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Who makes Linux? Why are they giving it away? Can these people be trusted?

Longtime Linux users might laugh at this question, but think about it from another perspective. In the age of Facebook, when “free” often turns out to mean “ad-supported and will track your every move”, anyone who isn’t familiar with open source licenses Open Source Software Licenses: Which Should You Use? Open Source Software Licenses: Which Should You Use? Did you know that not all open source licenses are the same? Read More is going to be skeptical of anything that’s “free”.

If you’re not paying, you’re the product“, the adage goes.

Penguins-together

So it needs to be said: Linux, and other open source software, isn’t free in the sense that Facebook or Gmail are – that is, it’s not an ad-supported endeavour offered by hugely profitable corporations (though many large companies do contribute to open source projects). Instead Linux is a collaborative project that the whole world can participate in, should they decide to do so. Yes: even you.

So who makes Linux? We all do. Let’s talk about what this means, using an example that’s easier for non-programers to understand: Wikipedia.

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How Wikipedia Works

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Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites on earth, but hardly anyone is paid to add things to it. Instead, people passionate about particular topics click the “Edit” button at the top of every article. Anyone can do this, without adding an account.

This is, more or less, how the most complete compilation of human knowledge ever assembled gets built: by people who decide to contribute. Linux works the same way.

Of course, Wikipedia is more complicated than that. There’s a dedicated core group of editors, who look closely at new changes and decide whether they should stick. There are Wikipedia bots Could Programs Like Wiki Bot Ever Produce All Internet Content? Could Programs Like Wiki Bot Ever Produce All Internet Content? Today, the world of linguistics and artificial intelligence is in the development stage of "bot" authors. At present, Wikipedia and Associated Press both now use robots to write online articles. Read More that make corrections. Admins occasionally lock down pages, if their subject matter is temporarily controversial.

Over time a system has developed, but the fact remains that it’s almost entirely volunteers who make Wikipedia what it is. Linux, as we know it, is much the same way: a wide-ranging group of volunteers contribute code to the thousands of programs that make up modern Linux distros.

Of course, Wikipedia has its flaws. The articles about individual Pokemon generally see more edits than those about entire African nations, and fights about trivialities can dominate the “talk” section for months. (The crowd can be really smart, but it also sometimes has strange priorities). The Wikipedia process – like all open source projects – is messy, in the way any democratic community is. It’s a free-flowing, ongoing project that somehow adds up to one of the single most useful resources on the entire Internet.

And you know what? Most Linux distros work the same way.

Open Source: Something We All Work On

Most Internet users are familiar with Firefox, one of the web’s most popular browsers. It is a prominent example of open source software – that is, software that anyone who wants to is free to edit for their own purposes.

Similar to Wikipedia, Firefox is “edited” by a team of volunteers. Thousands of people work together to help build this browser, which is in turn used by millions of people free of charge.

penguins-talking

What’s this has to do with Linux? Well, most Linux distros include Firefox – they’re free to do so, because Firefox is open source. Every Linux distro is a compilation of thousands of different projects, all of which like Firefox have their own teams. But Linux distros themselves also have teams of volunteers that help put everything together.

Every one of these projects publishes their source code publicly, meaning anyone who wants to make a suggestion can look at the code and do so. The conversations between developers is typically also public, meaning you can read up on their decision-making process if you want to. If you want to get more involved, you can contact the developers behind a project and offer to help – in time you might become a core developer yourself.

But even if you don’t code, there are ways you can contribute. Artists could design icons or wallpapers, for example. Anyone willing to use a beta version can provide valuable feedback. Writers can help put together documentation.

This is, at its best, what open source is: a project created for and by its most passionate users.

More Eyeballs On The Code

penguins-swimming

Some people might not like this approach, preferring everything be controlled by a single company with a unified vision in mind. And that’s not necessarily an incorrect argument, but it’s worth pointing out the open source model offers certain advantages.

Let’s talk about Wikipedia again. There are mistakes on Wikipedia, sure, but there are also millions of people looking it over every day. The more people who look at a page, the more people who might noticed – and fix – any given mistake.

The same can be said about open source software. When Microsoft builds a new version of Windows, only Microsoft employees get to look at the code. When an open source project works on a new version, they do so in public – the entire world can look at the code, if they want. And the more people who look at it, the more likely it is any given problems will be pointed out.

