The Linux Revolution

What Linux is all about

For people like me, Linux is an operating system that aims to serve the free software culture, the internet culture, and the hacker ethic. It goes like this: software should be free. It should also be customisable, and perhaps for some of us, the sources should be available so that we can look at the code and maybe tinker with it. If you like being able to tell your operating system what to do, what to look like (you can make it look like a Mac, like Win95, like Unix, or like a plain dos-like text terminal), then linux is for you. If you have used good unix systems, and thought to yourself "hey, wouldn't it be cool if I had unix going on my machine", well, the answer is that you can, and linux is probably the best way to do it unless you're prepared to pay for a commercial unix system.

On the other hand, if you suffer from computer-phobia and want a user friendly system where everything is easy to install and everything works straight out of the box (give or take third party annoyances from crashy windows software) then linux is not for you. Linux works well ONCE IT'S SET UP, and life as an end user of a well configured linux system is straightforward. Indeed, it can be configured to look like win95 or a Mac (though I don't endorse that look) and similar software (Word Perfect and Netscape, for example) can be installed. But the installation and configuration is usually a little bit of work unless you know what you're doing. Having said that, I could also point out that the support channels are excellent, there are mailing lists where you can post questions and you will usually get very helpful responses when you are experiencing any difficulties. This cohesiveness and solidarity is sadly non existent among Windows users (though the OS/2 camps and Apple camps seem a little more like this.) Linux also has other applications, for example, it is often used to run networks. But its most popular use seems to be as an accesible form of Unix that one can install on a home computer.

Linux : a brief history

The history of Linux is fairly short, it goes back to 1991 when Linus Torvalds, the founder of it all started on his ambitious project- to produce a UNIX clone. Here is what is now a rather famous newsgroup post.
> ----- Begin post from Linus ------
> From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
> Newsgroups: comp.os.minix
> Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
> Summary: small poll for my new operating system
> Message-ID: <1991Aug25.205708.9541@klaava.Helsinki.FI>
> Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
> Organization: University of Helsinki
> Hello everybody out there using minix -
> I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and
> professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing
> since april, and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on
> things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat
> (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons)
> among other things).
> I've currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work.
> This implies that I'll get something practical within a few months, and
> I'd like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions
> are welcome, but I won't promise I'll implement them :-)
> Linus (
> PS. Yes - it's free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs.
> It is NOT protable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never
> will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that's all I have :-(.
> ----- End post from Linus --------
Well, as it turned out, he was dead wrong, and the idea took off. Within a year, he had built a very shaky , essentially a preliminary version. The idea of using a public license for the project made it easy for others all over the world to collaborate. His vision was indeed a far-sighted one. and the project inspired many others to join him, and the team grew exponentially in size, and inevitably, so did the project.

In 1994, the first main release (ie post-beta), 1.0 , was available. This version was stil essentially an underground OS for hackers, it was not yet backed by major software vendors.

Nowadays, in 1997, Linux still maintains its proud tradition of being a FREE operating system. It resembles UNIX so precisely that it IS essentially another version of UNIX complete with all UNIX capabilities, ie you can use it to create multiple accounts, run Networks... and it's all available free of charge.

While UNIX is known primarily as a text based system, and indeed, this is the only aspect of unix many users see, linux also has its own windows system, XWindows. While software developement for linux is in its early days, the collection of software for linux grows rapidly as every linux hacker in town writes another package, or another extension to an existing package. In recent days, a number of quality software packages have been made available for linux, in the way of exciting free software projects, such as GIMP (like Adobe Photoshop, only it's free) Also, commercial software developers, recognising a possible market in commercial linux software's business users have ported their software to the Linux platform . Software such as Corel Word Perfect, Netscape and various Adobe Packages are available. More recently, an exciting project called "Star Office", a commercial-grade (free) office suite has been re-worked so that it doesn't require any commercial software to run. There is a windows version of it, but it costs- the authors are Linux enthusiasts who want to make a living, but at the same time, contribute to the linux community. However, I am afraid that Microsoft have no plans to port their office suite to linux (:

One can download linux, or buy a CD which contains the system- but you are not paying for the software. You are paying for the packaging. You can also legally install from someone else's CD if you know some-one who has it. The CDs cost anywhere from $15-$50. The more expensive distributions come with commercial software (don't outlay money on commercial software for linux until you've checked that you can't get it for free! because usually, you can.)

My advice is that if you think that all of the above sounds interesting, install it and play with it. It doesn't cost much. And you might even like it!

An honest comparison: Linux vs the other guys

Linux vs Windows: Comparing linux to windows is something that produces an apple and an orange, but no clear winner.
Linux beats Windows for
Bundled free software : linux comes with loads of good free software, some of which would cost a fortune for windows.
math and science applications: Linux comes with Latex. You can get Latex for Windows/Mac, but it's difficult to install. On linux, it works out-of-the-box. There's also lyx, a wysiwyg (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) front end to latex. There's no such freeware for Windows or Mac. There's numerous freeware math computation packages that are made and developed for unix (hence run on linux) since math departments tend to support unix primarily.
Development Linux ships with a lot of development tools, including compilers, and several programming languages and toolkits. It also ships with several web development tools. Customizability Commercial OS's need to market a distinct look. Linux on the other hand looks like a Chameleon. You can make it look like a Sun, or if you're really misguided, you can make it look like windows or mac or any other operating system. Or you can make it look like Linux- there's some linux specific window managers out there. I'd dare say that the user interface is BETTER, because it can do anything you tell it to.
Networking Linux can be used for serious networking, you can't drive a network with win95 or a Mac. Windows NT is here, but as the new kid on the block, it is unstable and untested.

Where WIndows /Mac beats linux
Availability of a diverse collection of commercial-ware I'm not saying that commercial-ware is unavailable on linux, but just that the range that one has to choose from is better on windows/mac. Linux has some good commercialware packages like Corel draw/Word perfect, Netscape, and many others see the Red Hat linux apps page . But to be truly honest, I have to concede that Windows and mac have a a better range of commercial products.
Easy installation Windows software is very easy to install. It might not be easy to uninstall, but at least installing the software and operating system is always easy.
Plug and Play Windows has plug&Play, which works about 99% of the time. Linux on the other hand is not so friendly when it comes to hardware configuration, and not all hardware vendors support the linux platform. Mac has standardised hardware. This is not the same as plug and play, but in terms of easy installation, it amounts to the same thing.
User friendly documentation Windows and mac programs always come with those pull down help menues. Most Linux programs still don't have hypertext documentation, though some are starting to put pull down help menues or html documentation in their programs.

Can Linux Replace Windows?

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