What is Linux?

Time for a nerd post.

I’ve been a computer nerd since the late 90’s when I built my own PC. Though my first PC was actually an old Packard Bell 386 computer that was the “family computer”. The first computer that was my very own was something I built in 1998 running Windows 95.

Since then I’ve been upgrading and building and tweaking PC’s for over a decade. Not to mention buying a few Mac’s in there.

I don’t remember when it was that I first tried a Linux operating system, but I believe it was SuSE 7.  Then a whole handful of other distros followed. Until now, where the only distro I even consider anymore is Ubuntu.

Did I lose you?

Most of you are probably fairly tech savvy but I’ll explain for those of you that don’t know. Then the next time you hear the word “Linux” you won’t feel like an idiot.

So this is Linux in a nutshell. Linux is an operating system, like Windows or Mac OS. It’s what runs your computer and allows you to install and run applications like iTunes and Photoshop and all those great games. What makes Linux different is that it was developed by a guy named Linus Torvalds as a UNIX type operating system that could be run on regular PC hardware. UNIX is old school, but it’d design was logical and it was built for powerful old computers that used different hardware then regular PC’s. So Linus started building the Linux kernel (which is the heart or core of the OS) and from there he released to open source for anyone to take and build off of. And people did.

Nearly two decades later Linux is out there everywhere. In fact more then half of the internet is running on linux servers. These servers are the computers that host websites and make cool shit happen.

So what makes Linux special.
1. It’s free and will always be free. Everything that is built with it, must also be free. It’s mandated.
2. It’s open source. This means that anyone can take the code and do what they want with it.
3. It’s diverse. Because it’s free and open source there are a lot of things people use it for. Everything from desktop operating systems to web servers to vending machine operation.

As a desktop operating system Linux comes in a whole range of varieties from a whole bunch of companies and people. It’s a huge grass roots effort which has recreational programmers and large companies everywhere contributing their part to making Linux usable for all kinds of things.

When you go looking for a Linux Desktop OS you will hear the term “distro” which is short for “distribution”. A distro is a certain flavor of Linux put out by a certain company, individual or group of individuals. Here are some examples of desktop Linux distros:

Ubuntu Studio
Fedora Core
Open SuSE
Puppy Linux
Damn Small Linux
Yellow Dog Linux

The list goes on. The reason it’s so long is because anyone can take a previous distro, steal it and build their own distro using it as a foundation. You only need to give credit where credit is do. So it’s not really stealing. In fact it’s not stealing at all. That’s just the nature of open source software.

Right now, the most popular Linux distro for everyday people is Ubuntu. You may have heard the name before.

So what’s cool about Linux and what isn’t?
Linux distros have a lot of cool features, depending on the distro you get. Some of them look and act like any Windows computer you’ve ever used. But others are just text on a screen with a prompt where you type commands. True Linux hardliners are fans of the command line and often do everything with it, from copying and pasting files to installing software. The rest of us would be more comfortable with the graphic user interface filled with icons and windows and menus.

Alot of open source software that you use right now on Windows or Mac is available for Linux. Such as firefox, utorrent, openoffice, GIMP, and more. There is also some commercial software available, but not as much as on Windows or Mac. In my opinion this is the biggest downfall to Linux and reason I personally am not using it as my main OS.

One of the nice things about Linux is that many of the distros allow you to try them for free, without having to install anything on your computer. They are called LiveCD’s and once you download them and burn them to a CD using Windows or Mac, you can put them back in your CD drive, restart your computer and Linux will load up. Everything will run off the disc itself and you can try it out without fear of hurting your computer or changing anything. When you’re done, just eject the CD and go back to using your computer as normal. If you like it, just click install and it will install itself right next to Windows on your computer and you can then chose which OS to boot into when you start your computer.

One of the other big issues with Linux however is hardware support. Most hardware companies when they build a product for your computer will also build drivers so their hardware can talk to your computer. Most of those drives are made for Windows operating systems since most people use Windows. Followed by drivers for mac OS and then if at all, Linux.

