Ask Hackaday: What’s Linux Anyway?

Any time we mention Linux, it is a fair bet we will get a few comments from people unhappy that we didn’t refer to it as GNU/Linux or with some other appellation. To be fair, they aren’t wrong. Linux is a kernel. Much of what we think of as a Linux desktop OS is really from other sources, including, but not limited to, GNU. We thought about this after reading a report from [The Register] that Linux has nearly half of the desktop OS Linux market. Wait, what?

If you are like us, you probably think that’s a typo. It isn’t. But the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. You know that half of the world’s desktops don’t run Linux. But maybe they mean Unix? Nope. So how can Linux have almost half of the Linux market? That’s like saying nearly half of Hackaday readers read Hackaday, right?

Here’s the thing. The data came from statistics aggregator Statcounter. They report that desktop Linux use is about 3% of all desktop operating systems, which sounds about right. But an additional 4% are using ChromeOS, and ChromeOS is using Linux — in fact, based on Gentoo Linux and, before that, Ubuntu.

World’s Most Popular Linux?

But, as [The Register] points out, Linux sources don’t like to talk much about ChromeOS. You can make the case that it is like Android, which also leverages parts of Linux, but it really isn’t. Where do you draw the line?

As the post points out, Android isn’t really a full Linux system, at least, not without a lot of hacking, whereas a ChromeOS system uses the same system infrastructure that most Linux boxes use: the kernel, a proper libc, and so on. There are also other Unix splinters like FreeBSD, HURD, OpenBSD, and the like.

So what do you think? What defines a Linux system? Is it simply the kernel? Is it a set of “one true” utilities? What counts and what doesn’t? Will the year of the Linux desktop come, and no one will notice because of fragmentation? If you count Android, has it happened already? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we don’t have more unification in the Linux/Unix world? Let us know what you think in the comments.

If you want to know more about ChromeOS, we broke a Chromebook open earlier. If you want to try FreeBSD, installing it isn’t as hard as it used to be.

55 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: What’s Linux Anyway?

  1. > That’s like saying nearly half of Hackaday readers read Hackaday, right?

    Have spent time in the comments of various sites, I’d say at least half of hackaday readers actually read hackaday, and that’s **very good**.

  2. It is a ‘good’ thing there isn’t more unification. Why? Because it allows creators to innovate. Which then also allows users to pick what works for their work flow. You are not stuck with (as M$) one vision (m$ way or else).

    I believe Linux is just the kernel. The core… Then you have all the helper applications to utilize the kernel which makes up a OS (where redhat, android, ubuntu, etc.) and make it ‘useful’. Since Linux is the core, you still can call ,say Ubuntu, a Linux OS.

    As for Linux desktops. My household is 100% ;) . From desktops, servers, laptops and RPIs…. No 3% around here! Ha…

      1. Diversity also stymies learning and adoption.
        It’s a double edged sword.

        As much as I advocate users being learned about the systems they use, I’m also realistic about the time it takes to learn. I frequently say that people don’t need to know how to design/build an engine to drive a car, but thy SHOULD understand that there are pistons in there, oil gets pumped around for lubrication, and it gets cooled with water.

        Being familiar enough with a system that you can recognize that there is a problem and make a judgment about what to do about it is important.

        Bothe standardization and diversification have their positives and negatives. Both are important.

  3. im fine with linux just being a kernel. if its not the mainline kernel, its a fork. im kind of fed up with the batteries included operating systems that take up top billing on the os tier list. so long as it provides the bare minimum framework to run my software thats all i need an os to do. things work better when you are not bogged down by too many dependencies.

  4. who cares what I think? Am I the one who’s going to change the statistics? Am I the one who will change anything? I will establish by my power what will be called?
    I’ll do a lot in Linux, and I’ll do some things faster than in other systems, and that’s what counts. And who cares about votes and opinions.

  5. Yeah, statistics…
    Statcounter measures usage (page views), not the number of installations and not unique visitors. But what exactly is a “page view” in our modern times with dynamic content provided by javascript, http/2.0 and http/3.0? Also they collect data from maybe 1% of all webservers and they can’t know if a browser tells the truth. These numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, like all statistics.

  6. I am comfortable with the truth in saying that half of linux users run linux.

    As for the Gnu/linux die-hards. Fooey on them. Gnu is just one of a big crowd these days that contribute to what we call a linux system. At one time in the distant past, the Gnu project and open source were nearly synonymous — but those days are long gone. The Gnu project was just a stepping stone to where we are now (and thankful we are for that).

    1. I’m certainly not a Gnu/linux die-hard, but we do need to acknowledge that without gcc the vast majority of the other open-source projects from the kernel on up could not be built. Gcc and its associate build tools comprise the foundation that makes most everything else possible.

