Introduction to Linux
Technically speaking Linux is the kernel (core) of what's become known as the "Linux operating system." When most people talk about Linux today they're actually referring to the entire collection of software around and including the Linux kernel. This collection of software plus the Linux kernel is more accurately referred to as a Linux Distribution (Distro).
According to Wikipedia there are over 600 Linux distributions. If you've never looked into Linux before it might surprise you to know that you've probably used it before without knowing. Most home routers run a very tiny version of Linux, and the Android operating system is technically a Linux distribution with a bunch of proprietary software attached to it. Most "Smart TVs" run Linux and a number of game consoles have been built around Linux.
Given that Linux runs on a lot of devices it's not surprising that the "face" of Linux can look vastly different depending on the device. Linux on a home router has a different interface than Linux on a Smart TV. Of course behind it all is the command-line, but here I'm talking about the graphical user interface most of us see, whether it's a web-based interface from a router or a "10-foot interface" designed to be shown on big screen televisions. Not surprisingly there are dozens of desktop environments designed for computer systems.
Earlier I mentioned Linux Distributions. Different distributions of Linux tend to focus on different desktop environments. Here are a few Linux distributions and their respective matching desktop environment:
- Ubuntu - Unity
- Debian - GNOME 3
- Linux Mint Cinnamon - Cinnamon
- OpenSUSE - KDE
- Linux Lite - XFCE
- Devuan GNU/Linux - LXDE
- Solus - Budgie
- Elementary - Pantheon
- Puppy Linux - JWM
- AntiX - Fluxbox
- Bodi - Enlightenment (Moksha)
The point of this list is to show the kind of choice that exists in the Linux community. Some view choice as a bad thing, arguing that focus on one desktop environment would allow that environment to become dominant enough to challenge the likes of Microsoft Windows. Others argue that it's been tried before and there's more to winning the desktop environment than just a well designed interface. The fact that community gets a voice allows these arguments to exist and gives us choice. Having one dominant force/player isn't always a good thing.
That choice extends to most Linux distributions. GNOME might be the default desktop for Fedora Linux, but you can also install KDE, XFCE, LXDE, MATE, and Cinnamon desktop environments on Fedora. The same holds true of most Linux distributions. You're not stuck with one desktop environment like you are on popular commercial alternatives.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the command line interface (CLI). For a very long time die-hard supporters of certain operating systems tried to cast Linux in a negative light by arguing that because Linux had a command line interface at its base it was inherently difficult to use. That argument is just plain garbage. It might have held true 20 years ago when the command line interface was needed for most configuration details, but this hasn't been the case for many years (unless you're using a distributions like Linux From Scratch to learn the fundamentals of OS design). Having sold and supported Linux systems for the past 13 years I've seen people from all walks of life who've never used Linux before adapt with little to no help.
These days you don't have to use the CLI, but once you learn a few shortcuts, the CLI tends to be the fastest way to do many jobs. This is one of the reasons Microsoft decided to implement UNIX-like commands in Windows through PowerShell. The command line interface is fast, it's powerful, and capable.
This leads me to mention the most popular use of Linux - as a server. Linux has lead the server market for a long time. Part of the reason for this is that it's possible to set up a mail, web, ftp, nfs, proxy, communications or database server with no upfront capital cost. UNIX-based servers cost thousands of dollars and Windows based servers with add-ons and client access licenses (CALs) can range from the hundreds to thousands of dollars, and we're just talking about the initial investment. In simple language, Linux gives you a way to set up a server without spending a lot of money.
We're getting a bit geeky here, so let's take a moment and step back and look at a few people who use Linux to do real work:
- Stefan Chirila, Fine Art Photographer
- François Téchené, Film Maker and creative director at Purism
- Alison Macrina, Director of the Library Freedom Project
- Piers Anthony, Author (yes that Piers Anthony)
This small list of people is just to show that you don't need to be a super-geek to use Linux.