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What is Linux?

The "other" OS, explained.

By Miguel Rebelo · July 17, 2022
Hero image for app tips with the Linux logo

Remember the Mac vs. PC commercials? The legendary series of ads presented Mac as the cool guy, always ready to tackle any challenge with style and ease. On the other hand, Windows was portrayed as clunky, tied up in endless bugs and slowdowns—a boring guy who cares about boring things.

Linux has never been in the limelight quite the way Mac and Windows have—and I wonder what kind of persona it would assume in a commercial like this. Would it be the efficient network engineer, no time to talk, one click and the world changes? Maybe the pro developer, writing lots of code to program a super app? Or an astronaut, running all spaceship systems from a complex terminal?

Marketing tactics aside, Linux has a reputation among engineers, developers, and computer enthusiasts for being a fast, smooth, and reliable operating system. And while it's running on some of the most powerful computers in the world, it's only on about 2.5% of personal computers. Compare that to Mac's ~15% and Windows' ~76%. It's time to even the distribution.

What is an operating system?

Linux, like Windows and Mac, is an operating system: a kind of software that manages all your computer's parts and programs to let you surf the web or write that report you need to deliver on Monday.

The operating system handles all the computation requirements to run the programs we use. It does things like:

  • Managing the processor's resources

  • Storing data you're using in the RAM (random access memory)

  • Organizing your files in long-term storage

  • Drawing the graphics you see on the screen

Each operating system has a slightly different approach to how it does these things, which gives it a set of characteristics that make it better for some use cases and not so great for others. We'll explore a few of these differences in a bit.

What is Linux?

Linux is an open source operating system. It's used to run machines as powerful as supercomputers and as small as experimental wristwatches. It's compatible with a wide range of hardware and software, offering speed, reliability, and efficiency.

Just to give you an idea, you'll find Linux on:

  • All the top 500 supercomputers in the world (including Japanese Supercomputer Fugaku, used for real-time prediction of tsunami and health research)

  • Amazon Web Services (AWS) infrastructure (Amazon has even created its own version, Amazon Linux)

  • Your Android smartphone

  • The 2013 Cadillac XTS, using Linux for the Cadillac User Experience

  • Smartwatches

  • And the laptop where I'm writing this article!

How did Linux come to be?

ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Source)

In the mid-20th century, when computers lived inside big warehouses, there wasn't just one operating system. Every machine had its own way of functioning based on a customized assembly code, a form of low-level programming. You had to learn how each computer worked from the ground up if you wanted to use it, which was time-consuming—and quite inconvenient, even for engineers who live and breathe the technical stuff.

In 1969, Bell Labs released UNIX, the early ancestor of Linux. It was meant to create a standard for many different computers, unifying the experience and the basic functions of each machine, allowing users to hop from computer to computer without relearning everything. All with simplicity and elegance top of mind.

In 1991, in Helsinki, Linus Torvalds was studying computer science when he thought it'd be cool to have a modern, free operating system based on the same principles of UNIX. And that's how Linux was born. The community loved contributing to the source code, adding new compatible hardware and new features, and some even creating entirely new versions of Linux.

Linux vs. Windows

When Torvalds made Linux available, Windows had already been going strong for six years. Linux didn't gain a lot of market share because it was built by and for advanced users—and because there was almost no marketing effort associated with the release.

Windows focused on the personal computer market, offering a user-friendly experience with ease-of-use as the priority. This meant corner-cutting in terms of stability and security, which led to the reputation that Windows would be unpredictable and crash-heavy. Who hasn't beheld the majestic face of a blue screen of death?

In contrast, Linux was built with networking in mind, which means that user- and security-focused features were prioritized. For example, one aspect I like about it is how it handles user privileges, protecting the core processes of the operating system. Even if your user account gets infected with malware—something that is very, very rare, as there aren't many viruses for Linux—only your user space will be affected. The rest of your machine will still be functional and protected.

Also, since Linux is also used to run servers, it's optimized for stability and efficiency, with some sources claiming that Linux can run for years without ever needing to restart.

Related: Windows updates whenever it wants to, even if it has to slow down what you're doing. (No matter how much I tinker with the settings, I always find it updating something behind my back.) Linux is much more straightforward: when there's an update available, it asks you if you want to install it. If you click yes, it'll do it right away, as fast as possible, and once it wraps up, it rarely needs to restart. 

One final difference between Linux and Windows: the price. You need to purchase a license to use Windows for each machine you have. Linux is free, open source software, which means you can install it as many times as you want on as many machines as you'd like.