      1. We should call it gcc/Linux.

        But seriously, gcc is just an open source project with developers from all over the world, just like for the linux kernel. It’s a “GNU” project just in name.

  7. I don’t know, Chrome just feels like Alphabet’s version of “embrace, extend, extinguish”, by using open source software to. corral and harvest user data.
    The other Linux based OSs have more freedom, and probably aren’t snithing on their users.

    1. [1] Download the kernel source:
      [2] Go to Documentation/admin-guide/README.rst

      What is Linux?

      Linux is a clone of the operating system Unix, written from scratch by
      Linus Torvalds with assistance from a loosely-knit team of hackers across
      the Net. It aims towards POSIX and Single UNIX Specification compliance.

      It has all the features you would expect in a modern fully-fledged Unix,
      including true multitasking, virtual memory, shared libraries, demand
      loading, shared copy-on-write executables, proper memory management,
      and multistack networking including IPv4 and IPv6.

      It is distributed under the GNU General Public License v2 – see the
      accompanying COPYING file for more details.

  8. I have suffered all the arguements about which “distro” is better
    I have endured hours of trying to download all of the different modules I need to run a single application
    I have partitioned drives and suffered the consequences
    I really wish you guys would put everything you need to run linux on one set of discs that I could just buy and own, yes one set of actual discs without having to continuously update from the internet
    and then I could throw away the absolute excrement that is windows
    Get it together guys the world needs an affordable alternative to windows and apple that someone without a computer science degree can install simply and run all the application that are useful plus a fully functional version of python

    1. Even the excrement likes to continually update. Unfortunately it’s unlikely that we will ever have a perfect OS tat doesn’t, at least if it’s also connected to the internet.

    2. Once upon a time, you could buy a boxed set of discs to install Linux from. Later, that changed to a bootable USB stick. Even then, downloads dominated due to logistics reasons.

      You can still “burn” discs from a set of ISO files. More likely you need to “burn” an USB stick. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as copying an ISO file to the stick. You need a special program – not unlike needing a special program to burn discs. (I will note that Raspberry Pi Foundation offers a program you download and run. It then offers you a selection of RaspOS configurations. You select one, it downloads the ISO file, then “burns” a SD card. Then you put the SD card in your Pi and turn it on.)

      Other than buying a PC with Linux factory installed, that’s as simple as it gets.

      As for running “all the applications that are useful”, that depends on the applications you want/need. Most applications are designed to run under MS Windows (or MacOS) and are difficult to run under anything else, While WINE and it’s cousins can run many of these Windows applications, there are many limitations.

      While a lot of open source applications (like LibreOffice, GIMP, Inkscape, Dia, KiCAD and more) serve my own needs, my work still requires some applications that are too hard to run under anything but MS Windows (for which my employer already provides a MS Windows PC).

  9. @Al Williams said: “…We thought about this after reading a report from [The Register] that Linux has nearly half of the desktop OS Linux market.”

    So if “Linux has nearly half of the desktop OS Linux market” which Linux has the other half of the “desktop OS Linux market”? Answer: None. Maybe correct answer: macOS. But macOS at its core is not Linux, it is “borrowed” from BSD 4.4 Unix.[1][2]

    Perhaps a better way to word the sentence from [The Register] is: “Linux has nearly half of the entire desktop OS market.” But meh… depending how you count things (a never-ending debate with sort of stuff), I seriously doubt that as of today “Linux has nearly half of the entire desktop OS market”.

    * References:

    1. Darwin (operating system)

    2. Simplified history of Unix-like operating systems

  10. Its says “Linux counts for half of LINUX OS DESKTOP MARKET.” It’s just saying that the count for Linux should be double, if you count Chrome OS. Everyone’s lost the capability to read.

  11. I’m pretty sure the technically correct answer is anything running the Linux kernel is Linux.

    But knowing that none of us are really going to think of it that way…

    I kind of like the idea of including ChromeOS but not Android.


    Because typically it is a fairly easy thing to open ChromeOS up to install just about any application one wants that was originally meant for Desktop Linux.

    I know, I know, that can be done in Android too. But typically Android is on a locked device. If one can get gui apps working at all it’s via VNC. What kind of solution requires remote access to a local computer? And add-on storage gets mounted no-exec so one must be very careful how much Linux stuff they install on an Android device because it is using up valuable internal storage.

    1. > What kind of solution requires remote access to a local computer?

      Even with a physicall local machine, remote access is a valid option. I have 3 PCs on my desk. Rather than deal with KVM switching – or even a tool like Synergy, I remote access 2 of them through the third. Also has the advantage of better desktop integration than Synergy can provide.

      > If one can get gui apps working at all it’s via VNC.

      Only via VNC? What about X forwarding?

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.