1983: Richard M Stallman announces GNU Operating system
Richard M Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, announced the GNU project to create a UNIX-compatible, free and open source operating system. The GNU project created many core components (such as GCC) of the modern open source operating systems.
1991: Linus Torvalds announces Linux
On August 25, 1991 Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds announced a new kernel he was working on. Torvalds wrote in an email that his project was just a hobby, and would not be big and professional like GNU. The combination of GNU and Linux created one of the most popular operating systems in the history of computing.
1991: First Linux distribution appears
MCC Interim Linux can be considered the first Linux distribution. It was developed by Owen Le Blanc of the Manchester Computing Centre (MCC). He made the distribution available through an FTP server in November 1991.
1992: Linux kernel moves to GNU GPL v2
Linux was initially released under a non-GPL copyright that restricted commercial distribution of the project. With version 0.12 in January 1992, Linus changed the licence to GNU GPL v2, allowing the commercialization of Linux.
1992: Softlanding Linux System, first complete Linux distribution
Softlanding Linux System (SLS) was one of the first complete Linux distributions. It offered Linux (the kernel), GNU (the operating system) and X Window System. It was created by Canadian developer Peter MacDonald in 1992.
1992: Linux goes Live!
Linux users are familiar with the concept of live CD where they can run the entire OS from the CD, DVD or USB without installing anything. Yggdrasil Linux was the first live CD Linux distribution created by Yggdrasil Computing, Incorporated. The company called it a ‘Plug & Play’ distribution. Linus Torvalds uses Fedora as his distribution.
1993: Slackware pops up
The journey of ‘modern’ Linux distributions started with the arrival of Slackware. The first release of Slackware was announced in 1993 and it is still one of the most popular distributions among seasoned Linux users. Slackware was used by both Red Hat and SuSE in their initial days.
1993: Ian Murdock announces Debian
Debian is the mother of many popular Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, Linux Mint and Steam OS. Debian is known for its stability, and as a result it is one of the most popular server operating systems. Debian releases are named after characters from the Toy Story movie.
1996: Linux desktop becomes ‘kool’
KDE was founded by German developer Matthias Ettrich, in 1996. KDE can be credited for being the first desktop environment that focused on consistency across applications in Linux distributions. KDE later rebranded itself as a community and Plasma become their desktop environment. Initially KDE stood for Kool Desktop Environment and most KDE apps have K in their names, such as Kontact, Kmail…
1996: Bringing UNIX desktop to Linux with Xfce
Xfce was started by Olivier Fourdan as the Linux version of CDE (Common Desktop Environment). CDE is the desktop environment for UNIX and OpenVMS. Xfce stands for XForms Common Environment, where X comes from XForms toolkit that was used in the initial days. Xfce is still around and is known for its resource efficiency.
1997: Gnome emerges as a KDE alternative
The Gnome project was started by Miguel de Icaza and Federico Mena in 1997 as an alternative to KDE. One of the biggest problems with KDE was that it relied on Qt Toolkit that was released under a proprietary licence. The Gnome project created a fully open source GTK+ toolkit for Gnome desktop environment. Today KDE Plasma and Gnome are two leading desktop environments. Linus Torvalds uses Gnome desktop.
2000: Knoppix makes Linux go live
Knoppix was created by Austrian software developer Klaus Knopper in 2000. Knoppix popularized the concept of live Linux distributions where the entire system runs off a CD/DVD or USB drive without having to install anything. Knoppix comes with a massive collection of software that makes it an ideal distro for rescuing broken systems.
2002: Gentoo: a cult was born
Gentoo has a cult following. Initially created as Enoch Linux distribution by Daniel Robbins, Gentoo focused on compiling packages optimized for hardware. One of the greatest contributions of Gentoo is Portage, a package management system which is now being used by Google’s Chrome OS, CoreOS and Sabayon Linux.
2002: Arch Linux: another cult of the Linux world
Arch Linux enjoys the same cult-like following as Gentoo does. Installing and getting started with Arch Linux does require some basic understanding of Linux. Just like Gentoo, you can tune it to your needs. However, unlike Gentoo, Arch does offer many binary packages through stable, testing and unstable repositories.
