When a user is first introduced to Linux, they might be told they’re using Linux, but they’ll quickly learn that it’s called something else. Yes, Ubuntu, Fedora, Linux Mint, Debian, openSUSE, and so many others are all variants of Linux, or “Linux distributions”. That’s cool and all, but if you give it a little thought, you’ll be asking yourself why there are so many different distributions in existence, especially if they’re all Linux anyway.
Windows has multiple editions, but they aren’t marketed as entirely separate operating systems, Mac OS X only has a single variant (at least for the desktop). So why are there so many different Linux distributions?
The Linux Kernel
Since all Linux distributions are still considered to be Linux, that means there’s at least something that they have in common, and that would be the Linux kernel. This piece of software is the core of the operating system – it bridges conventional software that you interact with such as your browser to the hardware that actually does all the work. It also includes a large number of drivers to provide support for whatever hardware you may be sporting.
That’s why it’s important to keep the kernel updated or to compile the kernel yourself if you have special needs. The Linux kernel receives contributions from developers all around the world, but Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, still manages what goes in and what doesn’t. No one has a problem with that, however, as the kernel has historically been functional for all use cases.
Once you start talking about anything besides the Linux kernel, things start to change. The distribution’s leaders can choose what software they include, such as which package manager they want to use (and the related package format), what display server to include, and any other extra tools. Distribution leaders have these options because each category of Linux software (such as a display server) can have multiple applications that approach the topic in different ways.
For the display manager example, a distribution could continue to use X.Org’s X-Server because it has been the standard for the past few decades, or the distribution could use Wayland instead because it provides new features and other needed updates. They could also use Mir as it is a fork of Wayland that is mainly developed by Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu.
Some distributions can differ even simply based on which desktop environment they use. This case is seen with Ubuntu, where Ubuntu uses Gnome/Unity, Kubuntu uses KDE, Xubuntu uses Xfce, Lubuntu uses LXDE, and so on. Other distributions remain as one distribution but offer multiple “spins” that contain different desktop environments. An example distribution that does this is Fedora.
“I Can Do It Better!”
Other distributions exist because they like the technological aspects of another distribution, but wish to replace some software packages with others. A good example is Linux Mint as it is binary compatible with Ubuntu, but contains its own set of system tools, its own desktop environment, and a minty-green theme.
Goals & Ethics
Finally, a distribution can exist for reasons that have nothing to do with the software or technology behind the distribution, but rather its goals and ethics. For example, Debian aims to provide an extremely stable distribution (and therefore contains older software). Linux Mint aims to provide an extremely easy distribution for users of other operating systems like Windows and Mac OS X to use and get used to Linux.
Finally, Fedora exists to be the first to use the latest software, meaning that it uses both the latest versions of software and is the first to include or switch to a new technology.
Distribution’s stances on open source software also varies, which can be an important point for open source purists. As an example, Ubuntu doesn’t have an issue with including proprietary software in its repositories; it always includes the Steam gaming client and graphics drivers from AMD and nVidia. Fedora, on the other hand, has a very strong open source policy that prevents it from including any proprietary software in its repositories.
Items such as the Steam gaming client, audio and video codecs, and more, all need to be installed via third party repositories. Of course, at the end of the day you can do whatever you want with your installed copy of Linux no matter the distribution project’s policies, but such items can still matter to people.
Knowing how distributions differ from each other can help a lot in making or breaking your Linux experience. Not all distributions are meant to be used by everyone, so it’s important to choose the one that is most geared towards you and your preferences. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with giving any distribution a try (whether as an actual install or just in a virtual machine) because that can give you a good idea of what each distribution’s about.
Which distribution do you enjoy the most? Do you think it’s a good idea that there’s a distribution for each person’s tastes, or should there be only one “Linux”? Let us know in the comments!