What Is Linux?

Click the Geek for the Linux Geek video (new window)

Click the Geek for the Linux Geek video (new window)

This is the first of a series of articles about Linux, what it is, why it is used and installed by millions of people, governments, businesses and other organisations around the world. These articles should give you detail enough so that you will know how to prepare your old computer for Linux installation and to finally install Linux. I suggest you read the articles in order if you are not familiar with Linux.

This article is part of the Linux Series:
1) What Is Linux? (this article)
2) What Are Some Linux Uses?
3) Why I Use Linux…Security
4) What if Windows, Linux, or OS X Were Houses?
5) What if Windows, Linux, or OS X Were Cars?
6) Windows XP Support Ends-Install Linux
7) Preparation of Windows XP before Linux Installation
8) Installation of Linux

This article will explain what Linux is, what an Operating System is, what a Graphical User Interface (GUI) is, and will describe what various Application Software Programs are. It also discusses commercial software which you have to pay for and Free and Open Source (FOSS) software which you do not have to pay for.

If you have an old Windows computer that you happen to like or want to keep, or you cannot afford to buy a new Windows PC or Mac, you might think about using the Linux Operating System, a popular alternative to Windows.

If you write occasional memos or documents, keep track of household expenses, have a database of your favorite films or music or are writing a book, there are several free Office Suites, the most popular of which is the LibreOffce Suite. These free office applications, which are installed with the Linux operating system, can replace Microsoft Office and read from or write to Microsoft Office documents.

There are many web browsers, easy-to-use email apps, graphics, video editing, games, instant messaging and Skype are all available for Linux Mint, Ubuntu or other Linux systems.

What is Linux?

Linux Mint 15 CinnamonLinux is the generic name of software which tells your computer that it is a computer. “I think, therefore, I am?” That sofware is called an operating system (OS). At the heart of every OS is something called a kernel, this is the motor and is what powers your OS. Windows, Mac OS, UNIX, Linux, Android, iOS, and all other operating systems have a kernel.

Linux, like many other popular computer systems, displays what the user sees in a graphical user interface or GUI (“gooey”). (more about the GUI below) There are many different GUI’s which display programs, folders, and files in icons and the panels, error messages and other assorted parts of a computer “desktop” in a particular way. When people speak of Linux they think of the GUI but the Linux kernel is not visible to the average user.

Imagine your computer as a car. The physical parts such as the monitor, keyboard and other pieces could be compared to the body of the car. The OS and its GUI is the instrument panel with its gauges, dials and control buttons, and the unseen kernel is the motor. Much like the instrument panel on a Fiat may be different from a Ferrari, so is the GUI of various operating systems, but if they have a Linux kernel, their functionality is the same.

If you had never lifted the hood of your automobile, you might not know what makes it go when you turn the key and put it into gear. The same is true with the kernel of an OS.

The Linux kernel is free (no charge) and open-source (its code is open for inspection to programmers) which shows itself in many different desktops. There are many different computer systems which use the Linux (and other) kernels and these are usually never seen by anyone except their creators, the programmers.

(For more on Linux see Introduction to Linux on YouTube.)

Operating System

Operating system schematicAn Operating System (OS) connects a human to a desktop or laptop PC, a tablet, a “smart” phone, a printer, a scanner or a fax machine. All of these are computers that most people are familiar with and they all need an operating system to function. All popular operating systems have a kernel at their heart and the GUI is the layer surrounding that kernel so that you, the human, can manipulate these various hardware devices or computers.

The OS enables you to press the letter “k” and makes it show up on the screen of your computer. An OS handles the network device inside your computer so that it knows how to connect to the Internet or your sound card so you can play your favorite tunes.

There are many different operating systems and a short list includes Google Chrome OS, Google Android, Nokia Symbian, UNIX, GNU/Linux, Mac OS X , and Microsoft Windows and Phone.

Linux Distributions

Linux distributionsLinux Distributions are “described as a particular assortment of application and utility software, packaged together with the Linux kernel in such a way that its “out-of-the-box” capabilities meet most of the needs of its particular end-user base. The software is usually adapted to the distribution and then packaged into software packages by the distribution’s maintainers.” Think of a distribution as a package of tightly integrated software programs, designed and tested by the package designers and thousands of users so as to ensure that this software will work together. In the Linux world, through download and bittorrent web sites, this software is then freely distributed to the average user.

