So who's the new kid on the playground? He's not exactly new, born in 1991, and he's not Charlie Brown's sidekick, with thumb in mouth and blankie in tow. Linux is an operating system with Internet roots that's rapidly gaining momentum and raising eyebrows in the Microsoft camp.
Linux, pronounced with a short "i", is a UNIX-like operating system that can run on many different CPUs, not just Intel-based chips. In plain language, this means that Linux will run on either Mac or IBM-based systems, among others. Named for its founder, Linus Torvalds of the University of Helsinki, Linux is a stable multi-tasking, multi-user, multi-threading, operating system with advanced memory management features that requires only a 386 or higher processor.
Remember not to confuse an operating system, such as Windows, OS/2, UNIX or Linux with programs such as Excel, WordPerfect or Quicken. The first is system software and the latter is application software. System software creates the community and defines the ground rules so that all inhabitants may prosper and coexist peacefully. In short, the operating system is the government and its citizens are your computer hardware components and all installed software programs.
By virtue of running Windows 95/98, for example, you agree to the terms and conditions of this legislative body. In turn Windows rules over your system components, endeavoring to create harmony and efficiency for the end user. The Windows operating system is not, however, a democratic style of government. It's a closed and centralized OS where only the developer, in this case Microsoft, can either amend or change the by-laws. Like most bureaucracies, Windows has become top heavy and laden with extraneous code which makes it difficult for some machines and programs to thrive and run at optimum efficiency.
In contrast, Linux is an open and distributed operating system offering a libertarian style of government that is open-source. This means that programmers, developers and specialists can modify the community structure at will to better meet the needs of its constituents. Furthermore, and most importantly, it's free.
Free to download, install, modify and redistribute freely or for profit, with one simple caveat: Programmers must provide the source code for any modifications made to the basic Linux kernel. Linux is distributed using "copyleft" stipulations, meaning that any copy is in turn freely available to others.
To the end user, the Linux screen can appear as text, like DOS or UNIX or can be graphical, with a Windows 95 look and feel. In fact Linux is a chameleon and can assume a variety of desktop appearances, based on preference. At the corporate level, both Dell and Compaq are now offering systems with Red Hat Linux pre-installed. Red Hat is a commercial distribution of Linux.
The future viability of any operating system will depend on the applications that the OS supports. Currently, there are hundreds of applications that run within Linux environments, but WordPerfect and Netscape are probably the best known mainstream applications. Here's another oddity: WordPerfect for Linux Personal Edition 8.0 can be downloaded for free at http://www.download.com.
Not surprisingly, "Microsoft is thinking with great interest about opening the Windows source code", according to Steve Ballmer, Microsoft president. Internal, confidential memos released in October 1998 confirm that MS is taking the Linux charge quite seriously. Additionally, rumor has it that Microsoft is working on an Office version for Linux.
Competition is good for the marketplace, and open-source software is no exception. While Linux may not pose a serious threat to Window's dominance right now, it's sure to be a key player in the future.
Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company,
Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached
by e-mail at email@example.com or
by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the
Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com.
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