When you hear the word Linux, you may think of programmers with a beard typing obscure code on a black screen. Good news! things have changed.
Linux is an operating system, a large piece of software that manages a computer. It is similar to Microsoft Windows, but it is entirely free. The accurate name is GNU/Linux but "Linux" is used more often.
Linux is not one company's product, but a number of companies and groups of people contribute to it. In fact, the GNU/Linux system is a core component, which is branched off into many different products. They are called distributions.
Distributions change the appearance and function of Linux completely. They range from large, fully supported complete systems (endorsed by companies) to lightweight ones that fit on a USB memory stick or run on old computers (often developed by volunteers).
A prominent, complete and friendly distribution to step into GNU/Linux is Ubuntu.
GNU/Linux is no harder to use than Windows, and has many more capabilities. It just takes a dozen minutes to get familiar with a distribution like Ubuntu or Fedora, which come in with many programs installed.
If you need commercial-quality software to work with business documents, Internet/networking, or multimedia and graphics, it's there right out of the box. Want more than that? Linux can do – there are many hundreds of free, high quality applications you can find, install and uninstall neatly and easily.
You shouldn't assume however, that Linux is a clone of Windows. To know what to expect when stepping into it, we suggest you read our Making the switch page.
The larger picture
When you get a distribution of GNU/Linux, you also get the freedom to study, copy, change, and redistribute it – that's what makes it truly free software.
Many companies develop their own operating system based on the core GNU software: products they do not have exclusive rights on. How does the wheel turn?
- Most companies make a profit by selling support and services around their GNU/Linux distribution. Corporate customers buy guaranteed security updates and assistance. Other services often include training and on-demand improvements to software.
- Some companies, such as HP or IBM, contribute to Linux because they pre-install it on servers they sell.
- An extremely wide community participates in the development and improvement of software, decreasing costs and improving efficiency.
In the end, individual end-users often get the software at zero cost, while corporate customers are often happy to pay for more support.