The State of Linux Distros

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 11, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

In the middle of a discussion about whether the number of Linux distributions was declining, I suddenly realized that I didn't need to rely on my own power of observations. For years, Distrowatch has been summarizing the characteristics of distros and making the results available in an easily searchable database. The point of the site is to help users choose a distribution, but the information works just as well as a description of the current state of distributions -- not just their actual numbers, but also such facts as their purposes, the desktops they include, and the distributions they are based on.

Of course, this information is only as good as the categories Distrowatch provides. In addition, although the page views is often taken as a sign of relative popularity, at best this statistic only indicates which distributions are interesting to users who are experienced enough to check Distrowatch. Which distros new users are being drawn to is entirely unrecorded.

Still, within these limitations, the results of Distrowatch searches are the closest we have to a snapshot of the current trends in distributions.

Looking at the numbers
First, to answer the question about the number of distributions: Distrowatch lists 301 active distributions. By contrast, I remember once in 2006 finding 386 active distributions -- a point I remember because I had to explain to my editor that I wasn't talking about distributions for the 386 chip. That would indicate an average loss of about twelve distros a year in the last seven years. However, don't take my word for it -- the fact that 52 distributions are listed as dormant and 401 as discontinued suggests that about 60% of all the distributions ever developed are now inactive. Overall, the number of distros actually is declining, although at a rate that still leaves plenty of choices for the foreseeable future.

Of the active distributions, 66 are developed in the United States -- a number that no other single country comes close to. However, Europe is also an active center for distribution-building, with 12 being developed in the United Kingdom, 5 in Ireland, 18 in Germany, and 21 in France. Somewhat surprisingly, Asia is much less active, with 9 being developed in Japan, 7 in China and 5 in India. For its population, South America is surprisingly active, with 4 Argentine distributions and 6 Brazilians ones, numbers that no doubt reflect the efforts to use free software to build infrastructure.

The audiences and purposes of active distros tends to be focused on a variety of technologies, with security listed as the purpose of 10, forensics of 8, and telephony of 8. 8 are listed as being based on source code rather than packages, and 6 as free software only. 10 are oriented towards multi-media. But the most common audience listed is beginners, who have 21 distributions devoted to them, and education, which has 18.

When I first started using free software in 1999, .rpm distributions predominated slightly, with .deb distributions slightly behind. However, today, the .deb distributions are overwhelmingly ahead. Specifically, 144 distributions are based on Debian and 78 on Ubuntu, a total that represents over 70% of active distros, compared to the 17% compiled by combining the 27 based on Fedora, the 13 on Red Hat, and the 7 on CentOS. Outriders include the 9 based on Gentoo and the 14 based on Slackware. In the niche markets, Puppy is the source of 6 other distributions.
A few active distributions still use window managers like IceWM or Openbox, but GNOME is the most widely used desktop environment, with KDE second at 97. Xfce  and LXDE are surprisingly strong, with 71 and 59 respectively. Linux Mint's desktops, which are only eighteen months old, are just starting to be used elsewhere, Mate being used in 18 distributions, and Cinnamon in 9. With 11, Unity continues to be a primarily used in Ubuntu, being easily eclipsed by Enlightenment's tally of 16, despite Enlightenment's long gap between releases.

Page Hit Popularity
Over the last decade, the top ten distributions have remained remarkably similar. Ubuntu appears at the top suddenly in 2005, and Linux Mint and PCLinuxOS in 2008, but otherwise the top ten has changed little. Debian and Fedora have done little except to ascend or descend a couple of positions, and, once you take into account the change of names, the same is true for Mandriva and Mageia and SuSE and openSUSE.

What has changed in the last decade is that Slackware, which ranked seventh in 2002 has slipped from the top ten entirely in 2013. Similarly, while the top ten usually includes a distribution with a small foot print, since 2008, that distribution has changed from Damn Small Linux to Puppy. In addition, since 2010, Arch has consistently ranked ninth or tenth.

General trends
What strikes me most about these statistics is that, while the number of distributions remains in the hundreds, the appearance of choice is partly an illusion.

For one thing, the distributions that interest people the most has remained mostly unchanged in the last decade, apart from the tendency for more advanced distributions like Gentoo and Slackware to decline in popularity. Ubuntu had the financial backing to break in near the top of the page view list and stay there, but only Linux Mint and PCLinuxOS have managed to duplicate its success.

For another thing, distributions remain more common in industrialized than developing countries. The majority are .deb based, and, despite the choices for desktop environment that have emerged in the last few years, GNOME, KDE, and Xfce continue to be the most widely used. Among newcomers, LXDE has come anywhere close to rivaling the Big Three in availability.

All distributions do not have equal influence, so these numbers do not tell the whole story. Obviously, which desktops are carried by Fedora or Ubuntu is likely to have more affect than the choices made by a distribution developed by two or three people. But the choices made by distributions is an indicator of what experienced users are thinking -- and these choices do fall into regular patterns that are not always what subjective impressions would lead observers to expect.

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