What is a Linux user?

The definition of who is a "Linux user" has grown to be a bigger tent, and it's a great change.
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How Linux became my job


Editor's note: this article was updated on Jun 11, 2019, at 1:15:19 PM to more accurately reflect the author's perspective on an open and inclusive community of practice in the Linux community.

In only two years, the Linux kernel will be 30 years old. Think about that! Where were you in 1991? Were you even born? I was 13! Between 1991 and 1993 a few Linux distributions were created, and at least three of them—Slackware, Debian, and Red Hat–provided the backbone the Linux movement was built on.

Getting a copy of a Linux distribution and installing and configuring it on a desktop or server was very different back then than today. It was hard! It was frustrating! It was an accomplishment if you got it running! We had to fight with incompatible hardware, configuration jumpers on devices, BIOS issues, and many other things. Even if the hardware was compatible, many times, you still had to compile the kernel, modules, and drivers to get them to work on your system.

If you were around during those days, you are probably nodding your head. Some readers might even call them the "good old days," because choosing to use Linux meant you had to learn about operating systems, computer architecture, system administration, networking, and even programming, just to keep the OS functioning. I am not one of them though: Linux being a regular part of everyone's technology experience is one of the most amazing changes in our industry!

Almost 30 years later, Linux has gone far beyond the desktop and server. You will find Linux in automobiles, airplanes, appliances, smartphones… virtually everywhere! You can even purchase laptops, desktops, and servers with Linux preinstalled. If you consider cloud computing, where corporations and even individuals can deploy Linux virtual machines with the click of a button, it's clear how widespread the availability of Linux has become.

With all that in mind, my question for you is: How do you define a "Linux user" today?

If you buy your parent or grandparent a Linux laptop from System76 or Dell, log them into their social media and email, and tell them to click "update system" every so often, they are now a Linux user. If you did the same with a Windows or MacOS machine, they would be Windows or MacOS users. It's incredible to me that, unlike the '90s, Linux is now a place for anyone and everyone to compute.

In many ways, this is due to the web browser becoming the "killer app" on the desktop computer. Now, many users don't care what operating system they are using as long as they can get to their app or service.

How many people do you know who use their phone, desktop, or laptop regularly but can't manage files, directories, and drivers on their systems? How many can't install a binary that isn't attached to an "app store" of some sort? How about compiling an application from scratch?! For me, it's almost no one. That's the beauty of open source software maturing along with an ecosystem that cares about accessibility. 

Today's Linux user is not required to know, study, or even look up information as the Linux user of the '90s or early 2000s did, and that's not a bad thing. The old imagery of Linux being exclusively for bearded men is long gone, and I say good riddance.

There will always be room for a Linux user who is interested, curious, fascinated about computers, operating systems, and the idea of creating, using, and collaborating on free software. There is just as much room for creative open source contributors on Windows and MacOS these days as well. Today, being a Linux user is being anyone with a Linux system. And that's a wonderful thing.

The change to what it means to be a Linux user

When I started with Linux, being a user meant knowing how to the operating system functioned in every way, shape, and form. Linux has matured in a way that allows the definition of "Linux users" to encompass a much broader world of possibility and the people who inhabit it. It may be obvious to say, but it is important to say clearly: anyone who uses Linux is an equal Linux user. 

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Anderson was introduced to Linux by his uncle back in 1996. In the early 2000s, he transitioned from being a developer to a system administrator. Today, Anderson leads the Red Hat Information Security Incident Response team. He is also an active Fedora package maintainer.


I am not so sure about the 'good old days' Anderson, I kept an eye on Linux developments from the mid nineteen nineties but it was not until about 2007 that there was something that I could think about recommending to a general user.

Ha! Don't get me wrong, I've said this before, if I had to spend the amount of time on Linux in my 40s that I spent in my 20s, I would probably be working on something else with my life nowadays :-p

In reply to by peter_cheer

I think you're overvaluing the term Linux user. Years ago, just to be a user you had to be a determined Linux user. But user is just user, like hairdryer user or microwave oven user.
There was a community of users, and you learned to rely on that community, just knowing that someone out there was working on the solution to the brick wall you ran into.

Hi Greg,

Thank you for your feedback. And I don't disagree with you at all. Maybe think of it of it this way... In the 90s, if someone said they were a Linux user in a interview that may not mean the same thing today? Or does it?

In reply to by Greg P


Your worst nightmare.

....and I've been doing stupid things with Free software ever since I first saw video of ESR directed at another audience. I [gasp!] write python even though I don't know how to code just to GPL wonky AF independent programs. I also say something if I have something to say. This is what I have to say today:

Users are free to be anyone they wish and make/do almost anything they wish with Free software as half assed or as messy as they want. And they don't have to do it for money or work/ hope to work in the field. Don't like it?, go gatekeep proprietary software then; Because the four essential software freedoms, many of which are shared with open source software, can be easily be translated to 'PUNK ROCK!'

