Linux is not an Operating System

Posted on Tuesday, July 14, 2009 by Erlik

Last week Google announced their intention to release an operating system based on Linux. The reaction of some people on reddit was: "No, another neutered, watered-down, crapitized "linux". Linux will once again be viewed as a sub par, 'specialized' OS." Well, this is not possible because Linux is not really an operating system, it is a kernel. And it is actually very successful as a specialized operating system's kernel. Let me explain.

Linux is not a operating system

The term Linux actually refers to the Linux kernel. This is not in itself a full blown computer operating system but a bunch of drivers an code to make other programs run. The beauty of the Linux kernel is that most of those drivers are modules that can be added or removed from the kernel as required. This means that you can use the Linux kernel as the foundation for a lot of very different operating systems: You can build full blown desktop operating systems with advanced graphical user interfaces and immense packages repositories that give access to an ecosystem of thousand of applications. You can also strip it down to a very specialized kernel with only a few module that is suitable to run a home router or file server. Incidentally Linux has been way more successful in the later function.

Linux success in devices

Linux has been very successful in devices, as it is very easy to build a specialized operating system based on the Linux kernel. My Dlink home router runs a Linux based operating system designed by Dlink. My Emtec Movie Cube runs a Linux based operating system designed by Emtec. If you have an Android phone you run a Linux based operating system designed by Google. When you search on the Google search engine the processing happen on another Linux based operating system designed by Google for an entirely different purpose. The objective of Linux is not to be an operating system, it is to be a kernel that everyone can freely use and customize to create it's own operating system. It would not have been possible to release many of the devices I mention above at a reasonable price if their operating system had to be purchased or built from scratch. Linux's usefulness goes way beyond the desktop or even the server.

Ubuntu and Fedora are Linux based Operating Systems

Since anyone can create it's own operating system based on the Linux kernel, why not create a full blown desktop operating system that we can use instead of Windows or OSX? This is where distributions like Ubuntu or Fedora come into play. These take the Linux kernel and add the elements that will make desktop operating system like a windows manager to create a GUI or a package manager to install and update applications. Even if both these operating systems are based on the Linux kernel they can be very different in the end: One may use the KDE window manager and one may use Gnome. One can use RPM packages while the other use DEB packages. Ubuntu and Fedora are actually two different operating systems and are not fully compatible, even if both are based on the Linux kernel. Linux is not the operating system, Ubuntu (or Fedora) is.

The case of Mint and Ubuntu

Since the source code for an operating system based on Linux must be released, it is actually possible to create an operating system not directly based on Linux but based on another distribution. Ubuntu is based on the Debian Linux-based operating system, and Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu. This helps maintain some compatibility as most Debian packages will work on Ubuntu and Mint. In this case it could be argued that the operating system is Debian, and that Ubuntu and Mint are just derivatives. If you see it that way there are only a few successful Linux based desktop operating system: Debian, Fedora, SUSE and maybe Slackware, Mandriva and Android.

Back to Google ChromeOS

ChromeOS will be an operating system that will use the Linux kernel, but not be based on any existing Linux distribution. This will be a new Linux distribution, a new operating system. Will it be more Limited than Ubuntu or Fedora? Probably at first, but Like all Linux based operating system users will be able to create their own versions, their own derivative operating systems. Developers will probably be able to adapt and recompile open source programs to run on ChromeOS and soon it will be another member of the big family of Linux based operating systems. Will it be the same as Ubuntu? probably not, why create a new operating system if it is to reproduce the functionality of an existing one?

ChromeOS will use Linux for what it is the best: be the kernel of an operating system customized and optimized to a specific function. For ChromeOS it means being the best possible Netbook operating system. For Ubuntu it means being the best desktop operating system. For Red Hat it means being the best server operating system. For Android it means being the best Smartphone operating system etc... That is probably the greatest strength of Linux compared to closed source operating system, when fighting Linux you don't fight one operating system, you fight a dozen.

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22 Responses to "Linux is not an Operating System":

John Deck says:

I beg to differ. Linux as it is distributed is an operating system. The fact that you can run the kernel in separate mode is not new or unique.

