What is Linux? It’s a free operating system you may already use without knowing

Chances are, if you’re browsing for a new desktop or laptop, it will come packed with the latest version of Windows. Heck, you may even be reading this article using a Windows-based PC. Of course, if you’re a dedicated Apple customer, you’re likely using a PC based on MacOS. They’re the two main operating systems dominating the desktop and laptop markets today.

But you’ve undoubtedly heard about a third “free” platform, called Linux. What is Linux, you ask, and is it better than Windows 10 or MacOS? Should you install it? Here’s a bit of information to chew on.

Press the rewind button, please

First, let’s hit the rewind button and jump back to 1991. At the time, Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a huge hit in theaters, and Intel’s first 32-bit processor, the 80386, had become a widely-used chip in PCs. The Windows operating system was still an infant, so Unix was the most-used operating system at the time, both commercially, and in academic institutions.

For the individuals, however, Unix was just too expensive to use. A “free” variant of Unix called MINIX was available, but It didn’t take full advantage of Intel’s 32-bit chip, and couldn’t be modified or redistributed even though the source code was freely available. These factors led a student at the University of Helsinki to create a platform of his own.

Enter the birth of Linux. A computer science student by the name of Linus Torvalds wrote the first signs of Linux specifically for his Intel 386-based machine running MINIX. He didn’t create a complete operating system, but instead what’s known as a kernel, which didn’t depend on the parent MINIX operating system.

This kernel is no popcorn

What’s a kernel? If an operating system were a planet, the kernel would be its core. It’s the basic code that manages everything on your PC, from the processor to the memory, the storage, your peripherals, and so on. When you hear talk about how Windows 10 is provided across all types of devices, it means Microsoft uses the same kernel, or core. It’s the lowest layer of an operating system.

The next layer above the kernel, then, is called the shell. It’s th interface for entering commands to the kernel. With Windows, what you see day to day is the attractive graphical interface layer on the planet’s surface. Underneath that is a layer for rendering the graphical interface (desktop space), and a layer that manages background services, such as the printer, wireless connectivity, notifications, and so on.

What Linus Torvalds created was only a core, which he eventually named Linux, and uploaded to an FTP server. It was first published under his own license, but then he decided to pair it with a shell called Bash, which was created under a free software license called the GNU General Public License (GPL). Eventually, the Linux kernel was provided by itself under the GNU GPL, and developers flocked to create open-source layers for it, and in turn provide a complete, ready-to-use operating system.

Believe it or not, Linux is everywhere

Because the Linux kernel falls under the GNU GPL, it’s widely used outside the PC arena. It can be caught running in automobiles, kitchen appliances, streaming devices, household devices, Internet of Things devices, and so much more. Most of the internet supposedly depends on Linux through the Apache HTTP Server platform installed on internet servers, which is based on the Linux kernel.

That said, Apache — and the other examples mentioned — is a “distribution” of Linux. A distribution is a unified group of components with the Linux core/kernel at the center, but these releases aren’t all the same despite sharing the Linux core. Microsoft does something similar with Windows 10, although the company keeps the kernel behind locked doors. Microsoft essentially sells different distributions, depending on the hardware: Windows 10 Pro/Home, Windows 10 Mobile, Xbox One, Windows 10 Enterprise, Windows 10 S, and so on.

It’s a tasty Linux buffet

Since the Linux kernel is free to use, you can get different “flavors” of Linux-based platforms. That’s the beauty of Linux. The platform consists of multiple components developed by the Linux community, so not all Linux-based operating systems are alike, despite using the same kernel.

For example, there are more than ten different graphical interfaces that were created for the Linux platform, including popular solutions Unity, GNOME, KDE Plasma, Pantheon, and Fluxbox. But many distributions also include proprietary components, so while they’re free to use, they’re not free to alter and redistribute. Right now, there are more than 75 different distributions available, but only a dozen are endorsed by the Free Software Foundation as 100 percent free software.

Here’s a list of the more popular Linux-based operating systems you can use right now:

Out of the platforms listed above, Ubuntu is likely the most commercially-used Linux distribution. You can get it as an alternative to Windows 10 on desktops and laptops supplied by OEMs, including solutions manufactured by Dell, Lenovo, HP, and Acer. System76 is a company dedicated to manufacturing laptops, desktops, and servers that rely on the Ubuntu distribution.

