You often hear about Linux as an alternative operating system that you can use in place of Microsoft Windows, Apple macOS, or Google Chrome OS. But once you research Linux online, you find that the situation is much more complicated than that. There is simply nothing called “Linux” to download and put on your computer.
Linux is not a product. It’s a whole ecosystem of freely shared software, distributed in different ways. This software now powers most servers, supercomputers and phones around the world. It’s also increasingly a great option for your PC.
What is linux?
Linux is technically not a desktop operating system, but a kernel. The kernel is the part of your computer that allows physical hardware to communicate with what is on the screen. The core is why text appears when you type, the cursor moves when you touch the touchpad, and images appear on your monitor.
In the early days of computing, programmers freely shared code and programs. That started to change when companies like IBM, Apple, and Microsoft began posting copyrighted code that users couldn’t see and that came with usage restrictions. In response, the GNU Project was formed with the goal of creating a fully functional computer powered by software that was still freely shared and distributed.
In addition to a full suite of programs, the GNU Project produced the GNU General Public License (GPL), a copyleft license that ensured that code remained freely shared and accessible.
Before the GNU Project produced a functioning kernel, the Linux kernel appeared and fulfilled this role. As it was under the GPL license, a different kernel was no longer needed. People embraced the Linux kernel, and it became the name that stuck.
To date, the code produced by the GNU Project provides much of the foundation for software used in conjunction with the Linux kernel, which is why you often see Linux referred to as GNU / Linux. But the name is ultimately not as important as the culture built around free and open source software.
What is free and open source software?
Free and open source software, or FOSS, is software whose code is publicly available for anyone to view, modify, copy, and redistribute. Such software comes with a free software license, such as the GPL, which grants these rights.
Note that in this case, “free” does not refer to cost. Free software can cost money, but it often doesn’t, because everyone has the freedom to make and redistribute a copy that people can download for free.
There are many free and open source applications available for Windows and macOS, such as Firefox, LibreOffice, GIMP, Krita, Blender, and VLC. Many FOSS applications start on Linux before being ported to other platforms. A big part of what sets Linux apart is that not only are most of the apps free and open source, but the components of the system also run in the background.
Much of this software comes from volunteers, but some companies pay employees to maintain or contribute to the free software they depend on. Some codes are from students, while others are from people who have decided to take an existing proprietary app and reissue it under a free license.
These people all work together, contribute apps to each other, report bugs, and use certain projects as the basis for new ones. Collectively, these people, along with the graphic designers, the people who package and distribute software, and the users, make up the free software community.
Not everything that is built with Linux is about free and open source software. Google’s Chrome OS is, ultimately, a Linux-based operating system. Underneath everything you see is a project known as Gentoo, which Google uses as the basis for creating its own interface.
Android also uses the Linux kernel and is therefore technically a version of Linux, although you don’t have access to most of the software available for Linux.
Why you might want to use Linux
Linux is an operating system built around a set of values. If you are OK with these values, that alone may be reason enough to give Linux a try. But there are many pragmatic reasons to switch to Linux.
Linux is available for free for anyone to download and use for any purpose, along with most of the applications on it.
Unlike proprietary software, this is software that you really own, giving you real control over your computer. Use it to do whatever you want. Take it apart and tinker. Put it back together. Learn from it. Keep your machine running for as long as possible.
If none of this interests you, just use your computer to get things done. If you become dependent on a particular program, you can rely on the source code and your ability to keep running it.
You can establish a workflow that no company is going to walk away from due to an acquisition or a change in business model (these things always happen in the open source world, but someone new usually steps in to keep it going). existing source code, rather than watching it disappear).
You can turn your Linux knowledge into a career, or you can use Linux as a stable foundation for any career you want.
How to download Linux?
No company or organization controls Linux, so there is no âoneâ version of Linux that everyone can rally around. Instead, many different groups have come together with the Linux kernel, GNU tools, and other freely shared software into separate, functional operating systems commonly referred to as “distributions” or “distributions.”
For the most part, each distribution is a different way of creating and distributing the same software that everyone has equal access to.
Some distros scratch a specific itch, like producing multimedia or playing games. Others are just general-purpose operating systems that you can use to do whatever task you want, like Windows and macOS.
To download Linux you don’t go to linux.com. Instead, you choose a distribution to download. Here are some important options, with a general description:
- Ubuntu: Ubuntu is the most used version of Linux. The priority of the project is to create an operating system that works the way most people expect, with access to the applications they want, whether the code is free or open source.
- Felt: Fedora strives to provide the best experience free and open source software can offer. The Fedora team does not provide you with applications whose code you cannot view, modify or redistribute. One of the core values ââof the project is to improve the state of free software for all.
- Elementary bone: A different take on the Linux desktop which, rather than distributing the same interfaces and applications you can get on any other distro, uses the existing ecosystem as the basis for its own desktop experience for people looking for ‘a free and open alternative to Windows and macOS.
These are just a few of the hundreds, if not thousands, of Linux distributions floating around the web. There is no better way to start using Linux for the first time, and the choice can leave some people paralyzed. In the end, pick one, and if you like it, stick with it. If not, try a different one.
Why is Linux important?
Linux has become the operating system that secretly powers many of the machines we interact with on a daily basis. Linux runs ATMs, gas pumps, and in-flight entertainment. It runs the websites, cash registers, and drones that we send to Mars.
Linux is one of the biggest free software projects in the world. It shows how much people can do by working together. Developers today are choosing to use open source projects as a foundation rather than building everything from scratch. And when people contribute back, the software becomes better for everyone. Will you become the next member of the community?
The best Linux distributions are hard to find. Unless you’re reading our list of the best Linux operating systems for gaming, Raspberry Pi, etc.
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