Pick up a penguin

The Linux open-source computer operating system isn't just for geeks. Dave Sambrook explains how to try out the free alternative to Microsoft Windows

July 1, 2007
4 min read

March of the Penguins is a beautifully crafted documentary about emperor penguins and their unfaltering struggle for survival, both individually and as a species, against the elements of the coldest, windiest, driest and darkest continent on the planet, Antarctica. The march of one penguin, Tux, mascot of the Linux computer operating system ‘kernel’, is the equally impressive story of Linux’s ability to survive and prosper as a freely-available, open-source operating system, despite daunting competition from the likes of Microsoft and other multinational, mega-corporations.

To discover the roots of Linux you need to go back to 1983, when Richard Stallman, a US-based computer scientist not known for his love of ideological compromise or corporate profits, became frustrated by the fragmentation of the Unix operating-system into proprietary, incompatible dialects. He created an open-source operating system called GNU (a recursive acronym for ‘GNU’s Not Unix’).

In 1991, Linus Torvals, a 21-year old student at the University of Helsinki, utilised Stallman’s code to create the original Linux kernel – the part of the operating system that controls a computer’s hardware. Torvals also adopted the principles of Stallman’s Free Software Foundation (FSF) to govern the distribution of his creation.

Throughout the 1990s, and against the backdrop of growing frustration at the limitations imposed by proprietary software companies, the growth of the internet saw an enormous increase in collaboration among programmers who previously worked in isolation. It was fertile ground for the growth of Linux.

Multinationals including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel and Dell saw the writing on the wall and invested heavily in making Linux an integral part of their business, but crucially the FSF guidelines under which Linux was made available to the wider world continue to guarantee that any derivative of Linux must be free for users to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve.

Experts now believe that Linux dominance of the server market is a foregone conclusion as users find it faster, easier to maintain, and more secure than its competitors. It is already the platform of choice on most of the world’s web servers, and it is also used on everything from routers, mobile phones, IBM mainframes and, increasingly, home PCs.

If you’ve already tried open-source software such as Mozilla’s Firefox browser or the competitor to Microsoft’s Office, OpenOffice, then you’ll know they’re as good, and in some cases better, than their more expensive and less politically-sound alternatives.

Linux does come in for some criticism from desktop users, who argue that it doesn’t support widely used applications such as Microsoft Office without the need for third-party software to convert files, and laptop users who complain that their peripheral devices are often incompatible.

But while many of these criticisms are valid the increasing use of Linux by individuals has seen significant progress in hardware compatibility. It is becoming increasingly common for hardware to work ‘out of the box’ with many Linux distributions.

For someone wanting to try Linux on their home PC, the best advice is to download Knoppix, a bootable live system, which contains a representative collection of GNU/Linux software, and then burn it to a CD or DVD.

Simply reboot your PC or laptop with the CD/DVD in the drive and your BIOS set to boot from the CD drive, and it will automatically detect your hardware, support most common graphics and sound cards, as well as USB devices, and allow you to use Linux without installing anything on your hard drive.

As well as Linux, Knoppix also contains a standard desktop, a media player, internet connection software, image manipulation software, network and system tools, and OpenOffice, allowing users to familiarise themselves with the ever-growing range of open-source software without having to replace their current operating system. When you remove the CD and reboot your PC or laptop, your computer will be exactly as it was before using Knoppix.

If, having tested Linux using Knoppix, you decide you want to make the march of Tux the penguin into your world a permanent one, it’s advisable to have someone with a good knowledge of IT to back up all of your files and system information before making the transition. Linux is also compatible with Macs but again obtaining advice from a professional is advisable.

  • Linux
  • Knoppix
  • GNU\’s Not Unix
  • Free Software Foundation

  • ✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

    Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
    An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

    Greece’s heavy load
    While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

    On the narcissism of small differences
    In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

    Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
    Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

    The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
    Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

    In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
    Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

    Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
    This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

    Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
    On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

    Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
    Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

    West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
    When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

    How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
    For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

    The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
    Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

    #AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
    In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

    Event: Take Back Control Croydon
    Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

    Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
    On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

    Changing our attitude to Climate Change
    Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

    Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
    Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

    #AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
    In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

    Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
    'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

    Confronting Brexit
    Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

    On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
    Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

    Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
    The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

    #AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
    In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

    Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
    Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

    Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
    On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

    Social Workers Without Borders
    Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

    Growing up married
    Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

    The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
    On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

    Reclaiming Holloway Homes
    The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

    Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
    Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace