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Jim's Rambling and Ambling Thoughts

Overview of Linux Distributions ("distros")
This is the second in a 3 part series of emails I wrote over a year ago that I am posting here in hopes that some people will find them useful.  If you have not read  part 1, you may wish to do that first.  These have been reworked for public viewing and updated some, but are still in the form of the original emails.

As you will see, this email starts to get a little more political as I discourage use of distros from companies that have done patent deals with Microsoft in violation of the spirit of (and possibly the letter of) the GNU General Public License (GPL) which governs much of the software distributed with a Linux distro.  (Of course, it can be argued that the promotion of freedom -- as GNU/Linux does -- is itself inherently political.)

Ubuntu was (and is) not one of those distros.  But for other reasons, I was already becoming uneasy with it.  Since then, Ubuntu and Canonical (the company behind Ubunutu) have continued to do things which, taken together, have convinced me to oppose them also.  Which puts me in a bit of a sticky situation with these posts since, because of its (arguable) popularity, I had used Ubuntu as the example in these emails.   So in addition to the minor changes I have been making in these emails,  I have largely rewritten one paragraph in this email to reflect my current  disgust with Ubuntu.  I have  highlighted that portion in a different color.

So grab your favorite beverage, sit back, and enjoy!


In my Linux background email I mentioned distributions, commonly called distros (singular:  distro).  In the very early days, using Linux was not for the faint hearted.  One had to collect all the pieces together, probably do some compiling, and then do a lot of configuration and try to get it to all work together.  So fairly early on the idea of a distribution was born.  This is where somebody else, or a team, has already done a lot of the grunt work for you.  A typical distro will include a kernel, the needed GNU utilities and libraries, and these days, usually a "window manager" or "desktop environment."  The latter is what gives you a convenient GUI (graphical user interface) to use.  (No Virginia, while there may be a Santa Clause, Bill Gates did not invent computers and it *is* possible to use a computer w/o a GUI.  Even in the 21st century.)  A distro will also typically include applications like a web browser, email client, office suite, etc. In some distros it is common to find more than one application for certain tasks; other distros frown on that.  The applications/utilities/libraries/etc. that are not in the initial install (or that you opted not to install at that time) can usually be downloaded from repositories that the distro maintains, using a package manager.  (I'll cover software installation in a later email.  It is one of the areas that is rather different from the Microsoft world.)

I do not remember what the first distro was.  I believe Slackware is the oldest distro still in existence.  Common distros you may have heard of include Red Hat (now split into Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux), Debian, and Ubuntu.  Because of the freedom granted, anybody with the knowledge, time, and energy can create a distro.  So it turns out there are (I think) something like 300 distros available.  Many of these are specialty distros.  Don't let the number of different distros scare you.  Initially, choose one and ignore the others.

I've mentioned window managers and desktop environments.  To be truthful, I still don't have a *full* grasp of the distinction, but in a practical (high level) discussion of these it doesn't matter.  Here, I'll just use the term desktop environment (DE) for both and be done with it.

A DE is what gives you a graphical "desktop" to work with.  X (or X11) provides the low level capability to draw a graphical screen.  The DE uses this to paint the pretty pictures you are used to working with.  Because of freedom (that concept just keeps coming up :-) there are a number of DEs to choose from.  (With MS Windows and Macs, in each case you have a choice of ... one.)  The two most common DEs for Linux are KDE and Gnome.  There are a number of others, including some that are specifically designed to be "light weight."  Again, I suggest you not worry about all of the choices at this time.  There are detractors of both Gnome and KDE.  Since version 2.x, probably the most common criticism of Gnome is that it is "too dumbed down."  There has also been quite vocal criticism of KDE since they released KDE 4.  (Some of this may be from growing pains, other, not so much.)  This criticism is quite easy to find with an Internet search.  There are also many ardent supporters of KDE 4 and Gnome has its supporters as well.  Most (I think) distributions by default will install one or the other of these DEs.  Some will give you a choice, or even allow you to install both.  (In that case, you have a choice of which to use when you do a graphical login.

So what do you do with all of these choices?  (Hint:  the WRONG answer is to run scared!)  I think sound advice for a new user is to pick one of the "mainstream" distros and stick with it until you feel somewhat comfortable with it.  At that time, if you feel so inclined, start checking out any or all of the other distros.   What I am arguing against , as you start to explore the Linux world, is changing distros the first time you encounter something that seems strange to you or is a little uncomfortable.  You *will* find things that are different from what you are used to.  Aside from your own personality traits, your reaction to that will depend (IMHO) on how many different operating systems you have used and how firmly entrenched you are with your existing OS.

But before you install a distro and hunker down to explore it, you might want to briefly try out several distros using "live CDs" (or their USB flash drive counterparts).  This will give you a first impression and help you decide which one you want to spend some time getting to know.  One of the things freedom has allowed is the creation of "live CDs."  These are CDs (now also DVDs ... maybe) that you run Linux from w/o using or altering the hard drive.  They will run somewhat slower than when installed to a hard drive, but they allow you to try out the distro, see what it looks like, and, perhaps most importantly, see if it works with all of your hardware.  (Linux has made great strides in the last few years with the hardware it will work with, but there are still sometimes some problems.  Particularly with wifi, but there may still be some other rough areas.  Another area where Linux is different from Microsoft is that with Linux, the  drivers normally come with the distro rather than being downloaded separately.   Possible exceptions are proprietary drivers, sometimes referred to sarcastically as "binary blobs.")  In addition to live CDs running slower, they do not provide an obviously easy way to save changes or to save your work.  (There are ways to do so, but some other time ...)  More recently there has been the creation of live USB flash drives -- like live CDs except they reside on a flash drive.  On those you can save your work and changes.  I have used live CDs; I have no experience with their USB counterparts.  Before I close out this discussion of live CDs, I will note that several distros now use a live CD as (one of) their methods of installation.  In other words, you boot to a live CD.  You may at this point, if you choose, run any of the provided applications.  If/when you wish to install, there is an icon on the desktop to click.  And while the installation is proceeding, you can play a game, browse the web, or something.  Or twiddle your thumbs or go for a walk.  ;-)  (Last night I installed Ubuntu 8.04 just to remind myself what the steps are.  I will give some details of that in my next email.)

So I think the only thing remaining is choosing a distro and getting a CD/DVD (or set).  First there are several distros I *cannot* recommend, not because of any technical reasons, but because of patent deals signed with Microsoft.  (See footnote.)  These are SuSE, OpenSuSE, Xandros and Linspire (if Linspire still exists).  Feel free to investigate the distros you want.  But right now, for concreteness, I will focus on Ubuntu in this and the following email.  If there are other distros you would like me to (try to) answer questions about, just ask.

Ubuntu (oo-boon-too) is a popular distro created by (billionaire and one time space tourist) Mark Shuttleworth and supported by Shuttleworth's company, Canonical.  Ubuntu is an African word (in several languages, I believe) which I have seen translated into English with such phrases as "humanity to others" and "I am because we are."  This distro strives to make Linux accessible to the masses.  Depending on who you believe, it is either quite popular or very over-hyped.   However ... I started having serious concerns about Ubunutu when applications using Mono were included by default and my concerns increased when it started including Moonlight by default.  Both of these are Microsoft technologies and I can see no good, and possibly much harm, from them effectively being pushed (promoted) in a Linux distro.  Since that time Ubuntu has continued to do a number of things that increasingly alarmed me until at some point a threshold was crossed and I realized that my reaction to Ubuntu was closer to my reaction to Microsoft than to most other Linux distros.  (And I have detested Microsoft for a quarter of a century!)  These changes have included switching the default search engine for their browser to Yahoo (which essentially meant the search engine was Microsoft's Bing), excessively (IMHO) promoting their "cloud" service, Ubuntu One, and switching from the Synaptic graphical package manager to what they call their "software center".  All of these and other things have caused me to question Ubuntu's and Shuttleworth's commitment to free (as in freedom) software, and in my darker moments I have even wondered if they had crawled into bed with Microsoft.  (My belief is Microsoft would still like to kill Linux given the chance.  Barring that, they wish to cripple Linux as badly as possible and force Linux users to pay tribute to them.  I do not believe in the "kinder, gentler Microsoft" some people apparently believe Microsoft has become.)  It is true that Ubuntu has since switched its default search engine back to Google and more recently have eliminated one or two Mono based apps in the default installation and replaced them with ones that don't use Mono.  But having, in effect, put them on my "enemies" list, I am not inclined to remove them lightly.  Perhaps in time it will become clear to me that my fears were unfounded and/or that they have mended their ways.  But for now, I remain opposed to them. [Note: I am wondering if I should expound on this in a future post after I have finished posting these reworked emails.]

As I've indicated, because of length, I will continue this in another email.  That email will (finally) get down to the nitty and gritty of obtaining and installing a distro, focusing on, for concreteness, Ubuntu.  (Because that is how the original emails were written and I am too lazy to repeat the steps now using another distro. :-( )

Take care,

Footnote:  In the first email, I discussed the problem with software patents.  Much of the software in a Linux distro, including the kernel and the GNU software, is licensed with some version of the GNU General Public License (GPL) or the lesser GPL (LGPL).  The GPL, at least since version 2 (GPLv2) has sought to prevent the prevention of free distribution of the licensed software due to software patents.  (Sorry about the double negative -- I can't come up with a better way to say it.)  This intent is spelled out in GPLv2's preamble.  The details are spelled out in section 7 of GPLv2.  (If interested, you can easily find a copy on the Internet -- just search for GPL and make sure you get the right version.  Beware -- it *is* legal language.  But not nearly as bad as MS's EULAs.)

On Nov. 2, 2006, Microsoft and Novell (who had previously bought the SuSE Linux distribution) announced they had found a loophole (although they didn't use that term) in GPLv2 and announced a patent agreement of the type the GPL sought to prohibit.   Because of this callous and cynical disrespect for those who have worked hard to create free software, I cannot recommend SuSE or OpenSuSE.  Later, Xandros signed a similar patent agreement with Microsoft and so I can't recommend them either.  There is one other company, which I can't think of right now, that falls into this same category.  But it is not one of the distros you are likely to come across.  At least not initially.  (Linspire also signed a deal, but they were bought by Xandros and are no more.  Maybe.  If they still exist I would avoid them also.)


UPDATE 6/24/2010

There has been some discussion in the comments about the distinction among the terms windowing system,  window manager, and desktop environment.  So I thought I might try to flesh it out a little more here.  PLEASE NOTE:  I think the discussion above is adequate as an introduction for the user new to Linux.   What follows is for those "who want to know more."  It could get a little geeky!  :-)

First, as a public service, let me reproduce as "clickies" the links that Jeff gave.  It does not appear to be possible to put clickable links in comments.


And here are a couple more links that might help explain the situation.  This one gives you a nice simple diagram of how these three components can be thought of as layers:


And this one gives some clarifying description to the difference between window managers and desktop environments.  This one is a little old (as is the Red Hat article linked above) but the basic ideas are still the same:


Be aware that sometimes what are called window managers have enough functionality added into them that the distinction from desktop environments might seem to blur.  One example is Enlightenment which you can read about here:


Note that in some of the older articles, reference is made to XFree86.  Most distros today use X.org instead.  This is another case of what can happen with free(dom) software when people don't like the direction a project is going.  In this case the project forked because the XFree86 people sought to tighten down the screws on the licensing conditions.  Google for the details if you are interestested.

Mini-rant:  Many people (including some of the authors of the above linked articles) make the mistake of referring to the X windowing system as "X Windows".  Every time I read that I shudder, as it reminds me of Microsoft, to which I am violently allergic.  There is no "s" on the end of "X window!"  There.  I'll try to sit down and be quiet now! ;-)


UPDATE 6/26/2010

Here's Gemini's link as a "clicky".  (A real pity the comment system doesn't turn these into clickable links automatically like the forum software does.):

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