Linux, or GNU/Linux to indicate some of the background of Linux, is a 32-bit operating system kernel written by a group of volunteers co-operating over the Internet. An operating system kernel basically makes the hardware within your computer useful. Linux has been ported to just about every type of computer imaginable from the fast Alphas, to the Sparcs, just about every brand of Apple, to the popular Intel-based platform - the most popular implementation of Linux.
Although Linux is the operating system kernel, for marketing purposes the term Linux actually refers to the operating system as a whole. The Linux operating system is a mixture of the Linux kernel, GNU system utilities, a graphical user interface, and many other programs too numerous to list here.
The roots of Linux can be traced to Richard Stallman and the GNU Project1, started in 1986. The GNU project intended to create a free UNIX based operating system available to anyone regardless of financial status. In the 1980s UNIX cost far too much money for the average person to own. Not that this mattered, because the typical home computer in 1986 had a hard enough time with word processing let alone running a highly advanced, multi-user system such as UNIX. By the early 1990s, when a good majority of the necessary operating system components neared completion, this changed and the typical home computer could run UNIX. By this time however, the GNU project was in deep peril since the key to the operating system needed a kernel which did not seem likely for a great number of years.
In 1991, to address the shortcomings of current operating systems, a Finnish student by the name of Linus Torvalds decided to create his own operating system for his, and possibly a few other peoples', use. Instead of writing it from scratch, he decided to utilize the GNU Project for basic tools such as compilers and other utilities. He wrote a system kernel and almost overnight it was a huge success. He completed the 1.0 version in 1994 and the Operating System has been gaining in popularity ever since. There is a great deal of debate as to who owes more homage to the other, the GNU project or the Linux kernel, but without each other neither would be as popular as they are today.
Linus actually gave Linux a mascot - a penguin named Tux. When asked why he chose a pot-bellied penguin for a mascot, Linus replied, 'A penguin is a perfect mascot for Linux. People think penguins are cute and cuddly, but have you ever met a penguin up close?' Many people think that he chose a penguin mainly because he likes penguins.
Graphical User Interface
Linux has a GUI called X Window, or X for short. X is not a complete interface, rather it handles communications between a computer and its terminal - keyboard, mouse, and monitor.
X relies on a Window Manager for proper, useful operation. A Window Manager puts a border around program interfaces and allows you to maintain the program, enabling you to perform a number of operations on the window including close, minimize, etc. There are many Window Managers from the insanely configurable and complex to the completely minimalistic. There are far too many Window Managers to list, but there is almost literally an interface for anyone's taste.
With Window Managers there are also a number of Desktop Environments, such as KDE and GNOME, which give Linux and X the functionality of Windows and Mac/OS. The Desktop Environment is a relatively recent development and the existing ones are far from complete, but they give the user with little to no experience with computers a simple and easy way to complete even the most complex of tasks.
Very few people can put together a Linux and GNU operating system strictly from source code, so certain companies sprang up to address this problem and began taking the GNU tools, the Linux kernel, and XFree86 and packaging them all together to make a complete operating system which is both easy and quick to install and to get up and running on your computer - hence the name Linux Distribution. The Linux market having begun to seep into the desktop arena, ease of installation has gradually become more of a critical issue for the distributions. The most notable of the many Linux distributions are:
These are by far the leaders in the Linux distribution industry. There are hundreds of others, some popular, some small, some not even significant, but those listed are very different from each other, appealing to a wide audience. It is said that any user of any technical background can select from the list above and find one which suits his or her needs.
Linux is free. There are many interpretations of this term on the internet but the bottom line is that you can go to a Distributions web site and download the operating system for free. The problem is that the Linux distribution requires well over 500 Megabytes of memory in most cases, and takes several weeks to download over a modem connection. Some companies such as Linux Central and Linux Mall will actually put most Linux distributions on a CD and ship it to you for well under the cost of a night out at McDonald's.