Open Source

Linux desktop operating system: A beginner's guide

If you don't know what the Linux desktop operating system is, or if you're new to it, Jack Wallen's quick explainer will get you up to speed.

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Image: Jack Wallen

Linux. What is it? At one point in time it was a niche operating system run by those who wanted to show off their PC prowess and feel more alternative and l33t than the rest. But something happened on the way to the convention — Linux became accepted. Not only did this platform become accepted, it was adopted as a must-have technology by enterprise-level businesses, where reliability, flexibility, and security are key.

But for the masses, those that have really only ever known either Windows or Mac, the question still remains. What is Linux?

I want to answer that question for you. The answer will not be exhaustive (for that you'll need a book) and will target those that have had zero exposure to the operating system. I'm not going to pull it back so far as to answer the question, "What is an operating system?" I'm fairly confident the masses have that one down; so we'll focus on only this one particular operating system.

Linux.

And with that said, let me dive into the answer.

It's really a kernel

If you ask the question, "What is Linux?" to a purist, they'll tell answer, "It's a modular kernel, created by Linus Torvalds." That's not an answer that helps us much, as the average user would then need to understand what a kernel is and why it's relevant to the issue at hand. Instead, I want to go by the broader definition of Linux, and say it's an operating system powered by the Linux kernel.

But what makes it so special?

To understand why Linux is so special, you have to first understand what open source is. Open source is software for which the original source code is made freely available to the public. With this source code you can modify and redistribute the software in any way you see fit (so long as you retain attribution to the original creator). In the modern vernacular, open source applies to much more than software. Nearly anything can be "open sourced" these days. The important factor in this is that the original designs, plans, schematics, etc. must be made available for the public to use.

I can already hear your next question: But if anyone can view the source code, how do companies sell their software? You'll be surprised to hear that most open source software is given away for free. That's right, adopting open source software can mean you're entire software library can be had free of charge. And most of the open source software you can find is very high quality. Outside of the operating system, you'll find free software such as:

  • LibreOffice - a full-blown office suite
  • The GIMP - an image editing tool similar to Photoshop
  • Evolution - a groupware tool similar to Microsoft Outlook
  • Audacity - a powerful audio recording software
  • OpenShot - a user-friendly video editing tool
  • Firefox - a widely-used web browser

That list goes on and on. Couple that with plenty of music and video players, even more browsers and email clients, just about every productivity tool you can think of, and you have the making for a computing platform that does everything your current operating system will do.

But why bother? If it will only do what my current operating system will do, what would make me want to use Linux? Therein lies the crux of the issue. There are three ideals that Linux offers that are unmatched by any other platform:

  • Reliability
  • Flexibility
  • Security

Let's talk about these ideals now.

Reliability

One of Linux's biggest selling points to enterprise businesses is its reliability. You can deploy a Linux server into a data center and know that it can be counted on, 24/7/365. That reliability translates from enterprise servers to the desktop. Unlike other desktop platforms, Linux won't automatically start an upgrade process that will span hours of time (preventing you from working all the while); nor will it bog down after months (or years) of usage. Of the 20 years I have used Linux as my only operating system, I can count on one hand the times where the platform has caused me issues that required either A) serious troubleshooting or B) an operating system reinstall. It's that reliable.

Flexibility

For me, one of the most appealing aspects of Linux has always been its flexibility. If I don't like the way something looks or behaves, I can change it; not by re-coding the software, but by finding a different piece of software that does the same thing in a way that's agreeable to my needs. Say, for instance, I don't like the way the Ubuntu Linux desktop looks or behaves. I can install a completely different desktop (or use a different distribution altogether - more on that in a bit). Or say I don't like the way a piece of software functions. Most often the developers of software make it easy (by way of a configuration file) for users to change the behavior of their applications to a far greater degree than most proprietary software.

Security

Although no computer platform is 100% secure from malicious code and intent, Linux outshines all of its competition. When you're running a Linux desktop, you might be surprised to see there is no antivirus or anti-malware software running. Why? There is no need. Thanks to the fundamental security of the platform, it is not nearly as vulnerable as is the Windows platform. In all the years I have been using Linux, I have only experienced one such issue — a rootkit on a server. Once. That is not luck, that is Linux.

Distributions

This is where the confusion begins for many users. Yes, Linux is an operating system (based on the Linux kernel, yeah, yeah, yeah), but where do I get it? That depends on which distribution you want to use.

Distribution?

That's right. There's isn't just one "official" Linux operating system. In fact, there are hundreds to choose from. There's:

To find out just how many more distributions there are, visit Distrowatch.

But what is a distribution? A Linux distribution is a variation on the Linux operating system that packages together different software (all running on the Linux kernel) that may meet different needs. Very often, the primary focus of each distribution is the desktop environment, of which there are plenty.

This is getting confusing, right?

Let me help you with that.

Desktop environments

The desktop environment is the pretty windows and menus you use to interact with the software you install. With Linux there are quite a few desktop environments (each of which offers a very different look, feel, and featureset). Some of the most popular desktop environments are:

Another list that goes on and on. Some Linux desktops pride themselves on being very lightweight, so they run on older hardware very well (or make new hardware perform faster than you can imagine). Some Linux desktops are massive in their features and go a very long way to help the user be productive.

Speaking of software

You know the Apple Store? Linux had that first. Way back in 2001, Synaptic was (and still is) a graphical front end for the apt package manager. This tool enabled you to search through tens of thousands of software titles and install them with a few clicks. This idea was built upon by Ubuntu who released the Ubuntu Software Center in 2009 (the Ubuntu Software Center has been deprecated in favor of GNOME Software). Nearly every distribution makes use of such a tool; so when you need to find software, all you have to do is look through your desktop menu for the software center tool specific to your distribution, search for the software you want, and install.

Speaking of installing, there are really two routes to installing software on Linux:

  • From a GUI front end
  • Command line

Even though installing software from the command line is not terribly difficult, most users will want to work with the GUI front end. Why? Because installing software with that tool is little more than a few clicks away. Open up the Software Center (or whatever it is called on your distribution), search for the software you want to install, and click install. It's that easy. In fact, the Linux operating system has become so easy, you could spend your entire life using the platform and never have to touch the command line. Why even mention this? Years ago, this wasn't possible. When I first started using Linux, the command line was required, and it was often challenging, especially to a new user. Now, one uses the command line out of choice, not out of need.

Where do you get Linux?

First off, if you're wary of installing an operating system on your own, know that the installation of Linux is as easy as installing a piece of software. In other words, if you've installed MS Office, you can install Linux. If, however, you still feel like this is too far above your pay grade, you can always purchase a computer with Linux pre-installed. Vendors that offer this include:

It is also important to note that many Linux distributions also come in what is called a "live" variation. These live distributions can be burned onto a disk, inserted into your computer, and booted. You can then try out Linux without making any changes to your computer. If you like it, install it; if you don't like it, reboot your computer, remove the disk, and go back to your regular operating system.

It's a no-brainer

The reasons why you might want to use Linux may be as many and varied as are the choices of which distribution to use. Once you understand what Linux is all about (as well as the reasons so many now use Linux), the choice quickly becomes a no-brainer.

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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