What are the area(s) of difference between Linux distributions that involve an actual incompatibility, or are there none?

It seems like most of the "differences" are essentially choices of application. For example, one distribution has one window manager and a different one has another. However, I can always just change the window manager. A more specific example is that Debian uses apt to get packages, but Arch use pacman. Can't I just install apt on Arch or pacman on Debian? Is there any fundamental difference that prevents me from doing this?

closed as too broad by muru, Thomas Dickey, Isaac, Jeff Schaller, RalfFriedl Nov 18 '18 at 0:05

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Package management is not just a matter of the visible front-end application like apt or pacman or yum etc. There is a back-end database that keeps track of which files are installed by which package, how their configuration files are tracked and so on. So just installing Arch's pacman on a Debian system won't magically convert it to an Arch system; if you then use pacman you will probably trample all over dpkg's package management.

While using one distribution it is almost never a good idea to install packages or files or binaries in the system directories from a different distribution.

To learn how distributions tried to create a compatibility for user installed applications, read about Linux Standards Base. The primary purpose is to let users download and install applications in their home directories and get these working regardless of the ambient distribution. The same for system administrators installing stuff system-wide in /opt or /usr/local.

  • Ok, you state that it is not a good idea to install packages from a different distribution, but you don't give any specific reason for this or explain what the incompatibility would be, which is the whole point of my question. – Tyler Durden Nov 17 '18 at 12:55
  • The first paragraph gives the reasons. Most package managers keep close watch on the contents of system directories and will get into difficulties if unexplained files are in unexpected places. Updates, upgrades are likely to run into problems. – Kapil Nov 17 '18 at 13:07

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