Back in 1991, a Finnish student by the name of Linus Torvalds bought himself a computer and he wanted an operating system to go with it. But he didn't want DOS or Windows, and UNIX was too expensive. So he decided to create his own, and called it Linux, pronounced "linnucks."

What's Linux

Linux is a freely available clone of the UNIX operating system. But that doesn't tell you much, does it? So instead I'll list a bunch of stuff about Linux and explain what they mean.

Linux is Free
I'll come back to this feature later, but for now think "free beer." Linux is 100% free. It is not shareware. It won't cost you a dime. You can borrow a copy from a friend and use it for free, legally. Or you can buy a CD-ROM for yourself. It's still free, you're just paying for the CD-ROM and maybe some other stuff. The cheapest CD-ROM I've seen is $1.89 ordered online. You can also buy Linux boxed up with a nice manual and user support for about fifty dollars. Of course, you could download Linux off of the internet for nothing, but that would take hours and your time is much more valuable than that. My favorite source of Linux CD's is the LinuxMall.
Linux is Ready to Run
When you buy most operating systems, you don't get much. Maybe a cheesy little editor and paint program, with a few games and diversions thrown in. But you can't really do anything with it until you buy a whole bunch of other stuff. Linux, on the other hand, gives you everything you need, and most of what you want. You get a wide selection of editors, paint programs, web browsers, games, office applications, networking applications, compilers, video stuff, audio stuff, and every other kind of stuff.
Linux is Easy to Install
I'll bet there's a lot of people choking on their coffee after they reading this! The common myth is that Linux is hard to install. I'm here to erase that rumour. It's just as easy, or easier, to install than Windows. You can install some distributions of Linux with just two or three presses of the the return key. If you have problems, see if there's a Linux User's Group (LUG) in your area. LUG's like to hold monthly "install fests" where they help new users get Linux up and running.
Linux is Multitasking
Linux can do more than one thing at a time. A few years ago this would have been considered amazing. But today it's old hat. Even Windows can do it. Not only can Linux run more than one program at a time, each program can do more than one thing simultaneously, which is called multi-threading.
Linux is Multi-User
More than one person can use the same Linux computer at the same time. Of course, if you only have one keyboard and one monitor, it will be hard to do. But it's great for networks.
Linux is Powerful
Linux can handle the big websites that get millions of hits a day. Linux can compete head-to-head with the million dollar scientific supercomputers (with only a few thousand dollars worth of extra equipment). Linux networks routinely outperform Windows NT networks. Many Linux computers have been up and running for years without once crashing. Try keeping most other operating systems up and running for even a month without crashing or rebooting!
Linux is Frugal
Linux doesn't care if you don't have the latest greatest computer computer on the market. It will run just fine on what you've got. I would recommend at least a '486 computer with 16 megabytes of memory, but something slower or smaller will also work. Linux will fit comfortably in a fifty megabyte hardrive if you don't want graphics. A 500Meg hardrive is ample. It will also work just fine with that old fourteen inch VGA monitor. Some people like to recycle old throw-away computers by simply installing Linux on them.
Linux is Compatible
Linux will run on lots of different kinds of computers. Besides the 386/486/pentium based PC, there are versions of Linux for Macintosh and other PowerPC computers. You can also run it on the really powerful computers like the Alpha and SPARC. You can even use it with those super expensive PC's that have more than one cpu. It will work with just about every audio and video card made. Just make sure that you don't have hardware that says "Windows only." Linux will reside on your hard drive next to Windows or DOS without making a fuss.
Linux is Graphical
Some people (particularly reporters) seem to think that Linux doesn't have a graphical user interface, or GUI. Not only does Linux have a GUI, it has dozens of GUI's. It's your choice on how you want Linux to look. You can make Linux look like Windows, the Mac, or something completely different. It also does really cool stuff like having more than one desktop. To get a taste of how cool Linux GUI's are, check out Enlightenment, WindowMaker, KDE and Gnome.
Linux is Secure
Besides the obvious benefits that security provides for networks, Linux is secure for single-computer home use also. Just a few simple security precautions, and your system will be virtually virus proof. Viruses just can't do much to your Linux computer. And if you follow the time honored and recommended practice of creating and using user accounts on your system, it will be impossible to commit those stupid blunders that sometimes happen (like accidentally reformatting your hard drive).
Linux is Free (revisited)
Unlike Windows, MacOS, OS/2, and most other operating systems, Linux is free software. The "free" means that the creators have shared their software with you. Linux comes complete with it's entire programming source code. This means that the programmers in the Linux community can fix, improve and expand Linux. Non programmers have written a lot of the documentation and help manuals. For a complete explanation of free and community software, check out the Open Source Page. Besides the fact that community software means more powerful, robust and bug-free software, it also means that no one can take it away from you. Microsoft controls the fate of Windows. But no one controls the fate of Linux.
Linux is UNIX
Because Linux is really a UNIX operating system, it pretty much follows the UNIX philosophy:
  • Written by programmers for programmers
  • A toolbox of incredibly useful utilities
  • Most programs and utilities are small
  • Commands and utilities do one thing, and do it well
  • Linux doesn't assume anything
  • Linux and its programs are portable
Linux is Not Perfect
I wouldn't be honest if I said there wasn't anything wrong with Linux. Nothing in this world is perfect. By letting you know the downsides to Linux you can use it knowing full well what you're getting into. First of all, Linux isn't easy. The installation is pretty painless if you don't have flaky or incompatible hardware. And once you get it set up, it's really not that hard to use. But that period between installation and full usability can be a nightmare sometimes. Linux won't hold your hand. All I can suggest is to read the manual and consult the internet. You will have to do some learning. But this is really a Good Thing® in disguise. Linux will teach you more about computers than most college degrees. But if you're afraid to learn new things, then maybe Linux isn't for you. Finally, you'll have to occasionally use the command line. The thought of typing in commands to tell the computer what to do instead of using the mouse to click on an icon can be scary for some people. On the bright side though, you can do some pretty amazing stuff on the command line that you just can't do in a GUI.