Linux is the best-known and most-used open source operating system. As an operating system, Linux is software that sits underneath all of the other software on a computer, receiving requests from those programs and relaying these requests to the computer’s hardware.
For the purposes of this page, we use the term “Linux” to refer to the Linux kernel, but also the set of programs, tools, and services that are typically bundled together with the Linux kernel to provide all of the necessary components of a fully functional operating system. Some people, particularly members of the Free Software Foundation, refer to this collection as GNU/Linux, because many of the tools included are GNU components. However, not all Linux installations use GNU components as a part of their operating system. Android, for example, uses a Linux kernel but relies very little on GNU tools.
How does Linux differ from other operating systems?
In many ways Linux is similar to other operating systems you may have used before, such as Windows, OS X, or iOS. Like other operating systems, Linux has a graphical interface, and types of software you are accustomed to using on other operating systems, such as word processing applications, have Linux equivalents. In many cases, the software’s creator may have made a Linux version of the same program you use on other systems. If you can use a computer or other electronic device, you can use Linux.
But Linux also is different from other operating systems in many important ways. First, and perhaps most importantly, Linux is open source software. The code used to create Linux is free and available to the public to view, edit, and—for users with the appropriate skills—to contribute to.
Linux is also different in that, although the core pieces of the Linux operating system are generally common, there are many distributions of Linux, which include different software options. This means that Linux is incredibly customizable, because not just applications, such as word processors and web browsers, can be swapped out. Linux users also can choose core components, such as which system displays graphics, and other user-interface components.