Apple and Microsoft are the two household operating system creators known by the majority of consumers. However, they are not the only ones. While Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s Mac OS are commonly viewed as the two dominant desktop titans, there is a third often overlooked player: Linux.
Linux is not an operating system by itself though, it is only the kernel of an operating system. The kernel of all modern versions of Windows is “Windows NT”, while the one of Mac OS X is “XNU”. I won’t go into too much technical detail, but roughly the kernel is a middleman between the programs that run on your computer and the underlying physical hardware. So, if you open a text document residing on a disk, the text editor would ask the kernel to do this, and in turn the kernel would ask the disk. The details of accessing the disk are hidden from the text editor, which is nice since it doesn’t need to know the myriad of different media that your text document could be stored on: a hard-drive, USB stick, CD, DVD, Blu-Ray Disc or network drive.
When the Linux kernel is combined with a set of applications it actually becomes possible to operate the machine it is installed on using those applications, hence it really becomes an operating system. In the Linux world such a combination of the kernel and applications is referred to as a distribution. A distribution commonly includes a set of core applications created by the GNU Project. There are many different distributions, some target a broad audience that want an easy-to-use desktop, like Fedora Core, Ubuntu and SuSE. These usually offer an intuitive graphical user interface like GNOME or KDE. Besides this there are distributions that are specialized to make it easy to, for example, run a media center or a web server.
If you’re still with me, you may be convinced you’ve never ever used Linux, and perhaps you’d even like to try it. However, if you have used an Android telephone or browsed the web than you have most definitely used Linux. Google’s Android actually uses the Linux kernel. That’s right: many smartphones, and tablets, are running Linux nowadays! Additionally, most of Google’s application actually run on Linux even if you access them via your browser. Besides this the majority of web sites use the Apache web server which is also often run on Linux systems.
Since Linux is prolific nowadays, you may wonder: is there some big company behind it? Windows has Microsoft, MacOS is backed by Apple. However, Linux is non-profit and open source. You can find out how that works and what it means here. The foundations of what we know as Linux today were created by Linus Torvalds twenty years ago. However, many people have contributed to it over the years, both volunteers and paid developers. Indeed, large companies, like Intel, IBM and even Microsoft, have contributed code to the Linux kernel. Besides this there are several companies that have become famous for their continuous involvement in Linux: Red Hat, Canonical and Novell. These make money primarily through support and services, targeted primarily at the enterprise.
Is Linux usable as a desktop operating system for your day-to-day activities? This was the big goal a decade ago: to get the Linux desktop, notably GNOME and KDE, to the same level as graphical user interfaces of other operating systems. Whether the developers have succeeded in this depends largely on how you use your desktop in your day-to-day life. The best way to find out is to actually try it. If you are a newcomer to Linux I usually recommend Ubuntu, which you can download here, as its one of the easiest user-friendly distributions around. However, feel free to take a look around to see if there is an other distribution that appeals to you.