Conversations about such potential problems are happening constantly. Sometimes they can get nasty, at which point schisms happen. In fact, anyone can take an existing open source project and make their own version of it Open Source Software and Forking: The Good, The Great and The Ugly Open Source Software and Forking: The Good, The Great and The Ugly Sometimes, the end-user benefits greatly from forks. Sometimes, the fork is done under a shroud of anger, hatred and animosity. Let's look at some examples. Read More – a process called forking.

I could go on. Needless to say, there are pros and cons to either approach – but traditionally Linux and other open source projects have been quick to react to potential problems because of how many people look over the code.

Who Makes Linux? You Do. Jump In!

penguins-linux-jump-in

Linux isn’t just an operating system: it’s a community. It can also be a pretty fun hobby, if you want to get into it. You might need to learn what a bunch of new words mean Is Linux Confusing? Here Are The Key Terms You Need To Know Is Linux Confusing? Here Are The Key Terms You Need To Know These days, Ubuntu and other modern Linux distributions usually install without a hitch (and without requiring any knowledge), but as you move forward using them, you will inevitably come across all sorts of terminology that... Read More , but once you start diving in you’ll really be able to make your computer your own.

Whether you’re a Windows XP refugee The Best Linux Distributions For Windows XP Refugees The Best Linux Distributions For Windows XP Refugees Read More , looking for a way to keep a faithful computer running securely, or just someone who’s naturally curious, I highly recommend you check out our list of the best Linux distros The Best Linux Distributions The Best Linux Distributions There are many Linux distributions available for a number of different purposes, which makes it difficult to choose at times. Here's a list of the very best to help you decide. Read More and jump right in. You can trust the people who make Linux, and even join them if you want to.

And now: collaboration! How was my explanation of Linux, and open source? What are the best ways for people to get involved? What mistakes in this article would you like to correct? Feel free to talk about all this and more in the comments.

  1. ceaualbi
    April 11, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    Hello.
    Good way pointing to Linux, but remember something; Open Source is only the half of Free Software. They could look like but aren't the same. I would like to mention that this is something that Richard Stallman is right. Wikipedia and Firefox are worth mentioning but you could increase the list perhaps as a footer (because there are lots of projects that deserve the right of being pointed at).
    Why it's more important to point to free software instead of only open source? Well because if we bear in mind the efforts of all that people, we have a Kernel that is improving every day, many thanks to all of them. [That's why: "I am because we all are" is so important in the Linux world].
    And by the way, if Ubuntu is sold or not to Facebook... To me it's a matter of principles, but because this is a world where economy is on top of everything...

    • Justin Pot
      April 13, 2015 at 2:56 pm

      Hey, thanks for your comment. The article was designed to explain things without getting complex, but reading comments like this I've got a pretty good idea of why community-designed explanations of Linux/open source/free software are unreadably complex to new users. If I went along with every change people are proposing in the comments, the article would be 5000 words long and a lot less compelling to people who don't understand open source.

      Which I guess, somewhat ironically, is an argument against open source. Not sure how I feel about that.

      And I avoided "free software" specifically, because to most people outside the community at this point "free software" means free-to-play with possible in-app purchases, or free in the Facebook sense: monetizing your data in some way. I know Stallman would like to control the language, but he's lost this one and I'm not sure he can ever really win.

  2. jymm
    April 10, 2015 at 11:11 am

    I was concerned about Distos from some countries (Russia, China, and North Korea). I was using Solus, and when Ikey shut it down was without an OS. Looking around the only one that fit my wants and needs was Point. I had concerns as it was out of Russia. Even though I had concerns I went ahead and gave it a try. I now have no concerns and am glad I tried Point, as it is the best Linux Distro I have used. I also ran Ymlf on a USB drive with no problems. If there is one Distro I would still not trust that would be Red Star out of North Korea, as it is state sponsored. I would still not trust a state sponsored Distros). I certainly trust Linux more than Microsoft or Google.

