A brief Linux history and what a distribution actually is – Chapter 1.4
This is the fourth of the free articles directly taken from the Manjaro Linux User Guide book, available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0C4PSWRQS/. The full list of freely available articles is here: Manjaro Linux User Guide – For newbies, fans, and mid users. More information at the end of the article.
Read time: 2 minutes. Previous article: 1.3 About Linux, Windows, macOS and Unix. Next article: 1.5 Key points on each major Linux distribution.
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Linux by itself is an OS kernel; in a car, the equivalent would be the engine. For a complete car, we would also need a chassis, tires, a wheel, doors, seats, a frame, a trunk, and so on. Equally, if we have the knowledge, parts, and tools, we can build a whole OS with the Linux kernel.
In 1983, Richard Stallman created the GNU Foundation to popularize Free and Open Source SW (FOSS). GNU stands for GNU’s Not Unix, and this distinction was because Unix and other kinds of reliable SW were proprietary, closed, and expensive. The GNU Foundation was the first organization to establish a public free SW license called the GNU General Public License (GPL). Nowadays, we have tens of licenses. The five most widely used licenses are GPL 2 and 3 (with all their variants), Apache, Mozilla, BSD, and MIT. Since 1983, hundreds of thousands of people have developed FOSS under those and other licenses.
The GNU collection of free tools grew but lacked a kernel and an OS. Thus, when Linus Torvalds created the free Linux kernel in 1991, a group of developers combined it with the free GNU tools and created the first two Linux distributions – Slackware (since July 1993) and Debian (since September 1993). In other words, somebody combined a great engine with tools, seats, a frame, windows, a wheel, and pedals and created a complete car. They also made this available to anyone who wants to join the projects, revealing 100% of the knowledge. The number of enthusiasts grew fast and steadily. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people have contributed for free in the last 30 years and continue to do so.
A distribution combines the Linux kernel with all the necessary features, tools, and SW for a standard PC. It can be installed from scratch on a single pass on a computer to provide all that a user might need (just like a brand-new Windows or macOS).
To be precise, most Linux distributions are officially defined as GNU/Linux due to the combination of the kernel with hundreds and thousands of GNU tools. Due to a lack of knowledge and for convenience, many people skip the words GNU and distribution.
Creating a distribution from scratch is hard, often requiring a collaborative team effort and existing major collections of tools and SW. Many community servers host freely available FOSS collections, some of which have accumulated a significant amount of SW over time. Among the most prominent and longstanding collections are the ones of Debian, Ubuntu, Arch, Fedora, and Slackware distributions.
Additionally, each distribution adds a lot more – almost always, they have at least one official graphical desktop environment, deliver an extensive set of drivers, and a default choice of user applications. For desktop environments, additional tools and data collections exist on different servers.
Many distributions have a few different graphical desktop systems, just like Manjaro. While some are suitable for tablets, others are only for PCs or servers. We also have custom-modified distributions for hundreds of special devices. For all of them, the common parts are the Linux kernel and a set of basic SW packages and tools.
Some of the most famous Linux distributions include Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, Red Hat, Slackware, Mint, openSUSE, Manjaro, CentOS, Puppy, and Kali.
The libraries with free SW are supported mainly by the teams that created the initial distributions, and we can call only a few distributions major. They serve as the master libraries for almost all other child distributions. The source for this information is the reliable and periodically updated page at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Linux_distributions. It shows that in 2023, we have over 230 Linux distributions. Over 15% of them aren’t based on any major distribution and have pre-built libraries of their own.
Next article: 1.5 Key points on each major Linux distribution.
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