John Deck

Anonymous says:

Technically, the article is correct and John is wrong. When you go to and get the latest Linux, you definitely do NOT get an operating system. You just get the Kernel.

However, pointing that out is like trying to stop the tide from coming in.

John is correct as far as the colloquial usage of the term "Linux" means one of the various operating systems that are distributed with a Linux kernel -- RedHat, Debian, etc.

Although I'm not sure what John means when he says you can run the kernel in "separate mode." I can't find any actual reference to such a mode.

Anonymous says:

Linux is an operating system. An operating system is the lowest layer of software communicating with hardware.

Look it up.

Mace says:

There's a discrepancy between the Computer Science definition of an operating system and the public perception.

It's somewhat like calling a computer that runs Windows 'a PC'. The term PC (personal computer) applies to Macs, Windows and Linux machines of course, but the term has been appropriated by Microsoft.

Likewise, by definition, a computer operating system is the kernel, not the tools and applications that run on top of it.

In Linux terminology, what the general public calls an operating system is a 'distribution'. Ubuntu, Fedora, SuSE, Google Android, Palm WebOS, ChromeOS are all distributions of Linux.

Anonymous says:

MacOS X is actually based upon the Mach Kernel Not upon the Linux.
an Operating System is perhaps a combination of the core kernel + some User mode commands also

1369ic says:

Being right when arguing terms with "the public" is like walking in front of a bus just because you're in a designated crosswalk: you may have the right of way, but you'll still be dead. Mr. Stallman has been trying for years now, and can't even get the people who understand the difference to use the terms correctly. I'm not saying you should start using the wrong terms, but keep the knowledge in that small place inside you that gets warm when you know you're right and everybody else is wrong. That's all it's good for at this point. The matter is decided.

Anonymous says:

Language is fluid. Often a term changes meaning after it gets outside the circle that first coined it.

My parents don't care to understand the difference between a kernel and other parts of the stack. They only remember that they use linux, and the flavor is Ubuntu, and its made by volunteers and Canonical.

They don't understand, and sometimes don't remember, but appreciate that the whole FOSS community has more integrity, reliability and sustainability then any individual company.

Anonymous says:

Oops, and forgot to say that is the strength of FOSS (including the linux kernel). And that is what the ultimate point I think the author makes in the end.

Anonymous says:

I may be old fashioned, but I am correct. The kernel is the OS. The Os as implied in this article is a distribution with all the tools and applications that run on the kernel.

We can all argue until women get equal pay, but remember these things:

1) I am right;
2) Blogging isn't journalism, fact-checking is not a required; and
3) Bloggers who get things embarrassingly wrong have no credibility and will get whipped in the comments.


Anonymous says:

How did you manage to avoid mentioning the GNU project?

I agree - an operating system in CS terms is an interface between user programs and hardware, i.e Linux, Hal + Udev etc...

So no - I don't think the Linux kernel can be considered an Operating System.

BJ says:

> If you see it that way there are
> only a few successful Linux based
> desktop operating system: Debian,
> Fedora, SUSE and maybe Slackware,
> Mandriva and Android.

Both Fedora and Mandriva are derivatives of RedHat, right?

And Suse was originally based on Slackware and SLS I suppose...

Anonymous says:

'Chrome OS based on Linux' sounds pretty accurate to me. It is not based on a distro, but uses the kernel. Therefore, it is based on Linux.

Sam Albuquerque says:

The kernel is the OS. The rest including bash and all the other tools are userland tools that interact with the hardware thru the OS.

As stated earlier in other comments, an OS is, according to Computer Science definition an interface between the userland software and the Hardware. This is what the kernel does.

Your understanding of the Operating Systems term is a result of the marketing gurus who coin their own meaning to techincal terms. Another such misinterpreted term by the media is a Hacker...

Anonymous says:

The article is right, but also abysmally wrong.

"Linux" has become a brand. A meme. Like a "Google", or "Coca-Cola", or "humvee", or "Wall-mart".

What technicians happen to use the term "Linux" for isn't the point. The point is what Joe Public thinks it stand for. And that's the Linux Operating System. Oh ues, and you can keep your GNUs as well because Joe Public doesn't know a GNU from his elbow.

Sad but true.