  3. Larry
    March 31, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    Really good article!
    I have a suggestion as a noob GNU/Linux user: it would be nice to mention that coming from its open source nature - which you described amazingly well in my opinion - most flavours come with a lot of useful software: you don't have to install a PDF viewer, nor in most cases an office suite, which can be pretty expensive on windows. In many ways, a GNU/Linux based distro is even simpler to use than Windows.
    BTW. it's true that most people refer to the foss ecosystem as "Linux", but the term GNU/Linux is actually a better way do distinguish between the ecosystem and the technical part in my opinion, because foss changes, but the ones who started it and laid the legal and technical foundations are the FSF, who were creating GNU.
    Even if there are only a few vital components that stem directly from the GNU project, who knows if the kernel of open source os-es will always be Linux?
    Hell, even now some of them are based on e. g. BSD but still using a lot of GNU software!
    I still think you nailed it though with presenting the whole system for the uninitiated under the Linux moniker, but just for the education of anyone reading the comments: by saying GNU/Linux I honor those who started it all!

  4. Scotty
    March 16, 2015 at 8:39 am

    Thank you for your well written article regarding Linux. I'm new to the tech world, not to the tech using world. I have about 2 years of, I guess I can say "tech exploration." It started out as a successful reformat of my old e1705 ( which i still have and use daily ) when I needed a source to do online homework. Prior to the format it had been infested with malware and was completely unusable and long forgotten. After that successful reformat something in my head shifted, I felt this powerful feeling of accomplishment and control but it was differen't, it was positive, it was unique. I liked that feeling and took things further learning basic computer hardware maintainence and troubleshooting to building my own pc's, and now actively studying the C++ language and currently enrolled in a beginners network class. I have tried three different forms of Linux. Linux Mint was my first, Ubuntu was my second, and right now I'm working with Kali ( no im not some a-hole trying to be a "hacker" and I don't wear hats...I have an egg shaped head so it's hard to find ones that fit properly).
    I feel as though your article could have touched a bit more on the trust aspect of Linux. I am a complete noob when it comes to Linux, I know the essential commands and all that, but in terms of OS/Ext 4 file system I still am having a hardtime adjusting. I have noticed lately that I cannot seem to download a Linux Distro with out having a specific problem arise. I know for a fact that I'm being monitored remotely. Possibly right now as I'm typing this. I never knew anything about Xservers, or freedesktop.org, or anything of that nature until a few weeks ago, downloading the newest version of mint (Rebecca). From the beginning everything was sketchy, the mouse pointer would lag, my screen would go blank before reaching my desktop, applets were preconfigured to open other programs and run unrelated, unauthorized scripts, log files were missing and continuously being erased and etc...As soon as I cut the wifi from the computer, the mouse cursor goes back to normal, and wierd activity stops happening. I feel as If I've been infected with a virtual rootkit. I know it may sound stupid, and I apologize as I am still a tech noob compared to you veterans, but in my opinion, No, I don't feel that I can trust Linux software. I know it isn't LINUX, I'm going back to your comment on people forking the software. I installed Ubuntu from the main site, and the same thing happend. I know for a fact that people are monitoring me remotely and have hijacked my network. Obviously I'm not that important and so it's not for my info, but a possible botnet? Reformat after reformat, I cannot get rid of these people. That also pertains to a network issue as well, but the crazy thing is, even with the network down, there is still someway they're gaining administrative accessaccess in general...(unsecured ports?)I have no control over any of my computers anymore. Sure I can use them, but I can't trust anything anymore. I think they have reverse engineered a bit of the firmware on each of my harddisks. I'm trying to keep this on the topic of trust. Maybe I'm not taking the proper precautions before downloading. I need help. Badly. It's on the path of ruining my life as I have missed already 3 quizes in my classes due to my pc's being completely hijacked about a week ago. Im partially sleep deprived right now so I hope I'm not writing anything contradicting, but I love Linux, the layout, the freedom ( not financial ) but I don't feel secure when there are so many different versions of an OS using the Linux kernal and customized by so many different groups. I really hate to sound neurotic, and I know this may seem crazy, everything I'm disclosing, but it's real, it's happening, I'm watching it happen everytime I start up one of my laptops. I know this isn't a pity forum, but I'm challenging the trust aspect of the various subsets of Linux "forked versionscustom versions". I am open to the fact that I made mistakes when downloading the software. I'm asking for help in a way, or a response. I'm open to criticism, feedback on anything, I'm not fragile, so speak your mind. Once again thank you for your post.

