What is Linux: Definition, History, Significance, Perks, and Pitfalls

Updated · Oct 17, 2022

What device are you reading this article on?

If it happens to be an Android smart device, you are using a machine running Linux at its core. The majority of web servers, including ours that is serving you this very page, and cloud infrastructure are Linux-based as well. “So, what is Linux, some piece of internet software?” the uninitiated might ask.

Well, Linux isn’t found just in your smartphone or on the internet, it’s probably present in your car as well, be it an Audi, Honda, or Mercedes. Not impressed yet?

How about this – all of the world’s top 500 supercomputers use Linux as their OS (in case you’re scratching head as to what an OS is, we’ll explain that later). It also powers most of the software behind the US Department of Defense, Amazon, Instagram, and Wikipedia, to name just a few.

So, is Linux an operating system? Yes, but it’s a little more than that. Linux is clearly much more present in our lives than we realize, but it tends to get overshadowed by its bigger, older cousins Windows and Macintosh. As a result, relatively few people know much about it, and some have never even heard of it.

If you feel like your knowledge about Linux is lacking, then this article is for you.

We’ll talk about everything one should know about when discussing Linux – its history, the things that make it special, and why it’s as popular with programmers and other tech-savvy people as it is.

What Is Linux?

An OS is the background software that connects and communicates with all the other software on a computer or smart device. You can think of it as the brain that tells all the body parts to move in a certain way. Without an OS, it would be more difficult to use computers, mobile devices, programs, and apps.

Basically, the Linux operating system is an example of a non-proprietary OS. If you’re still wondering what an operating system is, you’re probably unaware that you already know the answer. The only thing you should do is to check your device’s information and see which platforms powers it. Apart from Linux, systems like Windows or Mac are the most popular instances of such platforms.

But before we proceed to the more complex parts of the story, let’s briefly explain what does “Linux” mean. In an interview with Ars Technica, Linus Torvald, its creator, recalled that:

“Linux was my working name, so in that sense, he (Ari Lemmke, the then administrator of the FTP server) didn’t really name it, but I never wanted to release it as Linux. Linux was a perfectly good working name, but if I actually used it as the official one people would think that I am an egomaniac, and wouldn’t take it seriously. So I chose this very bad name “Freax,” for “Free Unix.” Luckily, Ari Lemmke used this working name instead. And after that, he never changed it.”

With that out of the way, we can get down to what Linux actually is. In broad strokes, the following could be a sound Linux definition:

Linux is a series of free to use, open-source operating systems (OS).

If this definition sounds reductionist, that’s because it is. However, it serves as a great starting point for exploring Linux further.

The Kernel

The next question, which might be considered, technically, the real question is what is Linux kernel. Kernels are core pieces of software responsible for managing the most basic of resources like CPU, the hardware, and communication with other programs. When you download a variant of Linux, most of it is GNU-based software (libraries and tools) that comes along with the kernel. Usually, the kernel is enough for people to call the whole package Linux since it’s the heart of the OS.

When downloading Linux, you’ll quickly come across something called “distribution.” Distributions (a.k.a. distros) are a kind of “bundle” of different programs wrapped together with a Linux kernel that you can download. These come in all shapes and sizes, and choosing one really comes down to personal preferences. Some popular choices include Elementary OS, Arch Linux, Linux Mint, and Ubuntu.

Another term you’ll surely see tossed around is “shell.The shell is a GUI (Graphical User Interface) that facilitates the communication between the user and the OS through visuals like selectable buttons and images.

Advanced users often forego the GUI in favor of direct input of commands that execute programs. Something called bash (Bourne Again SHell) does just that and can be found on most Linux distributions, but other command processors exist as well, such as ksh and zsh.

Now that we know a bit more about it, we can provide a more accurate Linux definition:

Linux is a series of free to use, open-source operating systems (OS) obtained via distributions or distros. These distros contain the original source code called the kernel, accompanying GNU software (distros), and the shell which visually displays the OS.

Learn the History of Linux

Linux is closely connected to Unix.

