GNU/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.
GNU/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 GNU/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).
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 the ones we recommend for newcomers, 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? GNU/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 GNU/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 GNU/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.