You’ve probably heard of it. What does it do? Why is it so different from Windows or Mac? Why don’t offices use it if it’s so versatile?
First: Battle of the OS
Let’s start from the point that Windows 1 was launched. Microsoft’s new OS (Operating System) is designed to be fairly user friendly. It’s not perfect, but it accomplishes its task: making computers accessible to the layman, to small businesses, and to people who don’t have any experience with computer languages. Apple soon comes out with its own OS, designed to be better than Windows for immediate usability, and also makes a big splash. Microsoft outcompetes other OS’s in the business world by offering Excel for free! with purchase of Windows. Have you ever heard of IBM’s Lotus spreadsheet software? It was an extra charge on top of the OS software. Microsoft’s Excel was not. Lotus goes extinct.
Apple in turn offers a better version of Excel (one that can do more complex things, thanks to the Macintosh OS). This pattern continues for some time.
Other OS’s are still around, but many fizzle out shortly after they launch: Microsoft is a big company with a lot of excellent programmers in its ranks, and when Microsoft improves something, IBM and Apple were usually the only ones who could keep up. Everyone else had relied on specializing to specific companies, which is both time-consuming and inefficient, and gradually little companies died out.
Enter: 90’s. UNIX has been around since the 70s (and spent part of that time free due to an anti-trust law), although it’s commercial use kept shrinking as Microsoft’s share of the market grew. It just couldn’t do as much as Windows, and you weren’t allowed to modify it, so if somebody wanted to spend the money, they’d usually lean towards Microsoft when it became widely available. A Swedish college student really appreciates the base form of UNIX and decides that with a few tweaks (that slowly turned into a lot of tweaks), he could make a version that was good enough to satisfy most people. The rest is history; Microsoft comes to dominate the business world, while Apple follows close behind for the residential computer market, and Linux lives on, ready to port to any number of available devices.
Why Use It?
- It’s free! Completely free. Anybody can download the base form of it and modify it. If someone has the right experience, they can push a computer to the limits.
- It’s open source. Open source means that anybody can access the inner workings, create tools with it, fiddle with the coding, etc. so for people who want to ‘make’ their own OS experience, this is a fantastic tool that doesn’t have other invisible programming getting in the way. This can quickly turn into a curse if you’re hoping to just hop right in with limited experience, but it’s possible. There are also plenty of pre-made versions with a little more meat on their bones for folks who want to download something for a custom computer or smart device, but those usually cost money; like anything else, it’s a tradeoff. Most smartphones use a modified form of Linux.
- Linux is lightweight on hardware. By it’s very nature, raw Linux doesn’t have as much software as a fully completed OS, so when you’re looking to make a robot or get a really old computer up and running, Linux may be the answer to your problems. It allows you to trim the fat where you need to without losing room for features you need. It’s actually a pretty common software/firmware choice for that reason – certain car brands with smart features rely on Linux, along with smart TVs, and a lot of Cloud Infrastructure.
What does it do worse?
- A lot of people are faster on Windows or Mac than they are on Linux. People who have always used Macs are faster at using Macs, and the same goes for Microsoft computers. This comes down to experience, and it’s not really a downside to Linux so much as a natural part of training employees. However, when a company also needs a lot of ordinary tools, like Excel or Word, buying Windows computers and bulk licenses is frequently cheaper than making and training employees on the tools yourself.
- There’s only vendor support for your Linux tool if it A) was bought from a vendor and B) they offer vendor support. In-house projects have the power of the programmer that made it, and online support from forums, which relies on the free time of experts. That can become scarce right when it’s needed most, and it’s certainly not guaranteed if the project is too deep for an expert to want to toy with for free. If the company gets itself into trouble with the project, or if something goes terribly wrong, the only options become fixing it themselves or hiring an outside firm experienced in Linux. This is a very ugly option to a lot of companies, so vendor-supported tools are usually the first choice.
- Linux is only more secure if you know what you’re doing – it’s very possible to overextend a feature and create problems for yourself/your company.
- As for home use, it’s not just like Windows unless you make it that way. Hobbyists and professionals alike like Linux for its flexibility, but if you’re an average person who just wants to change the way movies play on your device, it might be easier to see what other people have built for your favorite OS and go from there.
- Linux is famously incapable of playing games straight out of the box, so that’s a bummer.
Really, most of the downsides to Linux are that it’s not pre-made, which is also it’s biggest strength.