What Exactly Is Linux

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Everybody who has used a personal computer (PC)—desktop, laptop, notebook, and tablet, whatever—knows about Windows. Microsoft Windows, to be exact. Most of the PC’s in the world use Windows as their ‘operating system’. As many know, a computer system is made of hardware (the actual machinery—the physical computer) and software (the instructions installed into the hardware to make it work). The ‘operating system’ is the most basic part of software—the software that manages the physical computer so that other programs (so-called ‘applications software’) can make the computer do things that are useful to human beings. For most people, these useful things involve looking up information on the Internet, sending and receiving electronic mail, writing and printing documents, and playing computer games. Most computer users can be happily unaware of what is going on inside their computer, and this is as it should be. A computer, like a toaster, should ‘just work’. Though we hear the most about computers when they don’t work as they should, for the most part, they do. Microsoft Windows can take some credit for this reliability, though this has depended in part of which version of Windows is being used (the best, by far, has been Windows 7).

Since Windows works so well for so many people, why would anyone wish to use a different operating system?  Up to now, most people haven’t bothered. A few know that a copy of Windows on your computer costs up to $100, but they are used to paying $400 and up for a computer, and that cost is built into the overall price. Having learned since 1995 how to use any version of Windows, folks are not eager to learn a new way of doing things. A very few people who know a bit more about computers are not happy with the way Microsoft has run their part of the computer business, but for the most part,  these folks are ignored by the rest of us.

However, a VERY small group of VERY well educated computer people had complained very loudly for decades about how Microsoft had dominated the operating system business, and how poorly various versions of Windows have worked…from their expert perspective. Another small group of computer experts years ago decided to develop their own computer operating system. This group was led by Richard Stallman, who is best known for his assertion that ALL software should be distributed including its source code (the original computer language text that defines what the software is and does). His group developed a set of outstanding programming tools (programs used to develop other programs, but had difficulty developing their own operating system (GNU). In 1991, this crowd was joined by a computer science major from the University of Helsinki, Finland, named Linux Torvalds. He had written a personal version of an operating system, modeled on an operating system called ‘UNIX’, which had been built for the very large computers of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Linus spread his new program over the Internet to a worldwide group of similarly inclined programmers, who dubbed the results ‘LINUX’, in his honor. (Since Linus and others used the GNU tools, their operating system is sometimes called ‘GNU-LINUX, to give well-deserved credit to Stallman’s group.) 

At first, LINUX was very limited compared to Windows. However, since LINUX cost nothing, and could be downloaded and modified freely, it became popular among computer experts, who formed an international community around improving LINUX. Similar programmer communities developed other free and open software projects, which came to include many types of programs usually (in the Windows world) sold for profit. In addition, software was added to the LINUX project that created the same sort of ‘user interface’ (the method people use to make the computer do things) that was provided by Windows (as well as the Apple Macintosh operating system, OS/X)—that is, using icons, a mouse, and keyboard, as well as video graphics (the so-called ‘GUI’—Graphical User Interface). The number of computer programmers working on free software projects rapidly increased to number over 100 million people, located everywhere reached by the Internet (which, as we know, now covers nearly all of our planet).

Until recently, this meant little or nothing to most computer owners. However, Microsoft, in perhaps the most stupid business decision ever seen in the software business, first published a new version of Windows (Windows 8) which drastically changed the user interface, to the dismay (and LOUD complaints) of everyone buying a new computer with this installed. They then compounded this idiocy by announcing and enforcing (by frankly unethical actions) ‘end of life’ for the Windows XP version that was still being used by the majority of computer owners, to force all of them to buy a newer version. They then made the situation far worse by insisting that all these folks change to Windows 8, even though nearly all preferred Windows 7 (which kept the old user interface), and keeping the price of a Windows 7 license higher than one for Windows 8 ($90 minimum, PER COMPUTER). As of April, 2014, Windows XP was no longer updated and supported by Microsoft. This means that anyone still using XP will be in danger of having their computer afflicted with viruses and other malware, and of having their personal data stolen by the criminals who create this garbage.

Add to all this the ongoing economic crisis of 2008 to the present, there are a lot of computer owners who can ill afford the expense of a Windows upgrade, particularly if (as many do) they have 2 or more computers in their household. Fortunately for them, and for all other disgruntled current Microsoft Windows owners (dare we call them victims?), LINUX presents a really excellent alternative. Relatively few, unfortunately, have heard about LINUX, and those who have mostly think that it is strictly for computer experts (the so-called ‘nerdocracy’). Due to the efforts of those millions of free software programmers, this is no longer true. There are versions of LINUX that install more easily than Windows, run faster on the same computer hardware, and are EASIER to use than Windows 7, let alone 8. The author’s current favorite version is Zorin LINUX, which can even be set up to LOOK like Windows XP or Windows 7.

Even those who know more about LINUX may be confused by the enormous (several hundred at last count) versions of LINUX plus additional programs that are available as ‘distributions’. Each of these ‘distros’  combines the LINUX operating system proper with many additional programs that manage the user interface, and also take care of tasks for which Windows users habitually pay $30-$50 (apiece!!) for a program package dedicated to each function (such as listening to music, burning CD’s and DVD’s, and performing office tasks). Each distribution is put together by a team of programmers (and user interface designers, artists, and documentation writers) who choose what will be included and how it will all work together. The result of their efforts is a package of software that can be run (without being copied to hard disk storage) ‘live’ on any recent PC, or installed on that PC either replacing Windows, or alongside Windows. (In this last case, the user chooses which operating system to use when the computer starts up or restarts.)  There are special distros designed to be run old older equipment (as old as Intel 486 class!), netbook computers, and even exotic computers that aren’t, strictly speaking, PC’s. In fact, the Android operating system run by most cellular phones and tablet computers is a distro of LINUX, and there is even a distro designed for the XBOX gaming system, that turns this into a full-fledged computer usable for most PC tasks. The server computers that run the Internet (about 95% of them) run LINUX, as do some of the very large IBM computers used by banks and stock exchanges. As this is written, if you include all the tablets and cell phones, there are many MORE computers in the world running LINUX than run Windows!

LINUX is, without a doubt, the largest little-known phenomenon in high technology, and really, ENORMOUSLY, deserves to be better known by ordinary people. Because of the enormous networks of volunteers and paid experts who contribute to the LINUX project, as well as the thousands of other free and open software projects around the world, there is an absolutely HUGE community of LINUX experts available to help other folks who would like to use this software on their PC’s, alongside or instead of Windows. Help is available via the Internet from numerous websites, and also from many regional and national LINUX user groups. Paid assistance for LINUX users is also available, from consultants and also from large organizations (including IBM!). Entire countries (including, at present, mainland China (!) and the Russian Republic) have adopted LINUX as their official government operating system, and a number of medium sized cities across the world have also done so.

Though Microsoft Windows (especially after the company retreats from its current idiocy, which seems imminent) will still have a large presence on PCs, it appears that LINUX will conquer a large segment of the PC market, and therefore will soon assume a much larger role in personal computing at the desktop and laptop level. Regardless, LINUX will continue to be developed by its various programmer communities, and will continue to power the Internet, cellular telephones, and a host of other ‘smart devices’ (such as automobiles), the owners of which will likely remain blissfully unaware that they are using LINUX.

Stuart Jones, MD, Member, Lehigh Valley Computer Group, Pennsylvania

June 2014 issue, The LVCG Journal

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