Linux might not have found a comfortable home on the desktop, but for backend services, it’s everywhere.
Here’s a guide to Linux, showing why intermediate and advanced Windows users might want to take a look at this open-source operating system.
Innovative technology versus marketing brawn
First released in 1991, the Linux operating system now powers much of the Internet, runs on the world’s fastest supercomputers, and — in its guise as Android OS — is the foundation for the majority of mobile devices. But after nearly two and a half decades, its use as a desktop OS remains limited mostly to highly technical users — even though the user experience on a modern Linux desktop differs little from that of Windows or OS X. Far from being a Windows or OS X knockoff, Linux possesses strengths that could make it useful to many users who would scarcely consider themselves “technical.”
Before listing a few of those strengths, I’ll offer the two reasons Linux has been shunned by most consumers: Apple and Microsoft.
In the early years, Linux was hampered by a substandard graphical user interface and poor usability. It wasn’t until 2004 that Linux vendor Ubuntu (site) released a version that was acceptable to an average personal-computer user. But even then, its enhancements were well behind Apple’s rapidly developing OS X.
While Microsoft struggled with antitrust issues, security concerns, engineering delays, and product flops through the 2000s, Apple positioned itself as the safe and stylish anti-Microsoft. With innovations such as the iPod and iPhone, Apple’s market capitalization surpassed Microsoft’s in 2010. Brilliant advertising campaigns defined consumer choices as being exclusively Windows versus Mac. And though Microsoft continued to dominate business computing, Apple clearly won the pop-culture battle. Google eventually made Linux — aka Android — the leader in the mobile market, but there was no deep-pocket champion for Linux on the desktop.
Equally decisive was Microsoft’s aggressive marketing strategy against free and open-source software — especially Linux. During Microsoft’s bad old days, when many in the computing industry viewed it as an abusive monopoly, the folks in Redmond had good reason to fear Linux’s zero-cost licensing and early dominance on Web servers. Linux threatened Microsoft’s enterprise-software strategy, which envisioned tightly integrated Microsoft products on every computer, from servers to the desktop.