>When I install FreeBSD, I am installing a "core operating system version
>number" (your term).

Yes.  The kernel and a few important libraries and utilities comprise
the base system. They are kept separate from FreeBSD Ports, unlike in
Gentoo, where you can for example update your kernel or other parts of
the base system via Portage.  Sometimes there are ports that overlap
in functionality with parts of the base system -- for example, there
are separate versions of openssl, openssh, gcc, kerberos, etc. in both
the base system and in ports -- but they are always updated
independently, and if you install a port with overlapping
functionality it will never overwrite the base system, but just
coexist with it.

>Then I may choose to install the "ports" as either
>"STABLE" or "CURRENT" neither of which is associated with any "core
>operating system version number".  From this point on, all application
>updates will arrive via "ports" .

The current FreeBSD Ports tree always contains the latest ports --
there is no separation into "stable" and "testing" branches like with
Portage, and there are no separate branches for different
architectures or different supported versions of the base system,
although some ports will not build for all of them. (There are of
course separate precompiled binary packages for the different
supported architectures and versions of the base system, although they
are all built with the same ports tree.) If you want don't want to
live on the cutting edge, then you can use a snapshot of the ports
tree or the corresponding pre-built binary packages that were shipped
with a FreeBSD release, as the ports tree is typically frozen and
tested immediately before a release.  Of course, you are free to pick
any other snapshot that you want, or to use some other packaging
system like NetBSD's pkgsrc, for example.  (This summer someone was
porting Portage to NetBSD, so maybe you will  be able to use Portage
soon, too.)

>Imaging one person installs FreeBSD-6.4 RELEASE and updates to STABLE
>ports.  Another installs FreeBSD-7.2 RELEASE and also updates to STABLE
>ports.  Are there any applications that the FreeBSD-6.4 person cannot
>install (e.g. the latest apache or VirtualBox)?

Sometimes there are ports that are marked as broken on certain
architectures or versions of the base system.

>If so, by what
>mechanism is he prevented?

Some lines in the port Makefile.  Of course, you are free to tinker --
many ports marked as broken can be patched to work just fine, only no
one has gotten around to doing it yet.

  What are the repercussions of never updating
>the "core operating system version number"?

Just like in Linux, the rest of the world moves on -- not all recent
improvements to the base system are backported to earlier versions of
the base system, and developers are reluctant to spend a lot of time
and energy fixing problems on very old versions of the base system.
Eventually, official support is dropped and you're on your own.

>1. If the STABLE ports tree is not associated with a "core operating
>system version number", why are there two directories for STABLE packages:


The ports tree is not associated with any one base system version, but
the pre-built binary packages _are_.  If 6.4 is the latest release of
the base system in the 6.x branch, then 6-stable is the testing
version of the base system that willl eventually become 6.5.
Occasionally, changes made since the last release change the interface
between the base system and other software, so binary packages built
against 6.4 may not work on 6-stable.  The 6-stable directory above
should contain binary packages built with a recent snapshot of the
ports tree on a recent snapshot of 6-stable, and so on.

>2. What is the difference between these two?

>My guess:
>The first is the packages that were made available in the 7.2 RELEASE CDs.


>The second is a directory that is re-created every 5 minutes by updating
>the ports collection and compiling all the applications in it.

Well, not every _five_ minutes.  :)

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