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Linux is the quiet revolution that will leave Microsoft eating dust

Linux, the most widely used open source operating system in the world, has scored a major publicity coup in the revelation that it is used on 94% of the world’s top 500 supercomputers. Every operating…

Linux is already at your party. John Vetterli, CC BY

Linux, the most widely used open source operating system in the world, has scored a major publicity coup in the revelation that it is used on 94% of the world’s top 500 supercomputers.

Every operating system has technical issues and Linux has not been faultless. But some key technological milestones have been passed in recent years that have made it possible for Linux to quietly assert dominance in the fight for popularity and custom.

Apart from the fact that it is free and has been since its creation in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, Linux has many technological advantages that mean other operating systems just can’t beat it.

Millions of people all over the world use Microsoft operating systems but how many describe themselves as enthusiasts? Linux users are often really passionate about the open source cause and this is boosting uptake. They argue that it is more secure than main rivals Apple and Microsoft, with technical features that win hands down. The fact that the most powerful and expensive computers in the world are using it is potentially the best reference you could want.

Quiet revolution

It’s easy to see why Linux appeals to the people who operate supercomputers. Linux can support multiple processors and large clusters of computers, unlike IBM, VMware and Microsoft who prefer to charge per processor on many of their products. As long as you are capable of writing the software to solve the problem, Linux will allow you to create your own complex supercomputer or cluster system for free. As organisations who host these types of systems have the financial power to pay for the personnel, the supercomputers themselves become very powerful, efficient systems used to solve many computational problems.

But the fact is, even if you think you are bound to Windows or some other proprietary operating system, you are probably already a Linux user too. When you visit a website, the chances are that it is using an Apache2 webserver. This is free and designed to integrate with the security and operating system features of Linux. Currently more than 60% of webservers are known to be hosting via Apache.

Android, developed by Google, is based on a Linux kernel and is now the most dominant smartphone and tablet computer platform. Android is more vulnerable to malware than Apple’s OS but you are safe as long as you act sensibly.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Android can hold on to its 80% market share in the face of stiff competition. Amazon and Microsoft are getting in on the territory, which could be a threat. But at least Ubuntu, another big rival, is also very much grounded in the open source movement. Used on many desktop systems around the world, this free and easy to use version of Linux has extended the life of many computers after Windows had folded under pressure.

And at home, embedded devices, like your broadband wireless router and cable television set top box are often using specifically designed versions of Linux. Linux is highly likely to be an integral part of your household – it just doesn’t shout about it like Apple.

Clinging on

While I am an enthusiastic Linux user, I also have Microsoft at work and use Apple products too. The fact that Linux is based on the same Unix system from which the Max OSX system is derived means that it should be seen more as a cousin than a radical alternative to Apple offerings. And if the two are comparable, are you more likely to choose one that comes with a shiny laptop or one that is more functional but less chic? Some would continue to opt for the design features of a Mac.

And even though Microsoft’s star often seems to be fading, its dominance of the market in the 1990s and early 2000s means that it is still a tough one to beat. Windows 8 has had many detractors but Microsoft is adept at learning from its mistakes and tends to rally with a better version the next time.

All that said, Linux is free and much more pervasive than the average computer user might think. You can easily install Linux on any home computer, many tablets and even your own private supercomputer, so you should think about switching. And if you think you never could, think about how much of your online life already depends on this quiet contender.

Join the conversation

21 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Andrew Smith wrote; " ... will leave Microsoft eating dust ..." From this perspective that is past tense and should read 'has'. Because there is no counter to sharing others, a lesson Tesla and their CEO Elon Musk has learned works well.
    Open architecture is the trend that will catch all corporations out.

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  2. Khalil A. Cassimally

    Community Coordinator at The Conversation

    Chrome OS, which is going from strength to strength, is also based on Linux, if I'm not mistaken. And based on Google's vision to integrate its Chrome OS more firmly with Android, it may be safe to say that most people who own a tech gadget will effectively be a Linux user very soon. They just may not know it.

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  3. Phil Gorman

    Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

    It's good to see Linux mentioned in TC Andrew. I hope your article is widely read. The Linux revolution has been rather too quiet for far too long. Many Linux distributions have achieved user-friendly maturity now, but still lack wider public adoption. Like public broadcasters open source products seem to be regarded as a sinister communist plot by our corporatist elites.

    Ubuntu and its derivatives have been my operating systems of choice since 2005. There is a super-abundance of reliable software…

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    1. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Margaret Rose STRINGER

      Hi Margaret Rose.

      I started by checking out Ubuntu on line. Good advice, guides, handbooks, etc are readily available. Try search terms like 'getting started with Linux', Ubuntu for newbies, 'how to Ubuntu', or 'getting started with Ubuntu'. Your local library should be able to help too.

      It's easy to try out Ubuntu by downloading it onto a DVD or CD disk, or a USB stick. Full instructions are available online.

      Yes there's plenty to learn but rather less than when you got started with WINOS OR mAC. My favourite learning process is just to play with new software, and search for structured answers when I get stuck. You can't damage anything until after you've gained enough knowledge to be over confident. Most importantly - have fun.

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  4. Rachael Padman

    University Lecturer

    Is it obvious that being useful on supercomputers makes linux a good choice for personal computing?

    Windows 8 is extraordinarily good. I have several computers running it: all boot much faster than my Apple and Android phones, and it is no less intuitive to use. My Microsoft Surface with OneNote and MS handwriting recognition software provides an enormous boost to my productivity. Meanwhile, linux struggles to do a passable imitation of a Windows XP desktop, and Open Office more or less manages to duplicate the basic functionality of Microsoft Office.

    There are real costs to leading on these systems, rather than copying. I don't have any problem with paying creators for their efforts. In fact I tend to think that free software is worth every penny you pay for it.

