Founded in Germany in 1996, today SUSE Linux Enterprise is one of the top two commercial distributions, fighting Red Hat Enterprise Linux for predominance. openSUSE is its community version. Traditionally, SUSE had the reputation of being most popular in Europe, although it also has a large North American following.
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If a single feature defines both versions of SUSE, that feature is YaST2, its centralized distribution tool that resembles the KDE Control Center on steroids. In fact, in openSUSE's version of KDE, YaST2 replaces the Control Center. Besides its comprehensive collection of configuration tools, one of the most useful features of YaST is that it is available in both graphical and text-based versions. That means that users who log in to their systems in single-user mode to repair their system can use the same tool set as when they are running the X Window System.
While still prominent, SUSE has fallen under some criticism lately. Many long-time users have never forgiven Novell's purchase of the distribution, nor the change from KDE to GNOME as the default desktop. Such users tend to regard openSUSE as the natural successor to early versions of the distributions.
Even more seriously, Novell's development and distribution deal with Microsoft in November 2006 has resulted in efforts to boycott the distribution. This deal caused two major clauses to be added to the third version of the GNU General Public License, and provoked many calls to punish Novell by making it unable to use the license in some way. Novell also lost prominent employees such as Jeremy Allison, leader of the Samba project, because of the deal. This hostility may also have hampered the growth of openSUSE into a strong community.
However, what the long-term effect will be on either SUSE Linux Enterprise or openSUSE is still unknown. It may be that, with Novell's strong support and certification programs, that the company will manage to weather the controversy, especially if it makes some effort at reconciliation with the free software community.
Based on Debian, Ubuntu has confounded those who believed there was no longer room for a major new distro by becoming the most widely known and used distro in less than four years.
This rapid growth is due in large part to the energy and investment of Mark Shuttleworth, the South African multi-millionaire who was also one of the first space tourists. Self-appointed dictator of Ubuntu, Shuttleworth also heads Canonical, the commercial arm of Ubuntu.
However, credit must also go to Ubuntu's success in learning from the real and perceived problems of Debian. Not only is the basic Ubuntu desktop more organized than Debian's, but the Ubuntu community, with its code of conduct to enforce civility, is generally a much less intimidating place than Debian's -- so much so that Debian has suffered a number of defections of prominent developers to Ubuntu. In addition, Ubuntu's six month release cycle is much shorter than the periods between official Debian releases.
Another notable feature of Ubuntu is its encouragement of sub-communities. Although the basic Ubuntu distribution uses the GNOME desktop, Kubuntu uses the KDE desktop, and Xubuntu the Xfce desktop. Other variations are Edubuntu, which features educational tools, and the upcoming Gobuntu, which uses only free software.
Until recently, Ubuntu has faced little criticism. However, in the last year, some free software users have complained about the use of non-free drivers in one or two releases, while others have voiced concerns about the increasing move towards commercialization of the distribution. As well, after a promising start, Ubuntu's rate of innovation seems to be slowing in recent releases. Yet, overall, Ubuntu remains a widely used distribution. In the last year, it has even become the source of its own spinoff distributions, including Linspire, and, for one release, MEPIS.
This list could easily continue, with mention of such distros as Damn Small Linux, Frugalware, K12LTSP, Knoppix, and others. Each of these distributions has its own claim for being influential, but, beyond the seven detailed, agreement about which ones ought to be included would be less unanimous.
However, if you wanted a summary of GNU/Linux's to this point, then the development of these seven distributions would be a better starting point than most. Only some of the earliest history concerning such extinct distros such as Yggdrasil, would be missing.
As for the future -- who can say? Already, several of these seven are important less for themselves than for the traditions they have started. And, just in case anyone starts thinking that the selection of distributions is becoming settled, remember that nobody predicted the rise of Ubuntu. Admittedly, Ubuntu had several advantages from the start, but, given the unpredictability of free software, perhaps a new distribution with an influential new philosophy and toolbox is being readied as you read.