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What to expect in the world of Linux in the upcoming year.
Every year, around December, people like to come up with their predictions for what they believe will happen in the technology world in the year to come. This is like that, only focused on what I feel are the 10 most interesting distributions of Linux (desktop or mobile) to watch in 2014.
The desktop Linux space is filled with examples of new Linux Distros appearing out of nowhere, as if by magic, and capturing significant market share. A great example is the first release of Ubuntu, back in 2004, which caused a dramatic shift in the entire Linux ecosystem. This is one reason why I think it is worth keeping an eye on elementary OS. This relative newcomer to the scene has already catapulted to the Distrowatch top 10 and shows no signs of slowing down. With its focus on gorgeous design and a new release scheduled for April 2014, I could easily see this distro becoming a “Top 5” consumer distro in the next year or two.
Up until now, Ubuntu Touch (the mobile-focused version of Ubuntu) has been available purely for developers and pro users looking to test out the new platform. That's all set to change in 2014 with actual, shipping hardware. You, I and everyone else will be able to order their own Ubuntu-powered cellphone in the year. Will it be a smash hit, quickly rivaling many of the other dominant mobile OS players? Will it fall flat on its face and fail to ship enough units to even register as a blip on the radar? Or, perhaps more reasonably, will the results fall somewhere in the middle? Regardless of the outcome, Ubuntu Touch is going to be an interesting one to watch.
The world of Linux Distros can be a chaotic and crazy place, especially lately. Changed user interface over here, controversy over there. The net result is a lot of Linux users leaving their current distro and looking for greener pastures. One of the big exceptions to this is openSUSE – which continues to be one of the most steady, consistent forces in the Linux world. In a Linux world that seems to be in constant flux, that dependability is...refreshing. Do I expect any of this to change in 2014? Not a chance. But I do anticipate that openSUSE will see a boost in users as people seek a safe harbor in the various “display server” and “desktop environment” wars.
I considered not including Google's ChromeOS on this list, as it bears very little resemblance to a “traditional Linux Distro.” However, Linux it is. And, with the marketing muscle it has behind it, there can be no doubt about the traction it has gained this year. 2014 is going to be a make-or-break year for ChromeOS and the Chromebook. My guess? It’s going to be huge.
Lubuntu – which is, in essence, Ubuntu with the Unity environment ripped out in favor of the lightweight LXDE – has already experienced a pretty substantial boost in popularity, thanks in large part to many long-time Ubuntu users looking to escape from (what they feel is) the bloated slowness of the Unity desktop environment. Lubuntu seems to now have hit a critical mass, gaining attention from non-Ubuntu users as well for its speed and low-memory footprint. I expect to see this distro’s user-base grow steadily throughout 2014.
Mer + Plasma Active
Remember Maemo or Moblin? Mer is the sort of spiritual successor to those ill-fated mobile Linux distributions. Mer is being used as a base distro for the KDE Plasma Active team’s mobile system. Will we see hardware shipping with Mer and Plasma Active preloaded in 2014? I truly don't know. The pessimist in me says no way, although the optimist says it's a possibility. But even if we don't see shipping hardware, the technology being produced here is truly interesting and, in my opinion, hugely important for one critical reason - it approaches things very differently than the other mobile systems (such as Android, Ubuntu Touch or FirefoxOS). That alone makes it worth keeping tabs on.
Linux Mint is an interesting beast. It initially appeared on the scene as a version of Ubuntu with some added codecs and drivers. It then quickly earned a (much-deserved) reputation for excellent visual design and has, over the last few years, built up a sizable user base – catapulting it to the No. 1 spot on the DistroWatch list. This popularity has caused the system to splinter into a variety of flavors and versions, which is both interesting and confusing. My prediction is that Linux Mint will become a single version of a single distro (re-focusing its message) in 2014, or it will see a significant drop in popularity. Regardless of what its talented team does, I will be watching closely.
Arch is, at more than 11 years old, certainly no newcomer. And the Arch user base consists of a small, niche subset of the overall Linux market, just as it always has. So why should we be paying any extra special attention to it in 2014? I truly don't know. Call it intuition. Maybe it's the alignment of the stars. Perhaps some unusual solar flare activity or something in the air. Let's just say “I've got a hunch” that, during 2014, Arch is going to be worth watching.
Roll Your Own
"The Year Of The Linux Desktop" has become a bit of a running joke at this point, but I'm going to make a similar declaration and say that 2014 will be "The Year Of Everyone Having Their Own Linux Distro." At this point, the tools for building your own Linux distribution (such as Suse Studio) are so mature and easy to use that, in many cases, the best Linux Distro for you to use is the one you whip up for yourself based on an existing distro. Call it an appliance. Call it a re-spin. Either way, the ability to make your own system (and provide it to others who may share your needs) is going to get pretty big in 2014.
Let's take stock. Valve, one of the most important video game developers and publishers in the business, is now making Linux games. Its Steam store is running on Linux. It’s a member of the Linux Foundation. And it’s even built its own Linux Distro – SteamOS – that will power multiple game consoles shipping in 2014. If successful in the market, and there's little reason to think they won't be at least moderately successful at this point, this could have a huge impact on the Linux gaming scene. The largest we've ever seen. You know Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo (and just about everyone else) will be watching very closely what Valve does with SteamOS in 2014.