Most companies still don’t see Linux as a viable source of income to bother with supporting it. So a lot of support for Linux comes from everyday people who build drivers and software as their hobby. Don’t get me wrong, this is a huge group of people the world over, but without a lot of commercial support to fund projects and put food on peoples tables, support can be hit or miss.

For years the geek in me has been struggling with Linux. part of me loves the idea behind it and loves what people are doing with it. There is some really cool stuff going on. There are certainly a decent chunk of people out there that use Linux as their main OS every day. But for me, it’s still sort of hobby OS. The fact that it takes a bit of effort to get a Linux OS up and running on my computer with full hardware support and the lack of commercial software naively available for it acts as a bit of a turn off for me. If these thing were not a problem I would have ditched Windows years ago and possibly never bought a Mac. But many people and companies view Linux they way I do. Truth is a lot of people are perfectly happy with Windows and Mac no matter what their shortcomings are.  Whether Linux will ever take off as a mainstream OS is something only the future will tell. But so far it’s not looking like it.


0 thoughts on “What is Linux?

  1. My boyfriend uses linux, OSX, and windows (whichever came before vista I believe)… I like the looks of linux. I think some people just have no idea what it is and assume it’s really difficult.

  2. @suggestivetongue – It can be. It depends on which distro you’re using. I don’t know which Linux distro your boyfriend uses. I’ll go out on a limb and assume Ubuntu. But if he were running Gentoo for instance, it’s harder to use. Mostly command line driven. Some people would have a hard time with that. I know I would.  

  3. I love Ubuntu!  I use CentOS regularly in addition, but as far as I can tell from my use, they’re almost identical.  I also keep Windows because there are programs that I can’t run without it, but I wish I didn’t have to.  I’m going to look into Wine over the summer…

  4. I would love to be able to dual boot my tower with Linux in addition to the Windows XP I have. I’ve always wanted to play around with Linux. But I’m just not goofy, I mean geeky, enough to do it. ;)

  5. @jupiter312 – Yeah I’m not sure about WINE myself. I need to run iTunes, and the Adobe Creative suite to be happy. I know you can run photoshop with WINE, but I’m not sure I’d want to go through all of that. I’m also not yet convinced how well it runs it. But if that software was already available on Linux I probably would have already switched. I feel like most of the software available on Linux is just a cheap version of the real thing. It’s like buying of the off brand cereal, sometimes it’s just as good and sometimes it just feels like something is missing.

    @BohemianLamb – I’ve done it before. The problem is everytime I do it, after spending an entire day getting it all working, I sit back and say to myself “ok, what now?” Just not enough quality software available. So I’ve finally just stopped installing it. Just don’t feel like I have the time to waste anymore playing around with and OS just for the sake of playing around with it. You’re right, it’s kinda goofy. But for some people I can see how and why they would use it daily.

  6. For a summer, I did a dual boot on my PC with Windows XP and Ubuntu. I really enjoyed it. However, I had to eliminate the dual boot after that because the rest of my household believed it was confusing and a waste of space. Since then, I’ve only used it a couple of times here and there when I’m able to. It’s a good easy OS (still with it’s draw backs). 

  7. @roxics – Yeah, I haven’t tried Wine out at all yet; I’m waiting until summer when I (may) have free time.  I agree on needing to be able to run iTunes, but for most other things, I’m relatively happy with the freeware version.  I’m okay with dual booting for now, though.

  8. I’ve discovered the world of Linux through the Android OS on the G1. After rooting my phone, I’ve installed all these great apps and features that wouldn’t be possible through the stock OS.

    Since then, I’ve wanted to try out a Linux OS. As far as speed, is Linux generally faster than Windows XP? Other than photoshop, everyone here at home uses the computer mainly for web browsing and playing music. If it is, I think I might just switch over.

  9. @Lithium98 – As far as speed, it depends on the distro, but generally speaking yeah it’s supposed to be faster. But I think if you’re running it on newer hardware you probably would be hard up to tell the difference. The difference can probably be better seen on older machines and netbooks. 

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