Linux vs. Mac

There's a reason graphic designers, filmmakers, and animators have Apple products in their studios: the performance and stability of these resource-heavy apps is great when you're using a Mac. It's not just Apple's marketing; when you buy Apple, you're buying a user experience and performance you can trust.

But there are some disadvantages here. 

First, Apple behaves a bit like a console developer. Companies like Sony and Nintendo develop their own hardware and operating systems for gaming, a bit like how Apple develops computers and smartphones. This is great because, no matter what you do, the likelihood that you'll break your system is very, very low—and you can be sure you'll be able to run most of the apps without hiccups. But while you can control the basics of your system's hardware and software, you can't make deep changes if there's trouble or if you want to use software that's more custom. You'll have to rely on Apple support to be able to tinker with your system.

The second disadvantage is tied to the price. Apple's products are pricier when compared with other hardware and software, and the price is also high when considering support costs. Even though there was progress on the right to repair, Apple still has the last word on setting the price for parts.

Linux, on the other hand, might not have the user experience polish that Apple includes in its products, but it has been developed by people who value simplicity and ease of use. Some menus in Ubuntu (a Linux distribution) even resemble the Mac user experience, with a few tweaks.

The support for new parts is constantly growing on Linux, so you're not locked out in terms of hardware. You can install Linux on a brand new machine or even revive old, exotic builds. If you're willing to learn more about it, you can customize a lot of how your computer works and behaves without any barriers. And, again, Linux is free.

What is a Linux distribution?

Since Linux is open source, everyone can take a look at the source code, modify it, and distribute it (as long as the code remains open). Lots of individuals and companies wanted to create their own spins on Linux, with their own takes on the user interface and feature set. And that's how distributions (distros, for short) were born. 

Distros are Linux flavors. Some—such as Ubuntu and Mint—are better for beginners, while others are meant for more advanced users. If you watched Mr. Robot, you saw Rami Malek using a Linux distribution: Kali Linux, famed for penetration testing and hacking. Super advanced users can even build their own Linux distribution to completely fit their needs, using the help of Linux From Scratch.

The distribution you choose will impact your user experience and what kinds of apps come bundled (though you can always install others later through the app store that comes with the distribution).

How hard is Linux to use?

The daily use of Linux, especially Ubuntu and Mint, is very accessible. You no longer have to know terminal commands to do simple things: you can do everything using a graphical user interface, just like on Mac or Windows.

Having said that, Linux developers value productivity, efficiency, security, power, speed, and self-reliance when it comes to choosing software—even if that means investing time in learning. That means that while it'll be mostly accessible, the difficulty can ramp up suddenly if you're looking for a very specific program or solution. But if you're not afraid of getting your hands dirty, you'll find the experience very rewarding, and you'll be able to set up your machine in ways you've never had before.

Does Linux have all the apps I need?

A screenshot of Ubuntu Linux's app list
A screenshot of Ubuntu Linux's app list (Source)

Most software is available as a web app these days, which means you can access it from your browser and don't even need to install any apps. But in many cases, you'll want a native app to run on your desktop. Most common apps, like Zoom and Slack, offer Linux apps if you prefer to have them installed. 

Of course, Linux apps are much less common than Mac and Windows apps. So it depends which apps you want to use—but when I started with Linux, I was surprised to see that I could install most of the apps that I use. The data on Firefox—bookmarks, passwords, and so on—even sync across Windows and Linux if you create an account. (There's also Chromium, the open-source base for Chrome OS, Google Chrome, and a range of other browsers.)

I grew fond of GIMP, an image editing program that runs well in Windows and even better on Linux. OpenOffice or LibreOffice are both open source alternatives to the classic Microsoft Office, and they work quite well if you're not a hardcore Microsoft user. 

And these are just examples—you'll find hundreds more in your distribution's app store.

Can I try Linux before making a choice?

Ubuntu installation options
Ubuntu installation options (Source)

Lots of distributions allow you to try Linux before installing it. Or, if you're not ready to commit, you can install Linux along with Windows on the same machine. If you do, you'll be able to pick which operating system you want to boot into every time you start your computer. Bonus: if Windows ever crashes in the middle of something important, you'll have a backup system to save the day (which is the story of how I started to use Linux).

If you're just starting out, I'd recommend going with either Ubuntu or Mint. Both have a friendly user interface, good documentation to help you get started, and a range of useful apps ready to install.

A screenshot of Linux Mint 19.0
A screenshot of Linux Mint 19.0 (Source)

Let's bump that 2.5% up

A new OS can improve performance or even revive an old computer you thought would never work. Linux is free to install however many times you want, on however many machines you want. Jump on the very tiny bandwagon with me?

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