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  5. Duncan Murray

    logged in via Twitter

    Rachael - it sounds like you're happy with progress from your perspective. When I moved from XP to linux back in 2009, it actually made me angry to discover how far ahead linux was! Looking back, I can't believe I paid money to have less autonomy over my own possessions, and I simply won't trade down on the reliability, elegance and security I've gotten used to. From my perspective, linux leads (i.e. look at the ext4 and btrfs filesystems) - but it's going to find meshing with a non-open source world difficult.

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    1. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Duncan Murray

      You make a crucial point Duncan. One of the outstanding advantags of Linux is the complete freedom it offers to tailor your system to your needs. Both Microsoft and Apple attempt restrict their user's choices to proprietory software and services. I found this really annoying.

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    2. Pete Beaumont

      logged in via email @mac.com

      In reply to Phil Gorman

      <quote>Both Microsoft and Apple attempt restrict their user's choices to proprietory software and services.</quote>

      Anyone can write an app for Mac OS X, and release it out onto the net for all to use. Xcode is free to download.

      Linux is growing in popularity, but is still the domain of the nerds & geeks. For the average joe/jane, it's too difficult to setup/configure.

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  6. Jerry Rioux

    logged in via Facebook

    Yes, the world's top super computers use Linux. Howerver, they also have the world's best programmers to keep them running. Without this support, these computers and their Linux would be totally worthless.

    Today, most individual users want computers that work straight out of the box, even if that work is playing games. They aren't looking for another hobby or a project that they constantly need to tinker with in order for it to work properly. Linux for individual PCs has improved considerably…

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    1. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Jerry Rioux

      My partner and I are both pensioners with no technical background so I guess we qualify as ordinary users. We have both used Mac and Microsoft systems in the past but find Ubuntu far easier to use and more trouble free.

      As she is rather wedded to Photoshop Elements Gillian still runs it on her computer, as well as the full Photoshop equivalent, Gimp, for creative image making.

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  7. Damian Hayden

    IT Professional

    I don't think Linux has any chance of beating Microsoft. If Microsoft crumbles, it will be of it's own undoing, or that of Apple or Google, and little to do with the successes of the Linux community.

    Linux enthusiasts have been making this same claim since the last century, but very little has changed since then. Remember when everyone was arguing that all Linux needed to be able to break into the mainstream was to be a better desktop OS, and the reign of MS would be over? They were kidding themselves…

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    1. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Damian Hayden

      It's the same situation with water. Fish live in it and so aren't aware of any other medium in which to exist. We live in a fog of marketting and aren't aware of how insane it is to buy bottled water when its freely available from the nearest tap.

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  8. Matthew Davidson

    Curmudgeon

    This reads like an article from 20 years ago. I'll do my public service duty and list some elementary corrections:

    - Linux isn't an operating system. It's an operating system kernel; an important but relatively small component of a complete operating system. It manages communication between software and hardware. On it's own it's useless. The "desktop environment" - there are many to choose from, but a couple of major contenders - that people actually interact with is not a part of Linux.
    - Linux…

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    1. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Matthew Davidson

      Thank you for clarifying that. Of course you're right and I, for one, was being sloppy in my nomenclature. Nevertheless I hold that the pro-Linux camp is essentially right to promote Linux based systems as a mature, viable and mostly free alternative to the main stream offerings.

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  9. Margaret Rose STRINGER

    retired but interested

    I should so dearly love to be able to switch to something like Linux Ubuntu. It would be totally marvellous to be out of the clutches of Microsoft engineers who think they know it all without ever checking with us users ...

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    1. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Margaret Rose STRINGER

      Hi Margaret Rose,
      Setting out on a new way of doing thins can be daunting.; it was for us.

      Sick of being locked into the corporate world I started by checking out Ubuntu on line. Good advice, guides, handbooks, etc are readily available. Try search terms like 'getting started with Linux', Ubuntu for newbies, 'how to Ubuntu', or 'getting started with Ubuntu'. Your local library should be able to help too.

      It's easy to try out Ubuntu by downloading it onto a DVD or CD disk, or a USB stick. Full instructions are available online.

      Yes there's plenty to learn but rather less than when you got started with Windows or Mac. My favoured learning process is just to play with new software, and search for structured answers when I get stuck. You can't damage anything until after you've gained enough knowledge to be over confident. Most importantly - have fun.

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    2. Margaret Rose STRINGER

      retired but interested

      In reply to Phil Gorman

      'Mendicant' ??? Oh well. :-)
      I daren't, Phil: at 71, and my IT-expert husband gone 8 years ago, what little techo stuff I remember and can use is 10 years old. I wouldn't even know how to trial a new O/S without completely stuffing the extant one.My brain doesn't run along the lines that his did and yours so obviously does: I need someone standing over me (as he did, so willingly) for constant reference. But you are very kind to post as you did; and I regret being unable to take advantage of it !

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    3. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Margaret Rose STRINGER

      Hi Margaret Rose,

      I would be happy to help out personally if you happen to live within a couple of hours car drive of Port Cygnet in Southern Tasmania.

      Otherwise personal assistance is probably available in your area. If you were to place a plea for assistance in your local shop window it may draw out a Linux mentor. You might also try googling Linux user groups (LUGS), or computer user groups in your area. They usually have a number of helpful enthusiasts eager to bring others into the fold…

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    4. Margaret Rose STRINGER

      retired but interested

      In reply to Phil Gorman

      OK, I shall certainly see if I can find some LUGs - and thanks again, Phil.
      http://margaretrosestringer will tell you that I live in Sydney.
      My younger sister lives in the Huon Valley area, and is an academic in the IT field, would you believe ?! - still, more theoretical than hands-on ... :-)

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