From Here to There (#1): What is Linux?

28Jan10

The Question

What is Linux? That question seems like it should have an easy answer. Most Linux fans think that the question has been answered well many times during Linux’s roughly eighteen years of existence. Most of the more common explanations begin by saying that Linux is a “Unix-like operating system”. That is technically accurate on the surface, but it does not answer what that rare but curious person is really asking when they wonder “what is Linux”? For example, I’ve had people ask what version of Windows I’m running after I tell them that I’m running Linux and nothing else. In reality they tend to be asking what my graphical environment is, or maybe even where I got my “desktop wallpaper”. (A discussion about the alternate graphical environments will come later in this series.) That question alone illustrates how most definitions fail to answer what the person is asking in the first place.

For the average consumer, a typical PC comes with Microsoft Windows on it and Windows is the PC to them. They are unaware that their PC is capable of running something other than Windows. To further complicate things, the Linux, Windows and Mac OS platforms are different enough in philosophies and approaches, that the users of each tend to only see computers through their own experience. Those differences make it harder to learn to do a lot of the same things across multiple computer platforms. When someone tries out any software they’ve never used before there are, of course, new things to learn. Finally, in many cases, the consumer doesn’t really even have a clear understanding of what Windows actually is, which will make understanding any other computer platform difficult at best. In the eyes of many users, there is no separation between Windows and Word, for example. Trying to understand the difference can be very hard since software isn’t something you can touch or that can touch you. This blog entry’s intention is to try and make those roadblocks clearer to both the technically inclined and the interested computer user.

Hidden Questions

First, we’ll start with something I’ve noticed in my, as yet, relatively short career supporting computers and users: misunderstandings and miscommunication are the main sources of interference when trying to solve a computer problem. My wife, a confirmed non-tech, has commented many times that when she hears me providing technical support on the phone, or talking shop with some friends, it sounds like a completely foreign language to her. The only parts of those conversations that make sense are the words in plain English. Sort of like a career specific dialect! Computer support staff and computer users come from different backgrounds with words that are specific to their jobs, but which are second nature to them while working. They simply don’t speak the same version of the native language. Because of this, problems communicating should come as no surprise to either side.

Because of the miscommunication, both sides of a technical support conversation will make many assumptions which eventually lead people down the wrong path. In the case of our core question, “What is Linux?”, these misunderstandings appear when the technically inclined person hears the question, but doesn’t ask the user for more details about what the user is really asking them. When someone who is honestly curious asks “what is Linux”, they may be asking a lot more than what the standard answers address. Here is a sample of some hidden questions that I’ve been able to coax out of people who have asked me in one way or another; “what is Linux”? After reading some of these, it should be pretty clear that asking a lot more questions to really understand what a user really wants to know is extremely important.

Q1. What is an OS (operating system)? What is Windows?
A1. This is the most basic question you’ll get from someone asking you what Linux is. At this point, they may not be ready to try Linux yet. Or if they insist that they are, it might be better to direct them to a simpler to use version of Linux like Ubuntu.

Q2. I know what Windows is, but what is Linux? Is Linux another program for Windows kind of like Office or Quicken? And if so, how is it better than just using Windows and the programs I already have and know?
A2. Linux is just like Windows in that it’s a type of software called an “operating system” (OS). While it may look different, and do things differently, and be based on older philosophies including the benefits and drawbacks that come with them, it does nearly all of the same things that Windows can do. There are some things that Windows can do that Linux can’t, but it’s also true that there are just as many things that Linux can do that Windows can’t. Every year the already small number of things that Linux can’t do continues to get even smaller.

Q3. Does Microsoft make Linux? How much does it cost? Why would I want to spend more money on Linux when I already have Windows and a bunch of programs that all came free with my computer?
A3. A lot of confusion comes from the multitude of different Linux “brands” which are officially known as distributions or “distros” for short. These differ from Windows and Mac OS in that not only are many of them completely free of charge and include a complete working system (OS), but they tend to include a huge selection of additional applications. Each distribution is put together in a way that will hopefully integrate all of the software into a seamless experience. Most distributions do this with differing levels of success, Ubuntu being the most successful. Spending the time to try and learn how to use a Linux distribution might be worthwhile to your wallet and certainly to increasing how much you know about your computer and how it works.

Q4. I’ve heard of this thing called Linux, but it’s only for computer types and can’t really do a lot of the things Windows can do. Right?
A4. Linux is for anyone who is willing to trade a some time and effort to learn it in exchange for quite a few different freedoms. The most commonly touted freedom is “free of charge”. Many people argue that the time spent to learn Linux is expensive. This is, in part, because they’ve forgotten that at one point they needed to spend the time to learn the OS they use now and also because they assume that learning Linux will take more time than that. In the case of easier to use distributions like Ubuntu, Fedora or SuSE, the learning cost is the same as with Windows or Mac OS X. You’re only learning a new set of approaches to do things you’re already familiar with, not a completely new set of procedures you’ve never performed before. As far as things that you can do in Windows vs. Linux, that’s not the topic of this entry. Let’s just say that if you spend the time to learn Linux, you’ll find plenty of software that will most likely meet your needs.

There are actually a lot of answers to the question, “What is Linux” because behind that question there are usually multiple questions that possibly have absolutely nothing to do with Linux. To try and stay away from technical jargon, I’m going to try and answer some of these questions over the next few blog entries in a conversational style. Where I can’t avoid technical terms, I’ll try to explain them as clearly as possible in plain English, possibly with bad analogies. If nothing else it might make you laugh.

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