What is Linux?

By George Garza
Info Guru,

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Linux was designed as a response to Mircosoft's dominance
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Learn about the development of Linux.

Operating systems control a computer. They are, strictly speaking, software. But they control how the software applications will interact with the hardware. If there weren't operating systems, each application would have to have code on how to print, how the mouse would work, how to interact with the hard drive, the printer, and the monitor. Applications would be 10 to 20 times bigger.

Currently on PCs and laptops, the dominant operating system is made by Microsoft. This is the Windows platform that is made up of Vista, XP, server 2003, server 2000, Windows NT, Windows 98, Windows Millennium, Windows 95, and DOS. But starting in 1990, another operating system was designed as a response to the Microsoft dominance. This was Linux.

The name comes in part from the computer scientist/designer Linus Torvalds and from the Unix operating system that it was based on.


Designed at Bell Labs and used for scientific and engineering computers, Unix was considered a stable and highly secure operating system. It was considered stable because it would not crash, unlike Microsoft operating systems which were notoriously known for the blue screen of death the crash window. It was also secure, so hackers would not be easily able to break into it, unlike Windows.

But unlike Windows, Unix was a command line interface. This meant that all commands to run and execute programs had to be typed in by hand. It also meant that you had to learn how to operate the operating system: switches, parameter control features, and hundreds of commands. This was not exactly user friendly. And it was not considered to be a commercial product to be used by PCs.


When the PC market was already well-established, it was apparent that Microsoft's domination had to be challenged in some way. Torvald designed a new operating system that would run a PC. It also was free open-source software. That meant that anyone could get the software and install it on their computers. There would be no fee to pay! It also meant that the continuing design and improvement of the kernel, the central part of the operating system, could be done by anyone. Modifications made could be sent back to the Linux organization, where they would be studied if approved, the new version would be released to the public.

But the most important feature of Linux was that it had a graphical user interface (GUI). That meant that users did not have to learn the intricate commands of Unix. It meant that, like Windows, the point-and-click technology would be used. It was user-friendly.


The cost of Windows was increasing, and all research and development was strictly controlled by Microsoft. Other companies were anxious to tap into the dissatisfaction with Microsoft and their products, so they began to develop distributions of the product. While the interest in getting a free operating system may have sounded too good to be true, it was. Unless you knew how to compile software, you were liable to spend a day and a half trying to get the Linux to work, so companies decided to provide the product with installation operations that were as easy as the Windows installations. That part was easy.

Several companies have arisen that provide with the core Linux OS but also the GUI. RedHat, Novell Suse, and Mandriva are some of the companies that offer distributions. They typically charge under $150, and in some cases under $100 for their products. They also provide customer support at rates far less than Microsoft.

In addition, many companies are offering application packages that resemble the Microsoft Office suite. So you can do Word processing, spreadsheets, and office presentation. Some of these are free.

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