    • Justin Pot
      March 16, 2015 at 2:42 pm

      Hey Scotty, wow. First of all I don't think you're crazy, but I don't think I can do much to help you from here. Is there a Linux club/group on your campus? You could talk to them and maybe they could help you out. I feel like someone taking a look at your network and trying to troubleshoot things could go a long way to making you feel better. It's possible someone has hijacked your network, but it's pretty unlikely that they can re-infect your computers immediately after re-installing. Having said that, I can't possibly guess what's going on here – you need someone else to talk things through with.

  5. fedor
    March 15, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    Definitely will pass this article on to people who want to learn more about Linux but dont want to be overwhelmed by too much info (which can be scary).
    You did a very good job.

    As for using Linux. After using Windows machines since the DOS days, I switched finally to Mandriva Linux when Vista or 7 came out (im not sure which came first and dont really care to remember).
    At first I did the old dual boot to slowly ease the family in but we were using Firefox, the great VLC (remember the codec battles we use to ahve before taht to make videos work?), OpenOffice (now LibreOFfice) and even kept familiar non-libre programs like Skype and Opera which helped make it a smooth switch. Later, when I switched computers, I installed XP through Virtuabox for a game I liked but none of your 3 laptops or netbooks/Chromebooks have Windows. And in those days, I knew very little about Linux so often when things didnt go well, I prefered to re-install it again which ddint take much time.
    Luckily, a coworker suggested using a Debian based distro like Ubuntu (god my wife hated it so much, it was uglier than Win95 she said) and told me about different desktops (really? we have a choice?) Most of what I learned has been using my Google Fu skills and finding the answers. My buddy wasnt a fan of Ubuntu but he said it would be much easier to find answers online for it (which also worked on Kubuntu and Xubuntu which I used)
    But the big deal for me was the time it saved me because like many sort of tech savvy (lets say Im a power user, not a real geek), I was the free tech support that family called when Windows didnt work.
    That took up a LOT of my free time and finally told my aunts, inlaws, granparents and parents that the free tech was going to only come on Linux. 12 conversions later, i spend almost no time on their tech support (usually some malware, virus, antivrus software things).
    Most of them are on KDE but I give them choice to see what THEY like and the updates take care of themseleves and I use KRDC to check things remotely if need be. Every two years I call them to click on the Kubuntu LTS upgrade button and they have the newest version (always waiting a few months so all the new release bugs get sorted). 2 of my nieces need Windows software and they also use it through Virtuabox. Half of my family that got support are seniors and the switch was fine.

    Since then, I have quite a number of my friends at work who have also switched their parents/inlaws/etc to Linux.

    The best part of using Linux is not only dont I spend hours on family support, its that Linux has become an after thought.
    I cant remember the last time I did anything on our computers that took time (updating the LTS is a one click thing).

    My dad doenst want auto updates because he is fascinated by free software and the fact that people from around the world keep it up to date and there are updates almost every day. he doenst understand what these are but he still finds it fascinating that its happennig so regularly and is buyoed by the collaborative spirit of the project. He says he finds it uplifting.
    Since he has time and is fluent in many languages, he has even gotten involved in translations of certain GNU softwares in his native tongue.
    So my retired dad who doenst really know computers is a GNU/Linux contributor. How cool is that?

    One day when I retire and have free time (Whats that?), I will too give some time for a GNU project as a way to give back to projects that gave me so much.

    • Justin Pot
      March 16, 2015 at 2:53 pm

      I love this comment, thanks for taking the time to write it. I've always said that there are three kinds of computer users:

      1. Beginners, who know how to get on the web and check their email.
      2. Intermediate users, who think they understand computers but really understand a single way of doing things.
      3. True power users, who can adapt to any system quickly.

      Switching operating systems is easy for group 1 and group 3, but group 2 gets really pissed off at any kind of changes whatsoever.

    • Greg Keener
      March 17, 2015 at 2:15 pm

      As a former IT sysadmin, I can definitely confirm the truth of that last statement regarding Windows users. :)

  6. Greg Keener
    March 15, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    I think the nitpicks have been done to death, so I'll skip those. Besides, they're not really relevant to the intended audience of this article.

    This article does a very good job of explaining the concept of open source to non-technical users. Yes, we more advanced users know that kernel != OS (an important distinction), but that really doesn't matter to casual users of any operating system. We can educate them about kernels and the many flavors of Linux after we show them that we are not trying to sell their firstborn child. As for the comment about obtaining software from unreliable sources, that's a whole article in and of itself. A very important article, but irrelevant to the purpose of this one.