2003: Fedora: the bleeding edge Linux distribution
Fedora Linux was initially started in 2002 by Warren Togami to provide a 3rd party repository to Red Hat Software. In 2003, Red Hat discontinued Red Hat Linux and created Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) for enterprise customers. The company created a community distribution and named it Fedora, after the Fedora Linux project. Today Fedora is one of the most bleeding edge distributions that is also the upstream for RHEL.
2003: Android brings Linux to the masses
Android was initially founded by Andy Rubin in 2003. In 2005 Google acquired Android and created Open Handset Alliance to bring Android to devices. The first release of Android was announced in 2008. Android established Linux as a dominant played in the mobile space. Google releases the source code of Android under its Android Open Source Project (ASOP).
2004: CentOS emerged to challenge Debian on servers
CentOS is a server distribution that’s compiled from the source code of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Due to its vicinity with RHEL, CentOS is extremely popular on servers and is seen as a .rpm competitor of Debian. In 2014 Red Hat made a smart move and acquired CentOS, taking control of the free server market. Post acquisition, CentOS continued to be developed as an independent OS, sponsored by Red Hat.
2004: Debian’s prodigal son Ubuntu was born
In 2004, Mark Shuttleworth founded Ubuntu, a Debian based open source Linux distribution. Ubuntu focused on ease of use and targeted Windows users. Initially Ubuntu used Gnome as the default desktop environment but then switched to in-house Unity around 2011. Today Ubuntu is the most popular Linux based distribution.
2005 : SUSE embraced community with openSUSE
The first version of openSUSE (formerly SUSE Linux) was released in 2005. In 2006, with the release of version 10.2, SUSE Linux was renamed to openSUSE. The distribution is now being developed by the openSUSE Project that’s sponsored by SUSE. There are two versions of openSUSE: a rolling release distribution called Tumbleweed and a stable version called Leap.
2006: Ubuntu finds its cousin in Linux Mint
Linux Mint is an Ubuntu based distribution, which is also available in Debian flavor. Linux Mint rose to popularity after the arrival of Gnome 3 Shell and Ubuntu Unity as many users preferred the old interface. The Linux Mint team invested resources in their developing its desktop environment called Cinnamon. Today Linux Mint is one of the most popular distributions on PCs.
2009: ChromeOS bring Linux to consumer PCs
Chrome OS is Google’s Linux-based operating system for laptops and PCs. Chrome OS is not available for download and comes pre-installed on hardware. ChromeOS is based on Chromium OS which is available as source code which can be compiled to run on PCs. Chrome OS is seen as a true competitor of Windows and macOS in the consumer space.
2010: Linux get a new init system with Systemd
Systemd was initially developed by Lennart Poettering, a German programmer, to improve the efficiency of Linux systems. Today systemd is the default init system for major Linux distributions including Debian, RHEL, SLES, Ubuntu, Arch Linux, CoreOS…and more.
2010: Canonical creates Unity
Canonical developed Unity in response to Gnome 3 Shell as there was some dispute over the features Canonical wanted in Gnome. Unity is the default shell of Ubuntu on top of Gnome. Canonical is developing Unity to run across devices including smartphones, tablets, smart TVs and desktops.
2013: Core OS brings automated updates
Core OS is a lightweight Linux based distribution aimed at clustered deployments. Core OS offers a Chrome OS-like update mechanism, which offers much more security than the traditional model.
2013: Steam OS
Steam OS is a Debian based distribution developed by Valve Corporation to run on game consoles, called Steam Machine. Torvalds once saw Steam OS as a game changer for Linux’s popularity in the consumer space. Steam OS has yet to make a serious impact in the gaming industry as Microsoft and Sony are entering the VR world.
2016: Snappy and Flatpak
With the growing popularity of Docker containers, the need for secure, sandboxed, distro agnostic apps for Linux is growing. While Canonical is working on Snap, the Fedora community is working on Flatpack to offer distro agnostic package formats.