How You Can Explain Linux to Anyone (So They’ll Get It)

Matthew Hughes 23-09-2016

You know what Linux is.


You understand its strengths, and its weaknesses, and know how to use it. More than likely, you know which distribution is best for you. You know what a distribution is. And you know all this because you are passionate about tech. Why else would you be on a technology website, reading an article about Linux?

And I bet you wish your relatives used it too. It would save you so much time. Your weekend plans wouldn’t be derailed by removing 10 years worth of malware from your uncle’s ancient Compaq desktop. There would be no more pop-ups on your mom’s computer. No more ransomware infections A History of Ransomware: Where It Started & Where It's Going Ransomware dates from the mid-2000s and like many computer security threats, originated from Russia and eastern Europe before evolving to become an increasingly potent threat. But what does the future hold for ransomware? Read More that you’d be left to fight.

It would be tech support bliss.

Here’s the problem. Your relatives aren’t passionate about tech. It’s not something that excites them. Three years ago, they went to Best Buy and bought whatever the sales clerk told them to, and they see no reason to change.

So, how do you evangelize Linux to someone who doesn’t share your enthusiasm for tech? Here’s how you do it in a considerate, empathetic way that gets results.


Start With the Basics: This Is an Operating System

In the introduction to this piece, I used a particular word: empathy.

When you try to make recommendations about technology (not just about Linux), it’s important to remember that the person you’re speaking to does not share your experience, or your perspective.

Before you start babbling about the finer differences between Windows and Linux, and explaining the systemd controversy 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 , it’s important to get some groundwork down. Perhaps the initial concept you’ll have to explain is what an operating system is.

Ubuntu Blank Desktop Screenshot


I’ve spoken to people who genuinely don’t know what that is. When they look at a computer, they think “Windows”. To lots of people, these two concepts are intrinsically linked. They don’t know that there are alternatives.

Before you even introduce Linux, you may have to explain what an operating system is, and what it does. Above all, you’ll have to explain that these can be changed, and that there are legitimate reasons for doing so, without going into specifics.

In the past, I’ve actually had to explain that it’s perfectly legal to remove Windows. While this might sound hilarious to you, for an awful lot of people this is a reasonable concern. They’re not stupid, nor are they ignorant. They just don’t share your experience or perspective.

Again, empathy.


Linux: The Biggest OS You’ve Never Heard Of

What is Linux? No, I’m serious. I’m asking you a question.

Imagine I’m the average person. I use computers for casual web browsing and work, and I have no real interest in them beyond that. How would you explain Linux to me?

If you said the words “license”, “kernel”, “FLOSS”, “free software”, “command line”, or “toolchain”, congratulations: you failed.

Say them to an ordinary person and you’ll get one of two responses. Most likely their eyes will glaze over with boredom. Otherwise they will be completely baffled and won’t follow what you’re saying.


Here’s how I’d explain it:

Linux is a bit like Windows. It’s a big computer program that lets you run other, smaller computer programs like Google Chrome and Office. In fact, it looks a lot like Windows, too. What makes Linux so special is that compared to Windows, it’s safer and more reliable Is Linux Really as Secure as You Think It Is? Linux is often touted as the most secure operating system you can get your hands onto, but is this really the case? Let's take a look at different aspects of Linux computer security. Read More .

There are thousands of people and companies who work on Linux, trying to make it better. They do this for free, and they allow it to be downloaded by ordinary people like yourself, without charge. This is because they use it themselves, and they benefit from having an operating system that’s fast, rarely crashes, and is less at risk of being hacked or infected with a virus.

In those two short paragraphs, I’ve explained what Linux is, and even touched on how it’s built and licensed. I did this without using the words “source code” or “license”, or any other terminology 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 that normal people don’t use.

Relate It to Them: Why Should They Care?

By now, the person you’re speaking to should know that Linux is an operating system, and it has some unique strengths. This is good. But again, why should they care? Why should they upgrade? After all, in the world of tech, you don’t have to upgrade the moment something better arrives. The latest iPhone is a perfect demonstration of that.