If you were to compare the definition of Linux and Unix, you would find that the former is basically an extension of the latter. Unix is a multi-user, multi-tasking operating system. It inspired and enabled the creation of many technological advances, even the internet.

Work on Unix began in 1969, with the first version being completed in 1971. What made it unique is that it was written in the C programming language, rendering it less dependant on how out of date the hardware it operated on was. By definition Unix also included the benefit of a clear, hierarchical organization of files, as well as the ability to run more than one operation or application at a time.

In the following decades, there have been attempts to expand upon the Unix formula, toying with the idea of making an open-source version of it. The GNU kernel (also called GNU Hurd) is a prominent example of such a version, now an essential part of the Free Software Foundation.

Linux would later draw heavily from GNU code to the point where today many consider it a GNU kernel. But the first mention of the Linux OS wouldn’t happen until the 1990s.

On August 25th, 1991, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish undergraduate at the University of Helsinki, announced that he would begin work on a new, Unix-like kernel.

The reason behind the decision stemmed from Linus’s frustration with the licensing for the educational OS called MINIX, which was based on Unix. Annoyed by the license loop hopping needed to work with MINIX, he set out to create a free, open-source OS.

Three years later, the first version of Linux was released by an entire team of developers and backers who all saw the massive potential behind the project. From then on, the code of Linux has been steadily increasing, and its community and popularity among programmers mushroomed.

Linux vs Windows: What Makes Linux Different?

Now that we have a better idea of Linux’s nature and where it comes from, it would be a good idea to see what sets it apart from its main competitor – Windows.

Linux Is Open Source

One of Linux’s unique traits is that it’s open-source. That means that its code is publicly available so that other people can look at, edit, or contribute to it. That way, anybody with a bit of know-how can adapt a Linux kernel to suit their needs, and can then share this new version with the world.

This makes the latest Linux OS code very flexible and malleable in the right hands. It can perform differently depending on how it’s programmed. Beyond that, you can find versions with both quite similar and dramatically different UIs than that of Windows’.

Those marginally familiar with Linux often say they’ve heard it isn’t user-friendly and intuitive to use. While that may have been true in the past, there have been massive improvements, and now there’s a slew of visually pleasing and easy to use displays to choose from.

Linux Is Free

Another great thing about Linux is that it’s completely free. You are more than welcome to simply download any distribution of your liking and go wild with it. You can install it, use it how you wish, modify it in any way you want, give it to other people – it’s all allowed, if not downright encouraged.

And if you’re worried about the installation process being a hassle, current features of the Linux operating system make the process easier than ever. While it’s true that installation was complicated years before, the whole ordeal has been greatly streamlined, and now it’s about as easy as it gets.

There’s even the Linux live distro, which you can store on your flash or CD, insert into a computer, and run an instance of the OS without changing a single thing on the device.

But if you’d prefer to have Linux as your default OS, you could check out an excellent installation tutorial here (note that it’s for Ubuntu, but the procedure for other popular distros like Mint is not that different).

Linux Distros Have Unlimited Apps

Popular user-friendly Linux variations (Ubuntu and Mint, for instance) have software centers where users can download practically any app they need.

For free.

From verified sources.

Just like that.

Linux Is More Secure

Programmers will often tout Linux for its relatively high level of security when compared to Windows or macOS. It is all thanks to its unique architecture and also the Linux open-source nature. Since its code is available for the public to inspect, programmers and developers from around the globe can call attention to bugs or any potential breaches for cyber attacks.

The other major explanation for why Linux is deemed safer than most OS’s is simply due to how small its market influence is. Windows takes over 75% of the desktop OS global market share, while Apple’s X OS has a significantly lower, but still impactful share—12%.

Enjoying the lion’s share of the desktop market, these two are far more exposed to cyber threats just because of how widespread they are. Because not so many users download Linux (only above 1% of them do), it makes it far less likely to receive as much unwanted attention from hackers.

All these traits made Linux a professional developer darling, and Linux distributions like Debian, Red Hat, and Fedora are often used in tandem with server software like Apache. Linux has so much going for it that even Google is giving its model a go – both Chrome OS, released in 2011, and Chromium OS are based on the Linux kernel.