In the Windows world, each new version of Windows from 3.1 up through Windows 8 might be defined as Windows distributions. The evolution of the Macintosh has been different but Mac OS X and Mac OS are different distributions of the Mac OS.

There are literally hundreds of Linux distributions but there are a few that are very popular because they have been widely accepted by average computer users as easy to install and easy to use. The most popular and well-known are Linux Debian, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora, Red Hat, openSUSE and Mandriva. The best known of these are Ubuntu, Mint and Red Hat. There are many others.

Some Linux distributions are more popular among the “geek crowd” such as Debian, Slackware, FreeBSD, Gentoo and SUSE. Their appeal is that they usually are more challenging to install and properly setup.

Graphical User Interface (GUI)

Graphical User Interface Mac OS (1984)Surrounding the OS and its kernel is something called a Graphical User Interface or GUI (commonly called a “gooey”). The GUI has been around on computers since the very early 1970’s and was brought into the mainstream by the Macintosh in 1984.

A GUI is software which usually includes icons and other visual indicators such as icons, mouse pointers, drop-down menus, panels, or pop-ups and these attempt to simulate a graphical desktop with folders and files which you can click and move around (“drag”) and/or “drop” elsewhere on this desktop. A GUI is supposed to make it easy for the average computer user to manipulate the files and programs they need.

The GUI is like the dashboard of your car, the place where you sit behind a console and where the motor feeds back to you how hot it is, how fast it is going, how much fuel it has stored, and other functions. This is also where the controls are located which allow you to stop, start and steer the vehicle.

Application Software Programs

Application softwareInside the folders of a GUI you will find files which are opened and accessed or “run” by application software, commonly called programs. These might be the equivalent in your car of turning a switch or pushing a button to operate the wiper blades, open or close a window, or turn on the A/C or heating.

All Linux distributions come bundled with many different application software programs. Commonly included application software programs in Linux are Firefox, Chrome or other web browsers, Thunderbird or Evolution email, LibreOffice or OpenOffice suites, a calculator, graphic editor, music player, sound editor, games and others. These are all free programs and are automagically installed when you install the Linux distribution of your choice. Additionally, there are literally thousands of other free software programs that you can install free of charge for your personal or professional use such as online games, video editing programs, video sub-titling programs, scientific and programming software and others. Did I mention that they are free?

Commercial Operating Systems

The two best-known operating systems, Microsoft Windows and Mac OS, are owned by commercial software companies which means they are not free, you must pay for a license to use them and you do not own them. There is a cost involved in purchasing this software including the built-in cost when you buy a computer with one of them already installed. These operating systems are closed-source software which means only programmers authorised by Apple or Microsoft are authorised to look at and modify the souce code of their OS.

Microsoft Windows has had several similar but different GUI’s starting with Windows 1, Windows 3, Windows 95, NT, 2000, XP, Vista, 7 and now Windows 8. There are big differences between for example, Windows 95 and Windows 8.
Microsoft Windows 8
The Macintosh has evolved from MacOS to MacOS X. To the average Mac user, the way the GUI presents itself, called the interface, has not significantly changed since its introduction in 1984. Its kernel and underlying structure have however, changed significantly.
Macintosh OSX
Except for the few programs which come with Windows or MacOS, all their standard programs come as separate packages and there is a cost to purchase their licensing and use.

In all cases you do not own commercial software, you are only given a license to use it and if you attempt to sell or even give it away, you must, by law, ask their permission first.

Non-Commercial Free and Open Source (FOSS) Operating Systems and Programs

Linux is Free download softwareContrast commercial software with non-commercial Linux Open Source Software which freely distributes its code for any programmer to inspect, alter or change. Open source is defined as “open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, transparency, meritocracy, and community development.” Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is free of cost and free to legally download, to install and use, to share, and to copy in both private and commercial organisations. All Linux and some Unix distributions are free for the download, there is no charge. Some companies such as Ubuntu or Fedora Linux will send you a free CD or DVD if you ask them.

Operating systems are everywhere, your refrigerator or stove, your dishwasher or alarm clock, your media player, your camera, and many other devices are run by operating systems, more frequently than not, that OS is a modified version of the Linux kernel.

Next page=> What Are Some Linux Uses?

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