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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
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