I’m not saying Linux is the best thing to use for everyone. I am saying, however, that it may be better for you than what you’re using now.
Linux is different from Windows or Mac OS X in some fundamental ways.
For thousands of people, these differences are a reason to choose Linux
over its alternatives. Are they for you? Read on to find out!
What is Linux?
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you already know, at
least a little bit, what Linux is. For the purpose of this article,
we’ll view it as an alternative to Windows and Mac OS X. However, it
also runs on most of this world’s smartphones (Android is a flavor of
Linux), and most of this worlds web servers (Google, Facebook and
Amazon use it in their web infrastructure), and on a great many other things. Even this very website is served by a Linux server.
Before we start looking into differences, let’s not forget this:
Linux is a collective term. There are many flavors of Linux, with
Ubuntu probably being the most well-known one for PCs and laptops.
Ubuntu is Linux, but Linux is not necessarily Ubuntu. Think of “Linux”
as “a car”. Saying that you’re considering to switch to Linux is like
saying you’re considering to buy a car. It can still be any brand and
any model. Ubuntu is like a brand, and the version of it is like a model. Other popular “brands” include Fedora, Arch Linux and Debian.
Now that we know a bit better what we’re talking about, let’s start looking into why Linux may be better for you than Windows/Mac!
Boss of your own computer
Have you ever read those long and boring legal texts you have to
agree to when you just bought a new computer or (re)installed one?
Probably not, but if you did, you’d know that you don’t own Windows or
Mac OS X, even if you paid good money for them. Instead, the texts say
you get a bunch of files that you are allowed to use (on only one computer) but not share.
You’re also not allowed to reverse-engineer them. This means that
you’re mostly stuck having to use the software the way the programmers
intended it to be used. If you don’t like that, you don’t have a lot of
choice. However, most people are used to this lack of freedom, and
don’t feel too restrained by it.
Imagine, however, a computer where you could change the way it
worked in any way you liked. You could finally get rid of those
annoying warning messages! You could set a keyboard shortcut for that
simple thing that costs you 10 clicks to do right now! You could stop the computer from doing things you don’t want it to do, and the computer could finally work with you instead of against you like it sometimes does!
Well, with Linux, this becomes reality. Mind you, not all changes are
easily made, and you may need a book on C programming and/or help from
a community member here and there, but at least you are allowed to!
You see, Linux also comes with a long and boring legal text, but this one tells you that you have a right to the source code behind what you’re using, that you can use Linux on as many computers as you want and share it with anyone you want! With
the help of the source code, you can change Linux to your heart’s
content, and you’re allowed to share your changed version. But even if
you don’t actually change anything yourself, you can benefit from other
people who do. Many people in the Linux community like to share their
improvements, and the good ones tend to end up in a next version of the software.
Benefits of freedom
This freedom to do what you want with the software that runs your computer has some nice benefits:
- You can be the ultimate power user! Not only can you configure
and change more than you can on Windows/Mac, but you can also optimize
your system further. You’ve got the source code for the kernel, so you
can configure and recompile it specifically to run fast on your hardware, avoiding many trade-offs necessary to make it run on many types of hardware.
- Nobody can force feed any change to Linux’s users. When the user interface of Ubuntu changed to something more tablet-friendly (which Windows 8 is doing now, too), people who didn’t like it weren’t
forced to (eventually) switch. Some of them chose to continue
programming on the old interface, so anyone can keep using it if he/she
prefers to do so.
- There is room for innovation. Do you like Google’s Play Store or
Apple’s App Store? Linux had such a system long before it was cool, and
it still has it. Because anyone can contribute good ideas and code to
Linux, there is a great variety in solutions to common problems, some
of which end up as new standards.
- You can be part of it! Linux is shaped by its users instead of by its sellers. If you don’t like the way something is or becomes, you can contact the people currently working on it and argue why, and you can even change it yourself! You can help Linux to accomodate the needs of people like yourself, and make it better altogether.