Of course, there are Linux-based operating systems provided on devices you use every day, but aren’t readily available to download and install. Android and Chrome OS are the prime examples.

Best Chromebook apps

Android is mostly provided on smartphones and tablets, but we’ve seen the platform installed on desktops and laptops, too. Google’s Chrome OS platform is only installed on the popular low-cost “Chromebook” laptops. However, given it’s based on the open-source Chromium OS project, you can still find variants of Chrome OS to download and use.

Meanwhile, there are also Linux-based distributions created specifically for the server market. These include Red Hat Enterprise Linux for datacenters, SUSE Enterprise Linux Server, and the non-desktop version of CentOS.

There’s love for gamers, too

Game developer Valve Software, the company behind the widely-popular Steam distribution platform, set out to create an operating system because CEO Gabe Newell didn’t like the way Microsoft controlled the Windows-based gaming ecosystem. He wanted the gaming market to remain as an open platform, so Valve introduced the Linux-based SteamOS operating system in September 2013.

Unfortunately, Valve’s “Steam Machine” initiative didn’t gain any traction. Yet despite the Steam Machine disappointment, Valve remains dedicated to improving, supporting, and providing SteamOS as a Windows alternative for PC gamers.

Raspberry-flavored Linux in your Pi

Even the Raspberry Pi computer board has its own operating system based on the Linux kernel. If you’re not familiar with Raspberry Pi, it’s a single, credit card-sized board packing everything you need to create a small computer. There is an infinite number of use cases for the little $35 computer, ranging from an educational Minecraft-themed laptop, to a monitoring system for tracking pesky squirrels.

raspberry pi cortana creators update 2013 logo chip

Powering the Raspberry Pi is a spinoff of Debian called Raspbian that’s optimized for the device. There are other operating systems for the Raspberry Pi too, such as Ubuntu Mate, RISC OS, and even the Windows 10 Internet of Things Core, but Raspbian is the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s recommended operating system.

Adding to that, the Raspberry Pi Foundation introduced Raspberry Pi Desktop in late 2016. It’s based on Debian and the “Pixel” graphical interface originally introduced in the Raspberry Pi’s Raspbian operating system. It can be installed on any PC or Mac, and includes educational, programming, and general applications such as Python and Sonic Pi right out of the box.

The pros and cons of Linux

As with any operating system, there are pluses and minuses when using a Linux distribution. The big benefit is that Linux-based distributions are more secure because hackers generally target Windows-based PCs. They’re also typically not running excessive processes in the background, so the platform feels responsive, and programs experience better performance.

Then again, you won’t see the very latest hardware immediately supported by Linux-based distributions, given that manufacturers mostly focus on Windows and MacOS platforms first. Plus, finding answers to your problems will take more investigative work than usual. So unless you purchase a device with a Linux distribution already installed, the only technical help you’ll receive will be through the Linux community.

On the software side, many popular programs simply aren’t available for Linux distributions. The same holds true for gaming, though the Linux library is slowly growing thanks in part to Valve’s SteamOS platform. Adding to that, you’ll need patience when understanding how the Linux platform works, what tools and alternatives are available, and how to get more control over the PC by learning new commands.

Again, there are different distributions catering to different skill levels and needs. Thus, if you prefer an install-and-go situation, Ubuntu may be your best Windows alternative (or Elementary OS if you’re on MacOS). Unfortunately, picking the right Linux distribution for your skill level and needs may be more daunting than learning how to use whatever you pick.

Linux is the quiet kid of the trio

Ultimately, Linux is the quiet kid in the room while Microsoft (Windows) and Apple (MacOS) struggle to talk over each other. All three present their unique pros and cons, but the quiet kid has an army of solutions whereas the two loud mouths offer single experiences behind walled gardens.

Still, as of late, Microsoft has become a bit friendlier with the quiet kid. The company made Ubuntu available on the Windows 10 store in July, and incorporated the Bash shell into Windows 10 a year prior to that.

If you’re interested in ditching Windows or MacOS, investigate the vast Linux-based options made available to you. Determine your needs and your skill set before taking the plunge because, even if the operating system is easy to use, leaving familiar desktop territory is a difficult process. You’ll want to find a solution to make the transition less painful, so you’re up and running on a Linux distribution in no time.