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Default Desktop Environments for Linux and Unix

Timeline since 1990 showing the most important distributions

Last updated: May 2021

The picture below shows the standard/default desktop environments used by the most popular Linux distributions and Unix systems, from 1990 to 2020. Please note the small annotations that explain why a desktop environment was determined to be the default choice or not, as this is not straightforward for every distribution.

Timeline of default desktop environments for the most popular Linux distributions and Unix systems

Click here to open the picture in a new tab

Main Findings

  1. Many traditional KDE distros died or switched to other desktops, while GNOME distros stayed loyal. MEPIS died in 2013 and its de facto successor MX uses Xfce. Mandriva died in 2012 and its successor OpenMandriva did not manage to gain the same popularity and mindshare. Mageia, PCLinuxOS, and openSUSE have changed from KDE-default to desktop-agnostic. The commercial successor SUSE Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, only offers GNOME. Compare 2004 and 2020: In 2007 the most important distributions were Red Hat/Fedora (GNOME), Debian (GNOME), Ubuntu (GNOME), openSUSE (KDE), Mandriva (KDE), PCLinuxOS (KDE), Slackware (KDE), and MEPIS (KDE). That's 3 points for GNOME and 5 points for KDE. In 2020 the most important distributions are Red Hat/Fedora (GNOME), Debian (GNOME), Ubuntu (GNOME), openSUSE (KDE/GNOME/Xfce), and Mint (Cinnamon/MATE/Xfce). That's 3⅓ points for GNOME, ⅔ for Xfce, and ⅓ each for KDE Plasma, Cinnamon, and MATE.
  2. "Newcomers" often use neither GNOME nor KDE. Examples: Mint (Cinnamon/MATE/Xfce with Cinnamon being dominant), Manjaro (Xfce dominant although KDE and GNOME are also offered), MX Linux (Xfce although KDE also offered), and elementary (Pantheon).
  3. GNOME = Corporate Linux. Red Hat (RHEL, CentOS, Fedora) always used GNOME, because they are the main developers of GNOME in the first place. SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop only offers GNOME, unlike the agnostic openSUSE and KDE-only earlier versions of SUSE Linux. The last release of Mandriva, historically one of the most popular KDE distributions, was in 2012 as the company developing it went bankrupt. Canonical/Ubuntu stopped the development of its own desktop environment Unity and went back to GNOME in 2017. Oracle Solaris uses GNOME, while the open-source fork OpenIndiana switched over to MATE.
  4. The uprising against GNOME 3, released in 2011, has been quelled. Canonical gave up its development of the Ubuntu Unity desktop, and Debian, who pondered switching to Xfce, stayed with GNOME 3. Commercial distributions (RHEL, SLE, Solaris) have taken a long time but finally adopted GNOME 3 in 2018-19. However, a couple of distributions which developed their own desktop have not returned to GNOME, e.g. Mint or elementary. Furthermore, some distributions, such as Ubuntu or Zorin OS, ship with modified versions of GNOME 3 with more classical interfaces.
  5. KDE seems to be more popular with Continental European developers and GNOME with Anglo-American developers. Most KDE distributions in the timeline graph are either German (Slackware, SUSE) or French (Mageia, (Open)Mandriva), and all GNOME distributions shown are from Anglophone countries (RHEL, CentOS, Fedora, Oracle, Debian, SUSE Linux Enterprise and Solaris from the US, and Ubuntu and Zorin OS from the British Isles).

Officially supported Desktop Environments by Distribution

GNOMEXfceKDE PlasmaMATELXQt/ LXDECinnamonBudgieEnlightenmentDeepinPantheonUKUILuminaTrinityLomiri/ UnityCDE
elementary OSyes
MX Linuxyesyes
Oracle Linuxyes
Zorin OSyesyes

How did I choose which Linux distributions are "important"?

When creating the above picture, one question was which Linux distributions to include. For this, I created a "relevance score", calculated as follows:

calculating the relevance score of Linux distributions