The problem is that various companies (like Microsoft) know an awful lot about brands, branding, the need to maintain a brand, and what will happen if you let a brand slide in people's opinion.

There's the real danger to GNU/Linux. People's perception.

Alan Moore says:

I think a lot of the commenters are missing the point of this article. The whole point is that:
- The term "linux" has been (incorrectly) used to refer to whole Linux + GNU + X11 + GNOME/KDE/XFCE software stacks.
- Google announced that Chrome would run on Linux (the kernel)
- People are assuming that Chrome will be Linux + GNU + X11 + GNOME/KDE/XFCE or something like it.

Author's point is that just because something runs on a Linux kernel and is therefore technically "Linux" doesn't mean it will look or behave anything like what people think of when they use the term "Linux" colloquially.

Anonymous says:

Thanks, Anonymous, where would you like us to look up this wonderful definition of "operating system" upon which everyone agrees, and which is surely right?

My two cents: POSIX is an operating system specification which is implemented by GNU and Linux, but not by Linux alone. Therefore, Linux is not a POSIX operating system, but GNU and Linux are (mostly).

You can argue about whether or not Linux is an operating system because hypothetically an application could run on only Linux, but I'm not aware of any such application. Any definition that I am aware of specifies that an operating system supports applications, but applications generally need a libc and other items to run on Linux.

Linux is hypothetically an operating system, but is certainly a kernel. GNU and Linux together meet the definition of operating system in a much more realistic fashion.

Anonymous says:'s summertime, go out and annoy someone in the fresh air. I can't believe I got suckered into reading another "Linux is just a kernel" thread.
And why, when I'm bored at work, isn't there something more interesting to read.

gnumber9 says:

gnu deserves mentioning.

Sigra says:

Accually from a solid standing on what defines a OS is being twisted like The american history has been. OS back lin the early 80s was MS-DOS and PC-DOS. Such as I coded alot of it. if you do not know. DOS stands for Disc Operating System. Operating system means to make the hardware operate on that level. A graphical layer running ontop of a Linux Kernel or Windows Kernel is just that. A graphical layer. And as well. You are throwing the Kernel Linux out the door with how you word your self and show ignorance. It has done been researched that the Linux Operating system would take 10 billion dallors and years to develop. And You are comparing a much smaller project Chrome (Miss Labeled) OS as a operating system. I think Marketing is jumping on board to twist yet history again for capital gains. Nothing new. And it will probally work. But the Fact for the Educated in computers knows better.

When I first read Google OS and the articles, My first impression was laughter to no end how ignorant theses writers are at posting Information. Then I visited the Google Website and seen the Farce they had listed. Next I moved right along and broke down the code for next 2 days examining it. End result. Same Ole Same ole. Men in suits ready to capitalize off of peoples ignorance.

Glad I don't live in the same world as you guys do lol.

One last thing. IF you define chrome OS as a operating system. Then it should not derive its function from the Linux kernel to operate?
But what I have found is exactly that. Google Chrome is a graphic layer loading AFTER the Operating system has setup the SYSTEM to Operate.

Best Regards

Elgran Sinclare

Sigra says:

I like leave on more not. GNU means nothing. like taking american and after we had the civil war we recall it Afro-America. Linux and everthing comes about is off the concept of no one can own the code..and all has contributed. So Save the GNU crap. GNU great yes. but in the end its LINUX. maybe for you new guys its GNU/Linux. But no mater what your wanting to give merit for. The concept and the success that even CREATED the GNU has done been labeled. (LINUX)

Furious George says:

I just call it "Penguin". Why? Because everytime i think of Linux I see an image in my mind. In the harshest conditions Windows can break, but Penguins adapt. Yes its a commercial that i think fits the bill. Linux is a name, don't argue about the name argue about its content.

Mark says:

Ugh... people in the comments getting things wrong and insisting they are right.

Linux is the kernel of the OS. It is a part of the OS. It is not the OS because it can do nothing by itself. Gnu provided the tools the complete the OS such as file management and most of the command-line commands you must use to do anything.

DOS itself is comparable to Gnu+Linux so you cannot compare DOS to Linux either. When you run commands like "copy" and "del" and "dir" on DOS you are actually using distinct programs or a program that runs also use the DOS kernel.