Here’s where you have to make this about them.

Has the person you’re speaking to fallen victim to an online scam, or malware? Have they recently had to pay out huge amounts of money to recover their files after being infected by ransomware? Are they currently frustrated with their computer’s sluggish performance? (“It wasn’t like this when I bought it…”)

Cryptolocker Ransomware Malware Threat

If so, tell them that Linux is different.

It isn’t as vulnerable to these types of problems as Windows is. There aren’t as many viruses for Linux, and by design it’s much harder to infect. Tell them that Linux doesn’t get as bogged down and sluggish over time, as Windows does.

Those problems that vex them so much? They’ll be a thing of the past.

Assuage Their Fears: There’s No Catch

Most people get their operating system with their computer. Failing that, they will buy an install CD on Amazon and take their machine to the local computer store for them to install. For many, the idea of downloading a program off the internet and replacing their trusty Windows install is unthinkable.

There are other legitimate concerns that people might have when it comes to upgrading to Linux. They may be concerned that effectively they will have to re-learn how to use their computer. They may be afraid to lose the programs they have come to depend upon.

This is the point where you do a hands-on demo, and show that they’ve got nothing to worry about. Chromium works just like internet Explorer. LibreOffice works just like Microsoft Office. Their printer will still work. They will still be able to check their emails, and play Solitaire online. Show them that Linux Mint looks unmistakably like Windows XP, and the real-world difference isn’t as great as they might think.

LibreOffice Alternative to PowerPoint Presentation

Some people may be skeptical about the nature of free software itself. After all why would someone work for free, unless there’s a catch? After all, there’s no such thing as a free meal.

At this point, it might help to point out that lots of household names have contributed to Linux, including Intel, AMD, IBM, Nokia, Samsung, Google, Fujitsu, and Microsoft, according to a 2012 report from The Linux Foundation (PDF).

You should point out that Linux is so good, it’s used everywhere: from banking systems, to the computers used on Boeing’s P-8A military aircraft. From desktop computers, to smartphones and automobiles.

If it sucked, these very serious companies wouldn’t spend their time, money, and resources working on it. Neither would the financial services industry depend on it.

Once They’re Convinced, Follow Up

This is my last point. It’s a short one, I promise.

If you convince someone to start using Linux, you had best make sure that their experience is a good one. You can do this by simply being around and making the first few weeks with it as easy as possible. When you choose a distro for them, pick one that’s likely to be gentle and familiar The Best Linux Distros for First Time Switchers From Windows and Mac Linux has an intimidating image, making it seem like it would be difficult to start using it. But the switch from Windows and Mac is actually pretty easy, if you can ease yourself into it. Read More .

Be patient, and answer questions. Above all, be understanding. Try and see their concerns and frustrations from the perspective of someone being introduced to something very foreign for the first time.

If you leave them to fend for themselves, it’ll be a disaster, and they’ll leave this experience thinking that Linux is confusing, difficult, and not worth learning. What a shame that would be.

Have you convinced any of your relatives to start using Linux? If so, how did you do it? What lessons did you learn? Let me know in the comments below.

Image Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Related topics: Linux, Open Source.

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  1. Alex Leibowitz
    May 29, 2018 at 2:35 pm

    Linux is great but I don't think it would be great for my mom. The "how" makes sense, but...why?

  2. K
    May 27, 2017 at 6:57 am

    I love the language in this article! I am a non-tech person who can't stand to keep using Windows system computers that become dial up slow over time so I made the decision to switch. It's scary for non-tech people- some things like dowloading and choosing the version are all hard decisions, and I don't have the ability to fix it if something goes wrong so that's threatening. But I want the better security and speed and I'm researching all the posts I can find online first about it to help myself brave the plunge.

  3. John
    February 4, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    I run Linux on a raspberry pi and it's perfect for all my hobby needs. Electronics, web browsing, reading ebooks, controlling my ham radio etc. To get work done, I'm afraid to say I have to use a Mac. I don't think Linux needs to make it on the desktop. It needs to meet the needs of the sort of people who love tech.

