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Distro watch for Ubuntu lovers: What's ahead in Linux land

Elementary OS, my dear penguin?

Boy with binoculars photo via Shutterstock

With the death of Unity, Canonical will focus more attention on Ubuntu servers, Ubuntu in the cloud and Ubuntu in the so-called Internet of Things.

Even if you give Canonical the benefit of the doubt - that it will continue working on desktop Ubuntu - at the very least, desktop Ubuntu's future looks uncertain.

Post Unity, how will the transition to GNOME work? Will existing Unity users be "upgraded" to GNOME with 17.10? Canonical is reportedly plotting out solutions to much of this uncertainty right now, but for users, the uncertainty rules the day.

As I've already argued, Canonical appears to be following in the footsteps of Red Hat and SUSE Linux. In 2003, Red Hat dropped its desktop, then called Red Hat Linux, and started up Red Hat Enterprise Linux, eventually becoming the enterprise-focused company it is today. Something similar happened to SUSE, though the process was different. Novell bought SUSE in 2003 and immediately rebranded it SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.

I believe Canonical will follow in the footsteps of Red Hat and SuSE. But there's an upside: out of Red Hat came Fedora and out SuSE came openSUSE. In the end, for Linux distros, community matters. Enterprise customers may pay the bills but without community Linux distros seem to fade away into the ether.

In light of that, it's worth taking a look at where the various distros are, what their plans for the future are and why you might prefer them over Ubuntu.

Debian Linux

The distro that launched a thousand ships rarely gets the credit it deserves. Without Debian there would be no Ubuntu, no Linux Mint and no elementary OS, to name just a few of the currently popular distros downstream from Debian.

Debian has a reputation for being a very conservative distro and that's true for the stable release, which often goes several years without a significant update, but it's not true for the testing and "sid" releases which feature frequent updates and more or less rolling releases. Eventually at some point in the development process testing stabilizes, gets frozen and becomes a new stable release.

That moment is coming up very soon. Though Debian maintains a strict "when it's ready" release policy with no dates involved, Debian 9 is imminent. Once Debian 9 is out the door testing will turn back into the wild west of development as the future of Debian takes shape.

Aside from the release of Debian 9 the future of Debian looks, well, like the future of Red Hat. There are just too many technologies originating at Red Hat to really allow for Debian to forge its own path. Whatever else you may think of systemd, there's no question that it is a many tentacled beast and once it is in your distro your distro is, on some level at least, beholden to Red Hat.

In terms of personnel Debian has had a tumultuous few years, some of the conflict revolving around the aforementioned systemd, some unrelated. There were several high profile developer departures explicitly related to systemd and others that, while not about systemd itself, were about the decision-making processes it brought to light. Then Debian founder Ian Murdock - the “ian in Debian” - committed suicide amidst very strange circumstances.

Through all of the turmoil the Debian project has largely soldiered on unaffected, at least unaffected from an end user's point of view. That Debian continues to function is a testament to the community - however imperfect and flawed it may be. If you're looking for a distro that's unlikely to change anything too fast, won't disappear at the first sign of trouble and provides a reliable Linux experience, Debian delivers.

Fedora

Fedora today is effectively what Red Hat Linux was in 2003 - a community based distro. That its real purpose is a testing ground to discover what works and what doesn't before it ends up in RHEL doesn't make it any less reliable than any other distro.

Like Debian, Fedora has been through some significant changes lately. A few years ago the Fedora project had become a massive sprawling beast that seemed to be losing its way. To help organize things and refocus Fedora launched its Fedora Next initiative, which divided Fedora releases into three categories. Today Fedora offers builds tailored for Workstation (desktops), Server and Atomic.

Atomic was previously known as Fedora Cloud, but Cloud was sidelined in favor of Atomic. As the name suggests Fedora Atomic is built around Fedora's Atomic project and is tailored for those running container-based server systems.

Fedora has been a great showcase for the development of GNOME Shell (a fair number of GNOME devs are Red Hat employees) and was one of the first major distros to deliver Wayland as the default (which happened in Fedora 25, released at the end of 2016).

If you want a distro that's stable, but still a little more cutting edge than Debian, Fedora makes a good choice. Fedora devs have also been well ahead of the curve on some somewhat esoteric, but welcome, Linux improvements that then percolate out to other distros, for example color management and early support for the latest versions of unicode.

Fedora is also a good choice for anyone who works with RHEL or CentOS servers a lot since the underpinnings and command line tools like yum/dnf are the same in both.

Fedora's future looks to be more of the same, with development split across the Fedora Next releases. Fedora 26 should be released in early summer, currently it's slated arrive June 27.