    • Justin Pot
      March 16, 2015 at 2:43 pm

      Thanks for reading the article, and for the comment. I'll give some thought to the article you're talking about here, it sounds like a good one (and something that's not intuitive to Windows users, who routinely download software from wherever).

  7. lucius.cornelius
    March 15, 2015 at 5:19 am

    "More eyeballs on the code" has been rather damaged as reasons go. We've had a couple of "been around for years but no one noticed" type bugs.
    OpenSource just means once the bug/vulnerability is known, the fix might occur quicker and the code for the fix can be examined. It doesn't mean - no bugs.

    • Justin Pot
      March 16, 2015 at 12:52 am

      I certainly didn't mean to say that there's no bugs, just like I'd be crazy to suggest there are no mistakes on Wikipedia. I just mean to say that more people looking at the bugs increases the likelihood of them being found. It certainly doesn't eliminate the possibility. But this is a point well taken.

  8. Bar63
    March 14, 2015 at 10:12 pm

    If you are going to ask..Can we trust Linux?...then maybe we should spend some time pointing out the security issues that might present themselves when obtaining software from unreliable sources.

    • Justin Pot
      March 16, 2015 at 12:53 am

      This is true, but I was trying to get at a broader point: people don't trust things that are free, but Linux is different.

  9. Kevin
    March 14, 2015 at 9:50 pm

    Thanks for your input Justin this was a very informative read but I do have to agree with the point that Sonylisation made. You reference Wikipedia several times and it goes hand in hand with what he said. Wikipedia is a resource people can trust for the facts and the fact is Linux is not an OS and that point should be part of the article regardless of the overall point you was making. After all if you search for "what is Linux" on Wikipedia the answer is that it is a kernel, down and simple. There I said it and it didn't take more than a sentence to clear it up and state the fact!

    The point is technical facts continue to get skewed and before you know it very few people know the facts and that is the shame of it all. We as tech professionals need to report the facts in order to properly educate people. You, Sonylisation and I may be aware of it but there are a number of people that read MakeUseOf that don't and sadly some of those misinformed individuals are authors.

    All in all though, very good read and I agreed with everything you said...;)

    • Justin Pot
      March 16, 2015 at 2:23 pm

      I mean, what do you call the ecosystem/OS that's been built around the kernel over time if not Linux? There's no agreed upon title, just plenty of fights over correct language. Stallman would have me say GNU/Linux, but that's not the OS either: just the kernel and a bunch of tools. The reason so many call the entire thing "Linux" is "Linux-based operating system made up of a variety of other tools" just isn't catchy. As a writer, it's a huge problem if I'm trying to write for the average user.

      Most people don't even know what "Linux" is. If people think they find out, and then find out they're wrong and "Linux" actually refers to something more technical that they don't understand, they'll head back to Windows/OS X pretty quickly.

    • Kevin M
      March 16, 2015 at 4:35 pm

      So because it is not catchy, you chose to be inaccurate? Granted there are many that dont understand and that is all the more reason to be accurate and not worry if it is catchy!

    • Justin Pot
      March 16, 2015 at 7:03 pm

      At this point, in the broader culture, "Linux" refers to the entire ecosystem. You may disagree with that, but the ecosystem needs a one-word name and there's nothing better out there. Until there is, I'm going to use "Linux". Including a paragraph explaining what "Linux" is every time I write about the subject just isn't practical.

  10. Smike
    March 14, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    Excellent article.

    I'm a Linux user and this article explains it in such a way that my mum will understand the difference.

  11. Sonylisation
    March 13, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    To be knitpicking... Linux isnt an OS, its a kernel. But its the kernel of many many different collections of code that turns it into OS's.

    The kernel is what reads and interprets machine code. It also tells the hardware what to do and when to do it. Its the most vital part of any digital machine and is the very foundation of an operative system.

    The Operative system is made out of things like the Graphical User Interface (buttons, cursors and images), services and dussins of processes, but under it all you have the Kernel.

    I know this might not be as beginner friendly as the text written in the article, but its still an important distinction to be made imo.

    Great article btw!

    • Justin Pot
      March 13, 2015 at 11:31 pm

      I'm aware of this, but it wasn't core to the point of the article and I didn't want to add a few paragraphs explaining this nuance – it would have distracted from my core points. But thanks for pointing it out here!

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