Beware: Linux Disadvantages

Before you leap to the keyboard to type “Linux operating system download” and experience the god-sent bliss that is Linux, a warning is in order – no OS is not perfect and Linux distros are no exception. As with anything else, there are shortcomings to them, and these do need to be addressed to get the full picture.

Linux Is Not Windows

The most obvious problem would have to be that the transition from using Windows to being comfortable with a Linux computer would hardly go by without a hitch. Operating the Linux OS presents a bit of a challenge for a few reasons.

Even though popular distros like Ubuntu and Mint have excellent interfaces, the organization of menus and items is not the same as Windows. It takes some time to get used to.

Linux distros have functions that are yet to be found in a standard Windows edition and these can be daunting, at times.

Linux Has Few Video Games

The video gaming industry is huge. It has grown into a multi-billion dollar business, and the PC portion of it took up about 25% of it in 2018. Such a massive market would be amazing to take part in, but unfortunately, very few games are compatible with the Linux operating systems.

Some of them, like Pillars of Eternity, Civ VI, and Dying Light do run on Linux just fine, but you would be hard-pressed to find a lot of them.

Well aware of what is Linux and that it holds such a small piece of the desktop OS market, the incentive for game developers to cater to that demographic doesn’t really exist. As a result, most young people will shy away from Linux and instead opt for an operating system that video games can be played on, which will, in turn, make them more accustomed to those platforms and less likely to migrate to another one.

Most Windows Programs Don’t Work on Linux

Most programs that have become a business staple aren’t compatible with Linux. Should you want to use Microsoft Office on a Linux computer, you’re in for a bad surprise. Having in mind that around 1.2 billion Office users were known of in 2016, the problem becomes clear.

Still, the lack of Microsoft Office is mitigated by Open Office and Libre Office, both freely available for Linux users. However, the lack of Photoshop and many other advanced apps can be felt. That puts you in a bit of a bind since the majority of apps and programs people use become off-limits.

Frustrating though it may be, some workarounds can make your life more bearable. For instance, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox both work just fine on Linux, meaning you aren’t left entirely high and dry. But if you really need those programs, there is a solution for that too.

Wine, a compatibility layer, can run Windows applications on Linux. Beyond that, you can use a virtual machine program (KVMs usually come with any Linux package) that fools your OS into thinking it’s running Windows, thus allowing you to run all of its programs.

The Takeaway: Why is Linux so Important?

As you saw, it is easy to define Linux as an open-source, free to use an operating system that offers a level of flexibility and adaptability that many people (especially professional developers) find useful, as evinced by its widespread use in many tech fields.

It comes in a vast array of distributions that look and behave in various ways. While not as prevalent as the most popular operating systems today, it offers a more personalized experience than the competition and can be specialized to serve all sorts of purposes.

The specifics about Linux have been explained, but one question may have been bugging you since the first word of this guide – what is Linux used for and what is its importance? There’s a lot of talk about it, and people eagerly wait to see how it progresses.

But what about it stirs so much attention?

A New Paradigm

The crux of the matter is that Linux is potentially a game-changer in manufacturer and product user interaction.

Linux takes the consumer-vendor dynamic and turns it on its head. Unlike many operating systems, Linux is open source and freely available for everyone to own it. That’s why people needn’t rely on software suppliers as much as they would with a licensed product.

They can use and transform it as they see fit, creating new versions, and sharing them with others. This process gives us a degree of self-sufficiency you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

As a result, more power lies in the hands of the consumer, both in regards to user independence and controlling the quality of the software they prefer to use. A huge step away from what we’re used to, this new approach could forever change how we look at operating systems.

The Linux project has been a unique one, and it grew beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected. It started out as a relatively minor project led by a single computer science student and swelled until it threatened to rival a multinational company.

So what is Linux? It could very well be seen as the present and future of professional computing.

Nick Galov
Nick Galov

Unaware that life beyond the internet exists, Nick is poking servers and control panels, playing with WordPress add-ons, and helping people get the hosting that suits them.