Linux Can Be Complicated … Or Not!
Windows and OS/X are fairly straightforward in comparison. Mac OS runs on Macs and that is about it. Windows runs on desktop PCs, servers and a few devices. There are several versions of Windows, XP, NT, Vista, Windows 7 and Window Phone 7 to name a few. Linux is quite a bit more complicated.
Linux runs on servers, desktops, and devices, just like Windows does, but that is just the beginning. Linux runs on just about any architecture from mainframes to TiVo. It supports the PowerPC, Intel, AMD, ARM, Atom on desktop computers alone. You will find it on the world’s fastest computer and on your Tom Tom. It runs many music players, TVs, phones, tablets and most e-book readers. It is the backbone of the internet and you probably are using it without even realising it.
On the desktop, you can run over 300 distributions or varieties of Linux. On any given distribution you can be running any of several window managers and desktop environments. Choice is the operative word when it comes to Linux. Second to that would be flexibility. In servers, the choice is more limited, but no less impressive. You could be running Ubuntu as Wikipedia does, Red Hat as many Fortune 500 companies do, or CENTOS, a free derivative of Red Hat, or SuSE from Novell in an enterprise environment. It is really up to you.
You can install Linux to run on a hard drive, of course, but you can run it inside Windows using something like andLinux, install it in Windows but run it outside of Windows without partitioning using WUBI, you can run it from a usb key or CD or even a floppy, or run it in a virtual machine. You can install it on an Xbox, PS3 or on many music players using Rockbox (oops, see correction in comments). You can see how flexible it is. This is because the kernel is relatively small and Linux is modular. People can do remarkable things with it and they are trying new things all of the time. They can do this because it is free and open. As long as you obey the license you can do whatever you can imagine and have the talent for.
At the heart of any operating system is the kernel. Linux is strictly speaking just the kernel. Many other projects add to Linux to make it a complete operating system. There are various modules, libraries, daemons and other things that are loaded to make it work. All of them share something in common with Linux; they are free and open sourced. GNU makes many of them and for this reason some people prefer to call it GNU/Linux. GNU is also responsible for some of the licensing that makes free software available. It is often called the GPL for short.
With complication, also comes confusion. New users can be confused, and even overwhelmed, when there is so much choice and everything is new. But it need not be as confusing, once you understand the basics. You need to know what you want to do, what you are willing to do to get it, and narrow down your choices.
The first decision is what are you going to use it for? If it is servers then that limits your choice. If it is the desktop then you have many more decisions to make. You can narrow that down if you have an unusual architecture because not all distributions work on all architectures. Then you look at your equipment. If it has limited RAM for example then this further narrows your choices. If you want to have an easy to use distribution then it narrows choice or if you want to do most of it by hand building then it reduces choice.
The most complicated it gets is if you have a relatively new PC and want to run a desktop distribution, so let’s start there next time.