What Is Linux and Why Is It Essential?

Linux is often described as an alternative operating system that you can use in place of Microsoft Windows, Apple macOS, or Google Chrome OS. But when you search for Linux online, you find that the situation is much more complicated. There just isn't a thing called "Linux" that you can download and put on your computer.

Linux is not a product. It's a whole ecosystem of freely shared software that is distributed in many different ways. This software now powers most of the world's servers, supercomputers, and phones. It's also increasingly becoming a great option for your PC.

What is linux

Technically speaking, Linux is not a desktop operating system, but a kernel. The kernel is the part of your computer that allows the physical hardware to communicate with what is on the screen. The kernel is why text appears as you type, the cursor moves when you swipe the touchpad, and images appear on your monitor.

In the early days of computing, programmers shared code and programs freely. That began to change when companies like IBM, Apple, and Microsoft started posting copyrighted code that users couldn't view and that was restricted on use. In response, the GNU Project was formed to create a fully functional computer powered by software that is 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 working kernel, the Linux kernel appeared and fulfilled this role. Since it was licensed under the GPL, no other kernel was required. People took over the Linux kernel, and that name has stayed the same.

To date, the GNU Project's code provides much of the foundation for software used in conjunction with the Linux kernel, which is why Linux is often referred to as GNU / Linux. But the name is ultimately not as important as the culture that is 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. This software comes with a free software license such as the GPL that grants these rights.

Note that "free" does not refer to the cost in this case. Free software can cost money, but often doesn't because everyone is free to make and distribute a copy that can be downloaded for free.

Many free and open source apps are available for Windows and macOS, such as Firefox, LibreOffice, GIMP, Krita, Blender, and VLC. Many FOSS apps start on Linux before being ported to other platforms. A big part of what makes Linux stand out is that not only are most of the apps free and open source, but the system components that work in the background are as well.

Much of this software comes from volunteers, but some companies pay their employees to maintain or contribute to the free software on which they depend. Some of the code came from students while other code came from people who decided to take an existing proprietary app and republish it under a free license.

These people all work together, contributing to each other's apps, reporting bugs, and using some projects as the basis for new ones. Along with graphic designers, people who package and distribute software, and users, these people are collectively referred to as the free software community.

Not everything created 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 called Gentoo that Google uses as a foundation on which to build its own user interface.

Android also uses the Linux kernel, so technically it's a version of Linux, although you won't have access to most of the software available for Linux.

Why you want to use Linux

Linux is an operating system based on a number of values. If you're okay with these values, this alone can be a good reason to give Linux a try. But there are many pragmatic reasons to switch to Linux.

Linux is freely available to everyone and can be downloaded and used for any purpose, as can most of the apps on it.

Unlike proprietary software, this software is software that you can actually take control of and that gives you real control over your computer. Use it to do what you want. Disassemble and tinker. Put it back together. Learn from it. Let your machine run as long as possible.

Related: The Inestimable Benefits of Moving to Linux If none of these interests you, just use your computer to get things done. When you become dependent on a particular program, you can be confident that its source code will be preserved and that you will continue to be able to run it.

You can set up a workflow that no company will take away from you due to an acquisition or a change in business model (these things still happen in the open source world, but usually someone new steps in to maintain the existing source code rather than watch it disappears).

You can turn your Linux knowledge into a profession or use Linux as a stable foundation for the career of your choice.

How to Download Linux

No company or organization controls Linux, so there is no "one" version of Linux that everyone can gather around. Instead, many different groups have come together with the Linux kernel, GNU tools, and other freely shared software to form separate functional operating systems, commonly known as "distributions" or "distributions".

For the most part, each distribution is a different way of putting together and distributing the same software that everyone else has equal access to.

Some distributions scratch at a specific itch, e.g. B. when producing multimedia or when playing games. Others are just general-purpose operating systems that let you do any task you want, like Windows and macOS.

To download Linux, don't go to linux.com. Instead, choose a distribution to download. Here are some prominent options with a generalized description:

  • Ubuntu: Ubuntu is the most widely used version of Linux. The priority of the project is to develop an operating system that works the way most people expect it to, with access to the apps they want, regardless of whether the code is free and open source.

  • Fedora: Fedora strives to provide the best experience free and open source software can deliver. The Fedora team will not provide you with any apps whose code you cannot view, edit, or share. One of the core values ​​of the project is improving the state of free software for everyone.

  • elementary OS: Another approach to desktop Linux that, instead of distributing the same interfaces and apps you can get on any other distro, uses the existing ecosystem as the foundation for its own desktop experience aimed at people, looking for a free and open alternative to Windows and macOS.

These are just a few of the many hundreds, if not thousands, or Linux distributions floating around the Internet. There's no best way to start using Linux for the first time, and that choice can leave some people feeling paralyzed. In the end, decide on one and if you like it, stick with it. If not, try another 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 operates ATMs, gas pumps, and on-board entertainment. It manages websites, registers, and the drones we send to Mars.

Linux is one of the largest free software projects in the world. It shows how much people can achieve together. Developers today are choosing to use open source projects as a foundation instead of building everything from scratch. And when people contribute, the software becomes better for everyone. Will you be the next member of the community?

The best Linux operating systems

The best Linux distributions are hard to find. Unless you're reading our list of the best Linux operating systems for gaming, Raspberry Pi, and more.

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About the author

Bertel King
(340 published articles)

Bertel is a digital minimalist who works with GNOME on a handy laptop and carries a Light Phone II with him. He enjoys helping others decide which technology to bring into their lives … and which to forego.

From Bertel King

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