"What is Linux?" and an example of a liberal license

The contents of this posting is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 License. Almost everything that follows the prologue comes from serna and the original may be found here.

The Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot asked “What is Linux?” Perhaps that’s not so profound a question as “What is truth?” but Adam is a lot nicer than Pilate. I’ll be discussing in coming days what it is, why it appeals to me and many others, and what it can and cannot do for you. Key to Linux and other free and open-source software (FOSS) is the idea of the liberal license. Dozens of these licenses exist, and what they are, what distinguishes them and their politics isn’t important here. Suffice it to say that the “open” idea extends far past software, has tendrils into religion, and you probably benefit from “openness” even if you’re not aware of it. Back to software, not all open-source software is used with Linux. The popular Firefox browser is open, and is available for a number of operating systems. Indeed, if you don’t have it, get it and enjoy added security and features.

But now, enjoy the following Linux tutorial, available under a liberal license. After the fold.

What is an “Operating System?”

An operating system (usually appreviated to OS, pronounced “oh-ess”) is a very specialized type of computer application. It’s the first thing the computer runs1, when it starts up, and every other application that runs on the computer runs with the assistance of the OS.

The OS is responsible for “core activities” such as capturing input from the keyboard/mouse, sending output to the computer’s monitor, etc. Other applications communicate with the OS for these functions. i.e. when I’m typing in Microsoft Word, the OS captures the response from the keyboard, and passes that information to Word, which then figures out what to show in the screen, and tells the OS, which puts the appropriate image on the display.

That’s a very dumbed-down version of what an OS is, but I’m trying to be brief.

Probably the most common operating system, for most computer users in the early 21st century, is Microsoft Windows. Some other operating systems you might have heard of — even if you’ve never used them — could be Mac OS X, Unix, DOS, GNU, Multics, and, of course, Linux.

What is “Linux?”

“Linux” is an open source operating system. This means that there are developers all around the world who contribute to the building and maintenance of Linux, rather than one central company or organization. It is similar to the Unix operating system, which is why you’ll often hear Linux being described as “Unix-like.”


I won’t go too much into the history of Linux, because I don’t care, and you probably don’t either. But it was first created by Linus Torvalds, in 1991, as a hobby. Since that time, Linus has made the OS open-source, and it has gained in popularity ever since.


Linux is pronounced various ways, by various people. According to Linus (from the Wikipedia Linux entry):

`li’ is pronounced with a short [ee] sound: compare prInt, mInImal etc. ‘nux’ is also short, non-diphthong, like in pUt {IPA /ÊŠ/}. It’s partly due to minix: linux was just my working name for the thing, and as I wrote it to replace minix on my system, the result is what it is… linus’ minix became linux.

In other words, it would be pronounced something like “linn-ux.” However, because of Linus’ accent, many people who have heard him pronounce it pronounce it “leen-ux.” And people who have never heard it pronounced, nor looked into how it should be pronounced, often pronounce it “line-ux.”
Personally, I don’t care how you pronounce it, but if you encounter a Linux nerd who corrects you, don’t be surprised.

What is a “Distro?”

There are a lot of core files and components needed to run the Linux operating system. Some of these components are system-specific, such as the drivers for various hardware components the system may or may not have. And, in addition to the “core” Linux components — referred to as the “Linux kernel” — there may be other, optional components. For example, Linux’ core user interface is text-based, but if you install a window system, window manager, and desktop environment, you can have a visual user interface. But there are numerous choices for the different components you can install for each of these pieces, adding further confusion.

A Linux “distribution” (usually shortened to just “distro”) is a pre-packaged version of the operating system, including the Linux kernel, the various pieces needed for a user interface, and, usually, some type of installation program. According to the Wikipedia article on Linux distributions, there are over 300 Linux distributions. Ubuntu is one of them. (But few have more than a scant following — Scott)

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