This is a continuation of a series of posts written for non-geeks just starting out with Linux. Today, we look at the concept of a “distro” and why it is important to you as an average user of Linux.
It would be nice if you knew the meaning of these terms …
- OS (operating system),
- Window Manager,
…. but mainly it would be nice to know about “distribution” because it really puts all the other terms and concepts together.
An Operating System is a part of your computer that does not do any of the things you need your computer to do, but without which your computer won’t work. It “runs” the “software” or “applications” and makes the hardware work, etc. Windows is an Operating System, OS X (on a Mac) is an Operating System, and Linux is an operating system. The Linux operating system runs on the same kinds of computers that Windows and OS X run on, as well as a range of other computers.
The deep under the hood part of Linux is called the “Kernel.” Other than that it exists, you need to know nothing more about that. But you’ll see the word, so I thought it prudent to define it very briefly.
In order to communicate with “the Kernel” and to run software and stuff, you need to use a “shell.” I don’t know why they call it “shell.” The most basic “shell” is also known as the command line and it looks like a primitive computer screen with nothing but letters on it, and you don’t need to use it ever (but you will want to for fun and profit, we’ll get to that later). The most common “shell” people actually use is the “window manager” which is a “Graphical User Interface” thingie that lets you use menus and windows and stuff on Linux. The Window Manger is usually integrated into a thing called a “desktop” which adds a lot of other visually useful stuff (and some useless stuff) like a default file manager, icons and “wallpaper” and so on. The “Desktop” on your computer is Gnome (pronounced Ga-Nome or Ge-Nome), which is a very intuitive and easy to use desktop. By now you already know how to use it, most likely.
Linux is an OS distinct from Windows. There are different flavors of Windows, as you know (like “professional” or “home edition” or “me edition” and so on). Similarly, there are different flavors and “versions” of Linux. It work like this, as hierarchy:
OS (Family (Distribution (Version)))
There is only one Linux Kernel, but there are three or four families of Linux that use this kernel in different ways. As an Ubuntu user, you are using Debian Linux. The other two major families are “Slackware” and “Red Hat.” Each of these families is represented in anywhere from a few to many dozen different “distributions.” Each distribution has a series of versions starting with the first version, then new versions up to the present, current version. Often there are two “current” versions … the one that works really well and is most trusted, and a newer “bleeding edge” version.
You are using the Linux operating system, the Debian family, the Ubuntu distribution (or “distro”).
Versions are numbered, and higher numbers mean more recent. You are probably using Version 9.something. Many Distro manufacturers also name their versions. Ubuntu uses animals with attitudes. Hardy Heron, or Daper Drake for example. Another distro called “Mint” uses female names that end in A. So some day Mint will produce a Julia and an Amanda. But it will never produce a Betsy or a Lizzie.
A distro is more than just a name, however. A distro is a functional unit that matters to you as a user. The distro is what you install, and the distro is managed by a group of people who have a philosophy, an orientation, and so on, that affects you as a user.
If there was such a thing as a “Windows distro” (and there is not) it might look something like this:
Windows XP is the OS
Microsoft Office for day to day tasks
Adobe Illustrator is included automatically
Internet Explorer is the default browser
Some other software bla bla bla
All packaged together, and branded with a certain default desktop wallpaper, a default screen saver, and some other bells and whistles. The many things you can configure on windows (show hidden files vs not, etc.) would all be configured by the distro managers to follow the distro’s philosophy or purpose.
A typical Linux “distro” will have the Linux Kernel, a certain system for installing and removing software, and a bunch of applications (like Office applications and graphics applications etc) automatically installed with it, and will default to a certain desktop (like the aforementioned gnome).
Once you install that distro, your software management system gives you access on-line to more software than is automatically installed, which live in the distro’s “Repository.” (Well talk more about this in a subsequent post.) The people who manage the distro keep track of what software is working well with other software. Two different distros might have two different versions of a particular software package (like the spreadsheet, or whatever) because the maintainers of each distro have different opinions about the readiness of each version to be deployed in their distro.
So the distro is like a committee of experts that manages what limits you should put on yourself for what software you actually install on your system. You will not follow these rules perfectly, but if you mostly follow the rules of the distro (and following these rules is the default automatic behavior of your computer) fewer things can go wrong. If you look back at the comments on this thread, you will see many negative anti-Linux tirades by unhappy people who had bad experiences. There are two kinds of Linux miscreants (other than the paid Microsoft fanboys). Those who used Linux five years ago or so when it was not as idiot-resistant as it is now, and those who did not limit themselves to the repositories of a good distro. Not limiting yourself to a good distro is like buying your groceries from some guy in an alleyway. You might be intrigued at the possibilities at first, but later there is going to be vomiting and diarrhea.
Ubuntu is considered one of the most user-friendly distros. It is one of three or four distros that was designed explicitly to be nice to regular computer users, but the only one that was distributed for free and had a cool logo. Ubuntu is said to be an “African” word (there is no such thing as an “African” word) and as best as I can figure it is a Zulu term but found in a few other languages as well. If you look it up on the internet you will find a lot of people trying to define what it means, including Nelson Mandela himself. They struggle with the definition because they miss the point or make it too complicated. Ubuntu means “OpenSource.”
In the next installment, we’ll look at where your files are stored and how you might back up your stuff.
For a list of all the posts in this series, CLICK HERE.