Linux: A Secret Success Story

Linux is probably one of the better-kept secrets as far as computer operating systems are concerned. Most Windows PC users have likely never heard of it, or if they have overheard the word "Linux", they don't really have any frame of reference as to what it actually is. I'd like to give you an overview of what it is and why it might matter to you.

The Linux kernel was created by a Finnish engineering student as a Unix-like OS, and forms the basis for many different operating systems. Most people are familiar with Windows 7, Windows XP, and Mac OS X, which are non-Linux operating systems and are vastly pouplar. Even so, Linux or systems based upon Linux power a huge number and variety of devices in our modern world. 

As an aside, Mac OS X is based upon Unix and the NeXT operating systems, and therefore shares some common ancestry with Linux.

Google's Android operating system, which powers many smartphones and tablets, is based on Linux. About 90% of the world's supercomputers and 95% of Hollywood's computer graphics servers run on Linux, and at least 50% of all web servers run on Linux - so it's not a second rate option, by any stretch.

The main reason we don't bump into more computers running Linux is that most computer manufacturers use Microsoft Windows; Linux versions simply are not offered. There are likely many reasons for this, but that's the end result. Now, you can buy computers pre-installed with some version of Linux, but you have to seek them out. You can also download and install Linux on you own computer, but a typical Windows user would be unlikely to consider that.

Why would you even want to run Linux instead of Windows? Most different Linux versions (called distributions) are available free of financial cost - but if you already purchased a PC with Windows, you have already paid for a Windows license. However, there are also a larger number of software programs available for Linux free of financial cost, covering almost all of the types of software you might need in a Windows or Mac environment. Software is available via an "app store" type of infrastructure, or you can manually download and install software "packages" suitable for your version of Linux.

For someone who has a particular use in mind for their computer, the various Linux distributions can offer versions tailored towards areas like education, graphics or video, audio and music production, scientific work, and so on. There are also "lightweight" Linux distributions that can bring new life to an older computer, and can be a great option to offer a simple but fully-functional computer for a child or an less experienced adult.

There also a range of interfaces available, from products that closely resemble Windows 7 or XP to those that look more like a Mac, or like Windows 8, to ones that don't really look quite like anything else. You can often choose from different interfaces within the same Linux version, which is an intriguing idea. See below for a couple of video clips of different interface styles.

While the Linux world can offer the functionality of many Windows or Mac programs, there may be some that don't yet have an equivalent Linux version. Windows software will not work on computers running Linux. In those cases, there may still be the option to use the actual Windows program through an emulator such as Wine, which acts as an intermediary allowing the Windows programs to be "tricked" into running on Linux. It can't work with all Windows software, and games can be problematic, but it may do the trick for you and it's impressive how much software does work. Interestingly, viruses written for Windows typically don't affect Linux at all (or Mac OS X , for that matter).

With recent Linux distributions, I have found hardware compatibility to be generally excellent - most things will "just work", which was not always the case just a few years ago. For most Windows users, using a typical Linux distribution (or "distro") would be much less jarring than using Windows 8. With a typical Linux desktop distribution, you can surf the web, play music, burn CDs, watch videos and so on, just as you would expect of a modern operating system - and without purchasing additional software.

Personally, I have a laptop that originally came with Windows 7, which I replaced with Linux Mint. I have not needed to go outside Linux for any software so far, save for a password safe utility which I run under Wine.

Some further resources:

Ubuntu - popular Linux distro from Ireland, featuring a modern user interface

Mint - a Linux distro based upon Ubuntu, but with a more traditional look

Zorin OS - a Linux distro similar to Windows 7 in appearance

Linux Lite - again based upon Ubuntu, but also works well with older hardware

Quimo - a "locked down" version for kids, featuring games and educational content

A quick look at different interfaces:

Ubuntu's Unity interface

Windows vs Linux (Linux Mint)

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