  4. Eddie G.
    September 30, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    I indeed have converted quite a few people over to Linux. As to how I did it, it definitely depended on the situation. the most difficult instance was with my Mom, her Dell Latitude laptop was old, and it was running Windows XP, and it was literally bogged down with viruses, malware, adware and all manner of things popping up every 10 seconds. Her McAfee was not able to update because of the infections her machine had, and then one day in August of 2009? her laptop froze when she tried to open Internet Explorer, and even after a reboot it took over 47 minutes to arrive at the desktop! (Yes I timed it!) I had to introduce her to Linux Mint slowly, first by showing her a few screen shots that I printed up, then showing her the real thing on one of my three laptops, I didn't just SHOW her, I lent her the laptop for about a week so that she would be comfortable using Linux daily. She didn't have any boutique software she needed. She only ever went online for recipes, and would email family and friends that lived elsewhere. She had never used Skype on her Windows XP laptop and when I showed her how to use it on Linux Mint, she was hooked. I took her laptop home with me and in one night had installed everything she would need. I customized the KDE desktop so that it resembled her old Windows machine, (I even downloaded and applied the Windows XP "standard" background!) After showing her how to use LibreOffice and informing her that there WERE no ".exe" files for her to click on, she was ok. Although I DID have to reiterate to her on multiple occasions that there was no need for an antivirus on her "new" old laptop. (In the end I installed ClamAV to put her mind at ease..) That was back when Linux Mint was on release version 7 ("Gloria" ) and she's been using it veer since. She went through a bit of an issue with KDE and so later on I moved her to MATE and she's been using it happily since then, she's now running Linux Mint 18 ("Sarah") with the same MATE desktop environment. She was the only person who was the most challenging to convert, I've also helped my oldest sister, my younger brother, my three cousins, and their parents and an array of others make the switch and have had no complaints or problems yet.
    I think the main reason why some people have such a difficult time with Linux is because they have become so "comfortable" and complacent with Windows. They are so "used" to having to install an anti-virus , having to defrag their machine, needing to purchase a license for the "full" version of their office suite, that they don't know how to deal with NOT having to do these things. But once you get them to agree to TRY Linux? then you're halfway there. I do agree with the author if their first encounter with Linux proves too confusing and frustrating? most likely they will find someone or go to some store and have Windows re-installed.

  5. JJ
    September 28, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    The year of the Linux desktop... if the corporate resources given to Linux server were available it will happen. Until then, more education toward how to make projects secure in code and design needs to happen. This is how you will win the masses in the near future. Keep them safe.

  6. Allen L. Starr
    September 26, 2016 at 2:10 am

    You make some excellent points. For many of the reasons you identified, I am using a Chromebook for most of my work (I don't play games on my computer). Due to the way Google controls their Chrome OS updates and their hardware requirements, I have had no problems withe Chromebook software updates. I have to spend about an hour/week/computer to check for Windows updates, antivirus/malware app updates, backup data - don't have to do this with a Chromebook.

    However, I still use a Windows machines for things like Quicken and tax programs. And YES, I had to fiddle with the Chromebook privacy settings to prevent "giving away the store".

