strategy.
Arch Linux’s design philosophy is to be simple. Rather than packing a bunch of apps in the distro, it comes with only minimal and essential apps for it to work, and the user is free to install only the apps they need. The Pacman package manager and AUR infrastructure make this surprisingly easy.
Debian is a very ambitious project with a huge importance for Linux, but it is a heavy distro with lots of apps many users don’t need. There was a need for a more lightweight and user-friendly distro, leading to the introduction of Ubuntu.
The first version of Ubuntu – Ubuntu 4.10 (Warty Warthog) – was released in 2004 by the South African Internet mogul Mark Shuttleworth. In ancient Zulu and Xhosa, “Ubuntu” means “humanity to others.” Ubuntu is based on the latest Debian distro and uses the same .deb package system, though not all Debian packages can be installed on Ubuntu. A new version is released every six months, and a long-term release comes once every two years.
Linux Mint is another relatively new distro in the Debian family. It was started in 2006 by Clément Lefèbvre and is based on Ubuntu. It is intended to be very user-friendly and is especially good for beginners. Linux Mint comes with many apps and multimedia functionality, though in recent distros, the default multimedia/codec support has been removed.
One of the main differentiators of Linux Mint is that it includes proprietary software as well. This is done because its developers want to provide an easy-to-use distro where users don’t have to install all these apps on their own. Similarly to Ubuntu, on Linux Mint you can install additional Debian software if needed.
While it’s impossible to cover the complete history of various Linux distros, these are some of the more notable distros. Check out the early history of Linux distros to learn more about how the earliest distros came about. You can also keep track of the latest distros by visiting DistroWatch.