If you’ve heard of GNU/Linux and want to try it out, then congratulations and welcome to the world of open source OSes! I hope that your experience with using GNU/Linux is a joyful and informative one. If you’ve already done a little homework, you’ve found many variations (called “distributions”) of GNU/Linux, and may be mystified by how many there are. I’m sure you’ve come from Windows or Mac OS and have wondered, Why is it that there’s one Windows/Mac OS, and so many different Linuxes? There’s a reason for this, though to understand why there are so many distros (that’s short for “distributions”), we must first explain the purpose of some OSes.
Microsoft makes Windows to be used by the average person, as well as business-oriented people. In fact, they’ve targeted quite a large group (I’d say the entire human race, but that’s just me). MS needs to ensure that Windows works with many desktop and laptop computers, functions in such a way that it makes sense, and that the average person can use it. To that end, they have engineered it to work on many different computer architectures, and that their desktop experience is pretty darn good. For their server offerings, they have developed a version of Windows, Windows Server, which works well on enterprise-level hardware, and works especially well in data centers, along with any application that requires servers. This is different from what Apple has done.
Apple created Mac OS X (along with iOS) to work exceptionally well with their terrific hardware. They have managed to create an OS that synergizes with their hardware, that looks beautiful, and is very well organized. Via the Aqua user interface, the user can easily navigate applications, and get things done. Apple has ensured that their hardware is durable, that their mobile devices last a long time, and that the hardware retains a good amount of value. To this end, Apple designed the Cocoa API to smoothly work with their hardware, and that it’s not that difficult to program. Similar to Microsoft, Apple has a large audience, but they have targeted them a little differently. At first, they strived for simplicity and high value. While it is possible for the average consumer to purchase an iPhone, Apple devices are still quite expensive, and so their audience is usually smaller than Microsoft’s. So where does GNU/Linux fall in all of this? Somewhere in the middle.
GNU/Linux consists of the Linux kernel, utility programs, and other supporting libraries. When a person or organization has a use for GNU/Linux, they may take the kernel and the utility programs, and build up their own OS. Canonical wanted to make a Linux distro which worked well with hardware, and provided a great user experience, so they copied (i.e. “forked”) Debian, added in the Gnome desktop environment, worked with hardware manufacturers to ensure devices functioned as intended on GNU/Linux, and developed a great experience. With this, they made Ubuntu. In the past, companies like Red Hat created a similar distro (in their case, Red Hat Linux). They also created Fedora to be made for server hardware. They, too used, Gnome, and make a nice installer. But GNU/Linux is not restricted to desktop hardware.
Linux has been ported to many platforms, ranging from the traditional x86, to RISC, to ARM, and several architectures in between. A company (or individual) can take the kernel, mix in whatever software they wish (be it open source or proprietary), and put it into their hardware. They can design the distro such that it functions how they want it to function. In these cases, GNU/Linux has a special purpose, and the organization may release their distro with that special purpose in mind. So a software vendor may make a special Internet of Things distro, and release that. Or a small group may release a fork of a desktop distro because they wanted to add their own “spin” to an official distribution. It all depends on what the individual, group, or company wants. And this is what sets GNU/Linux from the other proprietary OSes: you can find the one you want, and tweak it however you wish.