Gentoo is often said to be not a distribution so much as a philosophy. If so, that philosophy may be that of FreeBSD, from which it originally developed its emphasis on security and optimization. First released in 2002, it quickly gained a reputation as a geek's distro, largely because it required all packages to be compiled for maximum optimization for each system. This process could take days to complete, and could mean many wasted hours if you made a mistake.
Perhaps in response, Gentoo developed one of the comprehensive sets of documentation available in free software. Moreover, Gentoo has evolved over the years. It now features a Live CD and a graphical installer, while retaining a high degree of customization. In addition, probably only Debian supports a greater number of hardware architectures.
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Since the departure of Daniel Robbins in 2004 to work at Microsoft, Gentoo seems to have lost direction. Robbins's recent blog suggesting that the governance of the distribution was in such disarray that control of it might as well pass to him, while not altogether serious, serves only to emphasize the lack of organization and direction in the distribution. Yet, while Gentoo itself may have lost much of its prominence, it remains the source of several other distributions, such as Sabayon and Ututo.
Originally known as Mandrake, Mandriva was founded in 1998 and was originally based on Red Hat. Its current name combines elements of Mandrake with Conectiva, a Brazilian distro it acquired in 2005.
Early in its history, Mandriva developed a strong reputation for its emphasis on desktop usability. Its innovations included urpmi, one of the first RPM-based package systems to resolve dependencies, as well as DrakConf (AKA the Mandriva Control Center), one of the most thorough collection of graphical administration tools available for GNU/Linux. Its installation program is reasonably comprehensive while still being user-friendly.
In recent years, Mandriva has struggled to overcome what appears to be an over-expansion, bankruptcy, and a copyright struggle with the Hearst Corporation, which owns the rights to the Mandrake the Magician comic. Even worse, the firing of founder Gael Duval created a controversy in the free software community in 2006. Nor have users warmed to the Mandriva Club, which seems to have degenerated into no more than a way to support the distribution, rather than the nucleus of a community that it was evidently intended as.
Despite these setbacks, Mandriva remains one of the top three commercial distributions, and recent years have seen it starting to recover some of its reputation.
Founded by Patrick Volkerding in 1993, Slackware beats out Debian for the title of the oldest still-active distribution by a matter of weeks. It has a long, well-deserved philosophy as a stone geek's distribution.
This reputation is based on its use of a command-line installer and utilities and an avoidance of anything that could be considered bloated software -- including GNOME and OpenOffice.org. Instead of providing graphical interfaces, Slackware requires direct editing of GNU/Linux's text-based configuration files. And, instead of providing a package system, Slackware continues to rely on compressed tar files, with no mechanism for resolving dependencies.
The trade off for these demands is a fast-running system that rivals or exceeds Debian stable for its reliability. Moreover, much of what a desktop user would see as deficiencies are provided by unofficial projects surrounding software.
Slackware is impressive to see in operation, yet it will never be a popular distribution. However, it remains the basis for countless other distributions, including SLAX, NimbleX, and VectorLinux. Most of these distributions try to add some user-friendliness to Slackware without losing its stability and speed.Next page: the end of the list; plus some thoughts about the future of distros