- And the economical argument: Linux doesn’t cost a dime. You can
download it for free, use it for free, change it for free, share it for
free, and still do paid work with it. There is no restriction on commercial use or even commercial sharing, as long as you’re also willing to share the source code.
Besides all the good reasons above, there is another reason why people choose Linux over (especially) Windows
or Mac OS X. Virtually all Linux flavors come with an extensive command
line environment. You know, the old green characters on a black
background terminal interface, but in a modern jacket. Entirely text based, controllable with only your keyboard, and not very intuitive. You might ask why including ancient ways of controlling a computer is beneficial.
Truth is, once you get used to it, the command line often becomes
indispensible. It might not be as intuitive as looking about the screen
and clicking your mouse, but it allows you to express in a direct and
powerful language what you want the computer to do. Anything you can do
for one file on the command line, you can do for thousands just as
well. Anything you can start by hand on the command line, you can
schedule for regular intervals as well. Also, the command line hasn’t
changed its interface in years. It remains the same between versions of
Linux, between flavors of Linux, between platforms on which Linux runs.
Learn once, use anywhere, and forever. And it’s fast. Not requiring
your mouse, it allows you to keep your hands at the keyboard and make the
computer do what you want without being interrupted by the distractions
of a graphical user interface.
Mac OS X also has this command line, though it requires some tweaking to make it as powerful as it is in most Linux flavors.
And Mac lacks the benefits of freedom above. If Apple decides to limit access to the command line in
the next release of Mac OS X, it would be hard to get around that.
Before you jump…
Now, suppose this article got you warmed up to try Linux and see if it really is better for you. That’s great! But before you try, let me highlight some of the problems many people taking the plunge have run into:
- Hardware support:
hardware often has closed specifications and depends on software
written by the manufacturer to function. While Linux has come a long
way in getting manufacturer support for drivers, there still is a lot
of hardware that functions partly or sometimes not at all. A little
Googling will often tell you if your hardware is supported, but even if
it is, it may still require some special action of you to get it
working. Fortunately, you’re almost never the first person who tried to
do so, which means that tutorials and guides are available most of the
On the plus side: Linux runs on most older hardware
that is not supported anymore by newer versions of Windows and Mac.
Just choose a light-weight Linux flavor and you can blow new life into
- Compatibility with standards:
this one is particularly annoying, because Linux can’t really help it
and is still often blamed for it. In many places, it has become a
standard to use a certain software package for certain tasks. People
frequently exchange information in Microsoft Word format, designers
barely use anything else than Photoshop or other Adobe products, and some essential web applications only work with Internet Explorer. Linux does not run any of these software packages properly. Their makers choose (purposefully or not) to skip modifying their software to work with Linux. There are tricks to get the software running nonetheless, but they do not always work. There are free alternatives to each of these software packages, but they aren’t 100% compatible.
Therefore, if you depend on a software package for
certain tasks in your life, see if it runs on Linux or if there’s an
alternative good enough to replace it. Note that Linux has no problems
being installed next to Windows or Mac, so you can keep using software that won’t run on Linux if you’re willing to reboot for it.
- Learning curve: you may not realize how awkward the first hours with an all new environment will feel. Prepare for the worst: assume that nothing
will work as you’re used to. Because that probably will be true :).
Outside the more standard things like web browsing or sending/receiving
e-mail, you will find that every button has a new place and/or works
slightly different. Give it some time; you would face the same
frustrations when switching between Windows and Mac for the first time.
Believe me, once you get the hang of it, you may find yourself to be able to
work more effectively than you were! And to get to that point faster:
Get some help learning the ropes
Learning to work with Linux can be hard, and fortunately the web is
full of helpful articles and screencasts to show you how to do things
the Linux way. This very website is a good resource, but many articles
require you to already run Linux to be of much use. If you want to get
some hands-on experience with the command line mentioned above, without
the hassle of installing Linux first, give the free trial of linuxacademy.com a go. You’ll get understandable lessons and a free server to practice on. Happy learning!