Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hey, what is a GNU/Linux distribution?

This blog post is part of a series of blog posts summarizing our November 2012 meeting electing the best GNU/Linux distribution.

OK, good question.  Before diving into a discussion of the various distributions, it makes sense to define what we mean by distribution.

(If you already know what a distribution is and the distinction between a distribution and window manager, you may want to skip this section and read about the first distribution presented at our meeting).

The GNU/Linux operating system is free software, and as such, users are free to take the source code behind the operating system and do whatever they'd like with it, including "forking" the code to make their own versions of the OS.  This leads to various flavors or distributions of GNU/Linux which are freely available for people to download, use, and contribute to.

The end result is a diverse set of choices for users, each addressing different needs, while at the same time generally inter-operating with the other distributions or flavors of GNU/Linux.  This kind of diversity and collaborative competition is at the spirit of free software.

Often people confuse a distribution with, or judge a distribution by, it's default window manager.  The window manager component of the distribution is the part of the operating system that controls the look & feel of interacting with the operating system.  Currently, the default window manager for Ubuntu is Unity.  For Fedora, it's Gnome 3.

The good news is that for just about any GNU/Linux distribution, you don't have to use the default Window Manager.  You can usually switch to a different manager and often, can even decide to use a different Window Manager each time you log in.  This is free software after all, so it respects your freedom to user your computer the way you want to.

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