  7. Igor Šulji?
    September 25, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    How about an extreme case. My mother in law is an old fashioned lady with entire lack of any interest in tech. The one who gave up driving because of the maintenance issues, the one who instantly looks for a male when the light bulb goes out. When she had to start using computer to be able to keep making money on translating, I (being myself Windows user at the time) tried with Windows 2000 (probably the best Windows up to Win7). In next 12 years she never actually learned how to use it, and I was in charge daily. Windows is very, very far from intuitive easy-to-learn OS for computer newbies. There are those complicated metaphorae of files and folders, and totally unclear things like drive, and relation between My Documents, My Computer, My Music etc. The fact that some people believe it is easy is due exclusively to extensive brainwashing. Like, the only reason anyone ever lighted a cigarette, drank a cup of coffee, or went to the cinema to see the most recent US blockbuster is because everyone else does so. Not that it is pleasant or doing any good. Instead one has to get used to it and it takes time.
    Then, as her old PC came to the end of its life, we bought her an Acer Aspire Revo R3610 as a birthday present. Decent little machine for a person of her needs. There was some strange Linpus Linux preinstalled that was conceived as fast booting pre-Windows auxiliary OS in the case user only needs to check mail or show some photos to family. Now this was really simple user interface. There were few big buttons on the initial screen: Documents, Internet, Multimedia, Files, Settings. And finally, after 12 years, the lady was in command of her system, suited to her ambitions and needs.
    Unfortunately, Linpus was very strange occurrence of Linux distro. Updating programs and OS itself proved impossible, as it was probably project goal no.1. Revo was supposed to be Windows machine for the poor. So, we had to go on. After some research I picked Mageia Linux with KDE, and adjusted it so that there are three virtual desktops: Internet, Work and Pastime, with filesystem panels peeping into respective folders, and the others containing .desktop application starters, but only the necessary ones. So here I am doing the system and programs update every week or two, without any other maintenance duty. No complains. IF my mother in law were happy with Windows, and not in constant need of tech support (usually urgent and at the worst time, while I was at work), or willing and able to pay for one, I would never object.

  8. jymm
    September 24, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Most people are just afraid of the unknown, and Linux is unknown to so many. I have relatives that have me look at their computer everytime I am there. It always has four or five tool bars installed on the browser. They have no idea where they come from, even though I have explained multiple times.

    I showed them how much faster their computer runs on Linux from a USB driver compared to their Windoze Vista installation. I used Mate and made it look just like Windoze for them. Their printer was an HP and easily set up with Linux.

    Vista was hardware intensive and they bought a excellent computer. Now they want to buy a cheap Win10 computer. I am positive they will again be disappointed. Yet you cannot get them to change. Fear of the unknown.

  9. Joshua
    September 23, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    I'm a huge Linux lover. I've switched almost entirely from Windows. A while back, my grandpa had an old computer running winXP (HP pavilion). He was sick and tired of it being slow, and him having me come and clean out all the junk. I introduced him to Linux, and I installed Linux Mint. It kind of backfired because it was almost as slow as windows. I put lxde on top of it to make it faster. He liked it and used it for a good long time. Just recently he went to best buy and bought a new PC with Win10 on it. I've tried to get him to have me put Linux on it, but he has the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" attitude. He used to be a nut about security but now it seems he doesn't care! What should I do?

    • Kev Quirk
      September 24, 2016 at 11:05 am

      I think the only thing you can really do is wait. Your grandpa clearly isn't interested in moving back over to Linux at this point, maybe he's having fun exploring Win10. I know always enjoy playing around in a new OS.

      He clearly knows the advantages of running Linux, as you said he's security conscious. So I would simply explain that if/when he decides he wants to move back to Linux, you will help.

      If he moves over under duress, thanks to a virus etc, the worst thing you could do at that point is hit with "I told you so". Just support him and help in transition over when/if the need arises. Good luck!

    • RedandShare
      September 27, 2016 at 1:58 pm

      “I'm a huge Linux lover. I've switched almost entirely from Windows.”

      It's sentiments like this that makes me hesitant about Linux. A huge Linux lover would presumably be very proficient; and yet, still cannot jettison Windows?

      I like Windows enough. So Linux is really so much better and safer? I would consider, but not if it means learning/maintaining two separate OSes forever!

      • Paul Paul
        September 30, 2016 at 3:40 pm

        I too am a huge Linux lover, but that does not mean that I do not exist in the "real world", and that real world means occasionally having a need for Windoze. As soon as I can get true decent replacements for certain programs, then it's Linux all the way -- until then, I live with both. You should have NO hesitation about Linux ... it runs circles around Windoze.

      • spyjoshx
        December 30, 2016 at 12:19 am

        I should have been more specific. The only thing keeping me from reformatting my Windoze laptop and making linux primary, is a school program. My main desktop is 100% linux. I love computers quite a bit, and I have never run into any problems I couldn't either easily fix, or live without. You should totally try it!