Started by university student Linus Torvalds when he wanted to have a UNIX-like operating system he could run on his PC, Linux has grown into a major platform used for everything from home computers to:
What is Linux, exactly?
Linux is a software kernel, providing the basic support for communication between software and hardware. This kernel is open source, letting anyone look at and modify the source code provided that they share their work. When someone says they “run Linux,” they mean they use a complete OS called a “distribution” or “distro” that’s based on this kernel.
What can Linux do, and why do people use it?
Open source software lets people borrow from existing programming instead of reinventing the wheel, making it a good place to start when building a new software platform. In fact, you’ve probably used a Linux-based system many times without realizing it: Android uses the kernel, cash registers and ATM machines run stripped down “embedded” distributions, and LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) servers make up a large part of the Internet: In fact, there’s a good chance the page you are reading right now was sent from a Linux server.
The openness of the code also allows bugs to be identified and fixed quickly, which has lead government agencies ranging from NASA to the U.S. Department of Defense to adopt this software.
For home users, it’s all about flexibility. There are hundreds of distros tailor made for almost every purpose, from being extremely easy for new computer users to making old hardware compatible with new software standards. Whatever your needs, there’s probably a distro out there that will do what you need.
Most distros will come with enough free software to make a computer usable as soon as the OS is installed. Other software can be added using a built-in package manager, which also allows users to update their entire system by running a single program. Open source hardware support also means most new hardware works without having to install additional software.
Are there disadvantages to using Linux?
Many former problems have been eliminated in recent years: Printer support is nearly universal, while niggling annoyances like sound server compatibility have mostly been solved. Compatible equivalents exist for most major commercial software, although gaming development is lacking, and there’s no way to directly purchase from iTunes.