What Is Linux? A Guide for Non-technical Users

What is the Linux Operating System? What is it used for? Learn the answers in this easy-to-understand introductory guide.

New to Linux? Linux is as much a phenomenon as it is an operating system. In fact, Linux is what supports much of the internet, but the general public is not all that familiar with the word Linux.

This guide for non-technical users can help you get started.

What is Linux Operating System?

Linux is an operating system, just like Microsoft Windows or macOS. An operating system is a software that enables the communication between computer hardware and software.

Linux is free and open-source software, which means that you can use, copy, and change the software. It’s freely available to everyone. In other words, you do not have to pay a dime to use it. Just download it, and install it on your computer. 

The Linux kernel is the main component of the Linux operating system. The kernel is a software code that serves as a layer between the hardware and the main programs that run on a computer.

It was created by Linus Torvalds back in the early 1990s in Finland and licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). In other words, Torvalds made the Linux kernel available to the world for free. There is an official website for the Linux kernel.

The rest of the Linux operating system consists of other programs, many of which were written by or for the GNU Project. These utilities were then added to the Linux kernel to create a complete operating system.

So, the kernel is an essential part of the Linux operating system, but it is useless by itself because the Linux kernel alone does not form a working operating system. It can only function in the context of a complete operating system.

Linux distributions use the Linux kernel alongside GNU tools and libraries that interact with it. This combination is sometimes referred to as GNU/Linux.

So Linux is just a kernel, but the term Linux is far more commonly used by the public and media, and it serves as a generic term for systems that combine that kernel with software from multiple other sources.

Therefore when most people say Linux, they’re talking about a combination of the Linux kernel plus many tools and libraries from the GNU Project.

In short, both the terms Linux and GNU/Linux refer to the same operating system and software. However, there’s still debate about which term is more appropriate.

What is a Linux Distribution?

When Linux was originally developed, distributions did not exist. So the first developers had to download the kernel source code, then use various sophisticated tools to compile it, install it on the system and compile the individual pieces of software they needed.

They had to assemble those all by hand. As you can imagine, that wasn’t easy to do.

So very quickly, the developers figured out that it would be helpful to provide the “distribution of tools” that new developers and new users could use to set up living systems quickly.

Furthermore, it rapidly turned out there wouldn’t be just one Linux distribution because there were many different use cases, and people wanted different sets of tools for various purposes.

As a result, hundreds of Linux distributions are available today, and each targets specific users or systems such as desktops, servers, mobile devices, or embedded devices.

More widely used Linux distributions include Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, openSUSE, Linux Mint, Arch Linux, Manjaro, etc.

Related: What Linux Version Am I Running? Here’s How to Find Out

The distribution vendor has to act as a curator, selecting which programs and which versions of those programs they want to include and support.

On top of that, they also have to provide a way to install and update that software easily. In addition, they need to provide some way to support that software.

Linux now has many variants, all based around the same original kernel. A Linux distribution, often shortened to Linux distro, is an operating system composed of the Linux kernel, GNU tools and libraries, additional software, and a package manager.

Related: Linux Distro Types Explained: Originals, Derivatives, Flavors

The Linux distribution vendors/developers do the hard work for you, taking all the code from many open-source projects and compiling it for you, combining it into a single operating system, Linux distribution, that you can boot up and install.

Who Makes Linux Now?

The Linux operating system isn’t produced by a single organization but by a large community of open-source projects. Different organizations and people work on different parts.

Linux is a computer operating system that is developed using the open-source model.

The open-source development model also means that improvements come from many different corporate and individual contributors, so the product direction is primarily determined by the community of users rather than by a single development team at a single vendor.

Who Uses Linux?

Linux runs almost everything these days, but many people are unaware of that. Companies and individuals choose Linux for their servers because it’s secure and flexible.

But let’s face some facts. Every single one of the world’s top 500 supercomputers uses Linux. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider relies on Linux. In addition, NASA’s International Space Station switched to Linux due to the operating system’s reliability.

On top of that, New York Stock Exchange (NYSC) which provides means for buyers and sellers to trade shares of stock in companies registered for public trading, relies solely on Linux.

In addition, the United States Department of Defense uses Linux.

Mega companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, LinkedIn, etc., use Linux for their servers. We can continue this list indefinitely. So the internet we use today really couldn’t exist without Linux.

In other words, every Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram post you make, every YouTube video you watch, and every Google search you type runs on Linux behind the scene.

In fact, the very website you’re reading right now is running on Linux.

You probably already use Linux, whether you know it or not. Many devices you probably own, such as Android phones and tablets and Chromebooks, smart TVs, e-readers, digital storage devices, personal video recorders, cameras, wearables, and more, also run Linux.

The car you drive might well be running Linux. While some companies, like Tesla, run their own homebrew Linux, most rely on Automotive Grade Linux (AGL)

You are probably asking yourself: “Why Linux instead of another operating system?”. The answer is that only Linux combines high stability, security, flexibility, and low cost.

Who Owns Linux Operating System?

It is clear that Microsoft owns Windows and Apple owns macOS, but does anybody own Linux? At first glance, you might think nobody does because it’s free and anyone can use it.

The main creator of the Linux kernel is Linus Torvalds. But that doesn’t mean that Torvalds himself or any other single entity has ownership of the Linux source code in full. Instead, an official Kernel group maintains what must be part of the Linux kernel.

Torvalds himself approves many changes made to Linux, but that doesn’t give him the copyright to those changes.

You can contribute code to Linux, which then gets approved by the community, but you get to retain the copyright to that piece of code. That means you will become one of the thousands of collective owners of Linux.

To be as precise as possible, the Linux trademark is owned by Linus Torvalds for “Computer operating system software to facilitate computer use and operation.”

His assignee, the Linux Mark Institute, is empowered to collect licensing fees from companies and individuals who want to use the word commercially.

Linux, and the Linux community, are about freedom. So, who owns Linux? There is only one simple answer: The community owns Linux.

Bobby Borisov

Bobby Borisov

Bobby, an editor-in-chief at Linuxiac, is a Linux professional with over 20 years of experience. With a strong focus on Linux and open-source software, he has worked as a Senior Linux System Administrator, Software Developer, and DevOps Engineer for small and large multinational companies.

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