Top 10 Distribution Developments in 2010

Yes, it's that time of year. Eggnog, fruitcake, tangled lights, crowded stores, bad weather — and the annual industry retrospectives. You can't argue with tradition, though, and 2010 was a very interesting year for Linux and open source. Let's take a look back at 2010 and see whether it was naughty or nice.

5. Mandriva Forks: Mageia Born

Mandriva, formerly MandrakeSoft, just hasn’t caught a break as a business. The company has been to bankruptcy and back, and still hasn’t quite been able to pull in enough cash to keep the lights on and fully staffed.

It’s not for lack of a loving community — Mandriva’s community had some die-hard fans that stuck by the distro through thin and thinner. (Let’s face it — it’s never really gotten to “thick,” for the Mandriva business.) But the development layoffs this year were too much, and the community finally decided to say “fork it.”

As of December, the Mageia fork and community have been under construction. So far, there’s no distro to try out and see whether they’ve been successful — but I have high hopes. Mandriva is still trying to keep moving as well, but I don’t have much confidence for the company at this point. As a home user, I wouldn’t bank on a company that’s given most of its developers walking papers. For business use? No way. Other vendors are as good or better for enterprise and business use, and don’t have cash flow problems that raise doubts about whether they’ll be able to provide updates in six months.

4. Rawhide Splits

Fedora is often at the leading edge of distribution development. Consider the decision earlier this year to split Rawhide and development distributions so that development can continue on Rawhide while stabilizing upcoming Fedora releases.

In the past, development would go on in Rawhide for a while, then freeze as release time approached for a major Fedora release like Fedora 11 or Fedora 12. While the freeze was on, Rawhide development came to a halt. Not good for a fast-paced project like Fedora.

What this means is that more bleeding edge goodness will come out of Rawhide while the Fedora folks concentrate on major releases. That’s good for the entire ecosystem, since so much of what makes Linux good in every distro happens to come out of Fedora.

3. ChromeOS Unveiled

Through the Chromium Project, it’s been possible to get a peek into what Google is doing for its ChromeOS — but not the full picture. Google finally gave everybody a sneak preview at the beginning of December — exactly a year after announcing ChromeOS.

What’s puzzling is what’s taking Google so long. The prediction was that Google would have ChromeOS netbooks out in time for this holiday season — but the only thing available this year are the preview netbooks going out to a lucky few, and nothing to put under the Christmas tree if you’re an ordinary schlub hoping to buy a ChromeOS based netbook.

So far, the ChromeOS netbooks have gotten reasonably positive reviews. Richard Stallman has been predictably pessimistic about the cloud-powered OS. RMS does have a point — ChromeOS doesn’t give the user much control over their data or their operating system. Even Windows users can refuse updates, but ChromeOS is designed to continually update in the background without user intervention or knowledge. In theory, that’s a good way to handle a computing public that still thinks the Internet Explorer icon on Windows is “the Internet,” but represents a major loss of control over personal computers.

The question, of course, is whether anyone outside the Free Software community actually cares about this. I suspect that most users who are excited by the concept of an OS that only runs Web-applications probably won’t care.

Will ChromeOS take off when it finally ships? The lengthy delay coupled with the fear of change is going to relegate ChromeOS to a niche market unless Google conducts a very smart, very massive marketing campaign. What puzzles me is the lack of ties between ChromeOS and Android. It’s almost as if Google’s Android and ChromeOS teams aren’t talking.

2. Wayland Becomes Heir Apparent for X.org

Wayland is in no way, shape, or form ready to replace X.org. But when Mark Shuttleworth endorsed Wayland (after Keith Packard had mentioned it in one of his talks as a possible replacement), it became clear that X may not be here forever. Or it may be here, but running under Wayland.

This is a big shift for the Linux desktop, which has always been dependent on X (either X.org or XFree86 back in the day). If Wayland makes life simpler for users and developers, it could be a very good thing for Linux on the desktop.

1. Ubuntu Chooses Unity

Yeah, no surprise this made the top of the list. I’ve already written about this a bit, but the move does change the landscape a bit when it comes to the Linux desktop.

First, it’s a gamble for Canonical. Ubuntu is without question the most popular Linux desktop by a fairly wide margin. They’re gambling with the top dog spot by shoving a brand new desktop metaphor in the faces of all those users. It’s a big break from what they’re used to — and Unity wasn’t quite ready for prime time on the netbook in the 10.10 release. Gambling that they can have it ready for desktop use in six months’ time? Pretty gutsy. (Or other words ending in -y.)

They’ve also signaled pretty clearly that Canonical intends to go it alone if necessary to break out to a wider audience, and make development decisions that may or may not be agreed to by the bulk of the Ubuntu community. Shuttleworth simply announced that Unity is it for 11.04. It’s not a conclusion that came about via discussions at the Ubuntu Developer’s Summit (UDS) in Orlando — it was announced at the beginning and the rest of the Ubuntu community was left to figure out how to make it happen.

Unity development does seem to be going pretty well, so it might just be in shape for the 11.04 release. It’s still going to be quite a departure from the standard Ubuntu interface, and that may not be entirely welcome. We’ll see — I’m trying to keep an open mind. Even though I’m not entirely thrilled with the way that Canonical has approached the Unity situation, the competition between Unity, GNOME Shell, and distros that are keeping the 2.x user interface alive.

How was 2010 for Linux?

Overall, Linux has had better years. One of the major vendors was up in the air for most of 2010, and a minor vendor is on the ropes. Yet again, Linux didn’t have its “year of the desktop.”

The patent threat remains and may be worse than ever, despite hope that Bilski might resolve some of the stupidity around software patents. Given that Microsoft is picking up a patent portfolio from Novell that’s nearly 900 patents strong, I’m going to guess that 2011 is not going to be any better.

Though Linux failed to break through on the desktop, it has broken through on client computers. You know, phones. Of course, most of the people using Linux-based devices aren’t even aware they’re using Linux — nor are they really deriving many benefits of software freedom. But Android is a small step for openness in a market that has been really, really closed. It could get better in 2011, especially if MeeGo has any success and Nokia and Intel are true to their word about the openness of the platform. (Which is open to question, and I’ll be covering that next column.) Android has also blunted Apple’s dominance of the super-cool smartphone market, and Microsoft is struggling to be relevant at all in that market.

Speaking of Microsoft. Yes, the Redmond giant is still lumbering in the background. But it’s looking a lot less threatening (even with the patents) than it used to. Then again, Oracle is looking a lot more threatening, so we haven’t gained any yardage there. Pardon the mixed metaphors.

Final tally? I give 2010 a C+, just barely. The Linux community has had far better years. Let’s hope we can regroup and have a much better 2011.

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