A user

Hello User! I love your passion! Thanks for sharing!

In reply to by Female, of col… (not verified)

ESR has said a lot of things I disagree with but those words definitely resonated with me. Over the years my little adventure into Free software has equipped me in many ways; To the point where earlier this year, when offered in a mass company email $300 to voluntarily install a proprietary company app on my personal phone, I knew better than to even consider it! (tee hee the program was canceled anyhow because, surprise surprise, sleep deprived shift workers loose their phones...a lot). Anyhow, that's just one example of the social good byproduct FOSS has and why it makes me so sad when I see people exclude, worse blame, non-technical users. It's nice to see you show those opinions are mostly limited to the peanut gallery :)

In reply to by ansilva

To paraphrase John Adams in the movie "1776": They are people, and they use Linux. If there's any other requirement, I haven't heard it.

The fact that the term "linux user" doesn't have the same weight now as it did decades ago is great, and it's related to the fact that "open source" itself has a different meaning. They're no longer exceptions, and that's significant because it helps ensure some degree of stability and longevity, but it also means people are being empowered to hack their own tools rather than helplessly consuming whatever they're handed. And that's really exciting.

I started in 1995 and even then Linux was not for the faint of heart. The desktop experience today is the best. I've been a regular desktop/laptop user for over 15 years and it just keeps getting better. Many people today use Linux on set top boxes, smart TVs, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kindle, Chromebook and more and have no idea of the OS or its important history.

A reasonable question, and a difficult one. I use GNU/Linux for all of my computer activities, whether browsing the Internet, or doing some borderline programming, such as LaTeX, Gri for graphing, or some bash scripts. Bash scripts are difficult for me, so I rely on tutorials or google searches, and trial and error---oftentimes more of the latter. GNU/Linux allows me to control what I do with the computer; in my case, the cost is a steep learning curve that I have been climbing for 25 years or longer. It's a slippery slope as well, because I have no expectation of achieving mastery.

Am I a "power user?" This often referred, back when I kept track of it, to a windows user who could navigate the controls that Microsoft (and maybe Apple) bound them up with. But my own user-ness leaves me vulnerable, I think. I am not a newby---I've been doing this since 1993 or so. Yet, I'm not the kind of user who might be the Linux Administrator. Yes, I have learned to do many of the things that admins do: I have had to. I even ran Gentoo for years, but I cringe everytime I hear "USE FLAGS", and even though my current machine is faster than in that time, I have no interest in upgrading and updating continuously, all of those fresh compiles, multiiple times a week, or more often if KDE libraries were involves. I have a computing life.

This speaks to what a Linux user is. A computer is useful to me. I learn to use the tools. I am not attracted so much to learn every in and out, to write scripts to run my toaster. As a teacher and a science guy, the computer is essential to me.

Another point: about "freedom" and "freeness". I started using emacs and unix text tools ported to Windows 3.0 by Cygwin (I think); this was my first exposure to free software. Free, as in "free beer." I lived on an isolated island, made little money as a teacher, and needed access to software to complete a project. A demo copy of MultiEdit for Windows worked for me; however, while the software cost nothing, a manual would cost somethiing like 300.00. I had no such kind of money available to me.

I learned accidentally of the existence of the "Free Software Foundation," an organization whose raison d' etre was unknown to me, but the name of which suggested a possible way to get my hands on an editor! I wrote a letter; a package of 13 disks came by return mail, a few weeks later. Emacs (Demacs, actually), and the gnu text utilities. My prayer was answered. I had some time, so I learned to tweak emacs. Two things about emacs were important to me.

The first important thing about Emacs was it's self documenting character. A keystroke away was all the documentation one could hope for. I have said silent praise for Richard Stallman for writing TeXInfo, hundreds of times. I was able to learn to do what I needed to learn to do: enter diacritical marks. It's that simple; it might have been resolved me readily in any of a number of ways, had I the computing chops.

The second thing was that Emacs and these other amazing tools were Free Software. But here is where the concept of "Freedom" came to play. I have a special place in my heart for something I cannot put into words: people power? I'm not sure. My concept of Microsoft changed almost instantly, once I had Emacs on my laptop. After I had my first opportunity to download GNU/Linux, the die was cast. The deal was sealed.

The keys responded to my commands. Multitasking was real. This was a tool. I was no longer the tool. Free Software took in it's true meaning.

I am not a magician when it comes to computing. I am a user. Is a programmer a user?

I am still infected and inspired by Free Software. My pathway has been different. Regrettably, I have not contributed to the movement. Maybe that will change, and I will write some Documentation.

I am still in awe of the multitudes of programmers who have produced the components of the GNU/Linux operating system.

I hope this sheds some light on my sense of what it means to be a "Linux" user.

This is a fascinating story. Good enough to be an article on its own :-)

In reply to by Alan Davis (not verified)

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