Linux Mint

Linux Mint began life as a distro based around KDE, though it soon ditched KDE, picked up Ubuntu as a base and soon thereafter began using its own desktops - Cinnamon and MATE - atop the latest version of Ubuntu. This changed slightly in 2014 with the release of Mint 17, which was based on Ubuntu's 14.04 LTS release. Instead of tracking Ubuntu's latest release, Mint continued to use 14.04 as a base until 16.04 was released. So Mint 17.1, 17.2 and 17.3 all shared the same Ubuntu 14.04 LTS core and Mint 18.1, 18.2 and eventually 18.3 will all be based off Ubuntu 16.04 LTS.

The Linux Mint project was founded by, and is still essentially driven by, Clement Lefebvre, though there is a large community of developers working on Mint as well.

It used to be that Mint was a bit like Ubuntu with all the proprietary software pre-installed - things like plug-ins and codecs that handle Adobe Flash, MP3, and DVD playback. That's no longer the case, Mint stopped shipping those tools by default, though like most distros they're easy to install.

These days, most of Mint's efforts revolve around the Cinnamon and MATE desktops, both of which use a GNOME 2.x-inspired GUI and share quite a few components. Of the two Cinnamon is the flashier and MATE is the less resource intensive, making it a good choice for older machines with less capable hardware.

Why choose Mint? Mint experienced a huge surge in popularity back when Ubuntu revealed Unity and GNOME announced GNOME 3. Mint developers didn't make massive changes to their desktops and they show no signs of doing so in the future. If you liked GNOME 2/Windows XP, you'll love Cinnamon and MATE. Those are of course desktops, not distros, but the developers are the same and one big reason for choosing Mint is the developers.

Mint developers regularly solicit feedback from users, develop new features at an impressive pace and, perhaps most impressively, answer nearly every question on every blog post. They're also perhaps unique in the world of Linux as they really haven't forced any features into to Linux Mint that the community doesn't want. Unless you count systemd or any upstream changes coming from Ubuntu since the Mint developers don't have much say in those changes. There is a version of Linux Mint based off Debian stable, Linux Mint Debian Edition, though it tends to get far less attention than Linux Mint.

Linux Mint makes a good choice for those who'd like a distro that isn't constantly trying to change the desktop computing paradigm, but don't want to use abandonware. Mint is actively developed and both of its homegrown desktops are excellent.

ElementaryOS

The new kid on the block, elementary OS has put a wonderful skin on Ubuntu. In fact that's all it used to be, a theme for Ubuntu/GNOME. But as both and Ubuntu and GNOME moved in other directions, elementary OS became a distro in its own right, developing its own desktop and set of applications to go with it.

The overall look and feel of elementary OS's Pantheon desktop environment is heavily inspired by Apple's OS X. The similarity isn't just skin-deep either, Pantheon embraces quite a few of OS X's implied philosophies as well. Among the core rules that elementary OS's developers abide by are to "avoid configuration" and design in such a way that "minimal documentation" is needed.

The result is a very newcomer-friendly desktop that's easy to get up and running.

Elementary OS has taken some flack for its download page, which requires you to add some amount of money (including $0) before the download button will work. The way it's designed it's not clear that you can in fact enter $0 and download it, which feels deceptive, especially coming from a distro that's so heavily staffed with designers. There's nothing wrong with asking for some money to support your distro, Linux Mint in fact does the same, but the way elementary OS does it strikes me as deliberately deceptive.

Still, if it doesn't bother you and you're looking for a desktop that looks great with almost no need to configure things elementary OS makes a great choice.

Arch Linux

If you're ready to learn more about how Linux works behind the scenes, how the various bits of software fit together and want access to the latest and greatest the minute it's ready, Arch Linux is worth a look. It has a reputation for being difficult to install, but it's really not that hard. It does, however, require you to install via the command line and most things you'll ever want to do to your Arch system will be via a text-based interface.

If all that sounds intimidating, well, it's considerably less so thanks to the Arch community and the Arch wiki, which is one of the best sources of Linux information on the web.

Two tips for running Arch: first, do not try to test it in a virtual machine. I've been running Arch for a couple years now and know my way around it pretty well and I still can't ever get it working right in Virtualbox. Second, do not go too long between complete updates. The only problems I've had with Arch and updates have been when I went a month or more without running

Pacman -Syu

to update my system.

Arch is perhaps the most community-driven distro, but it has some very different design philosophies to other distros. Arch tries to ship software exactly as released by the upstream developers with minimal distribution-specific changes; in the Arch packages that have patches they're usually just backported bug fixes. Arch also assumes you will manage your system yourself and generally does not configure anything for you. For example just because you installed something does not mean that Arch automatically added it to

systemd

, that's on you.

What you get with this philosophy is a distro that has a very savvy user base and can roll out changes very quickly (because there are very few things to change, the package is simply tested, added to the repos and pushed to users). The future of Arch Linux looks just like the present, which is one of the nice things about a rolling distro.

There are of course other distros out there as well, ranging from the more difficult like Slackware to old-time favourites like Puppy Linux (yes, it still exists).

If you want a real change you could always leave the Linux fold and give FreeBSD a try. In fact this is one of the best things about being a Linux user, there's an embarrassment of riches out there to explore. ®

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