Linux from the Beginning

by Phil Hughes

A little over a year ago, I started doing my weekly radio segment on Biz Soup. The segments varied from five to fifteen minutes and were available on stations in about 20 venues. We started at the beginning of Linux and have covered what Linux could do, along with the evolution of Linux into what it is today.

Over that year, there have been changes in the radio program as well as in Linux. The program name recently changed to "The Wall Street News Hour", the number of venues has grown and the audience has evolved.

With all these changes, it's time to go back to the beginning and help the newcomers get up to speed on Linux evolution. While the weekly article here is usually just a quick look at what will be covered on the radio program, this one is more detailed so it can act as background in helping new listeners get up to speed.

What Is an Operating System?

For most computer users, a computer is a tool to do a job. Most of those users understand that you have to purchase an applications program to make a computer capable of doing the job. An example of a general purpose application is a word processor which could be used to write anything from a letter to a book. A program to figure your income tax is an example of an applications program designed for a more specific task.

You, the computer users, want to use the capabilities of various application programs. The computer is the platform on which the application program runs. But there is still a missing piece, called the operating system. It could be thought of as the piece which makes the computer smart enough to run the application programs.

Here is an analogy that may help you understand what I'm talking about. Visualize a new office building being constructed. When the construction crew is done, you have what looks like a complete building. It has walls, doors, windows, lights and elevators. But, it isn't ready to be used. That is, in order to function as offices, it needs directories, signs and all the other extras that make it possible for the occupants to use the space.

An operating system is much like the extras in the example above. The operating system takes an inventory of what equipment is available (RAM, disk storage, video card and monitor, mouse, modem, etc.) and then makes this equipment available to the application programs. Also, much like the extras in the office building, the operating system permits sharing of the computer by keeping track of who is using what resource.

This isn't intended to be a lengthy course on operating systems, but hopefully you now understand where the operating system (or OS) fits in the picture.

Linux Is an Operating System and More

The most popular operating system out there is Microsoft Windows in its many flavors. Its popularity was guaranteed, because Microsoft managed to get all PC vendors to bundle their operating system with the hardware. This is similar to the way all Apple Macintosh systems ship with Apple's own OS. This doesn't mean a PC will run only MS-Windows, or a Mac will run only the MacOS. It just means that when you get the hardware, you have already bought an OS.

One alternative operating system is Linux. It will run on PCs, Macs and a lot of other platforms including Sun's Sparc, best-known for being the most significant hardware platform on the Internet. Another alternative OS is BeOS from Be, Inc. And there are more.

Besides being available for multiple hardware platforms, there are other characteristics making Linux stand out from the alternatives. These include:

  1. It is available from more than one source

  2. It is free

  3. The source code is available

  4. It comes with a whole host of application programs

Looking at the first two points together, an assortment of companies put together different Linux distributions. A distribution is the Linux operating system bundled with other programs, including installation software and applications. This bundled package may include documentation and support. Each of these distributions starts with the same basic Linux OS, but the different vendors will offer different bonuses.

While the vendors sell these packages, Linux itself is free because it is licensed under what is called the GNU Public License (GPL). Because of this license, you can share your copy of Linux with as many people as you want, or even make copies and sell them. (Note that some distributions contain other licensed software, so while Linux is free, there could be software on a commercial distribution which cannot be redistributed.)

The source code being free means you have the ability to customize Linux itself. While most users will never want to do this, there are two reasons why this is important. First, you don't have to worry about losing support for your particular distribution. If the manufacturer of your distribution goes out of business or decides to go into another business, there are no secrets as to what you bought. A consultant or another distribution vendor can pick up where your vendor left off.

Finally, Linux distributions include a whole lot more in the form of plenty of other software. While Linux refers to the operating system itself, it is also used to refer to complete distributions. Today, most distributions include thousands of other programs. While hundreds of these are the typical utility programs you have come to expect with an operating system (file manipulation and other basics), there are many more. Here is a partial list of the program areas included:

  • Software development tools, including language compilers, interpreters and debuggers

  • Systems administration tools, including backup utilities

  • Web-related programs, including browsers and web servers

  • Networking and connectivity tools

  • Graphical user environments

  • Databases

  • Office suites

You may have noticed each line above was plural. That was not a mistake. For example, there are multiple windowing environments available, so you have a choice. Even multiple web servers, and more than one way to network with other systems, are offered.

What's the Catch?

By now, you should be saying, "what's the catch?" After all, while MS-Windows may have come with your system, you could spend thousands of dollars to purchase all the equivalent applications that are included with Linux.

Well, the catch is that Linux, out of the box, will not run MS-Windows applications. This is because these applications require a different environment--they must able to request services from the operating system in a different way.

If you have existing applications that don't have a Linux equivalent, there are workarounds. First, Linux comes with a package called WINE, which will run some older MS-Windows applications. There are also commercial packages that allow you to run these applications on top of Linux. Two examples are Wabi and VMware.

Where Did Linux Come From?

About nine years ago, Linus Torvalds, then a college student at the University of Helsinki, decided to write his own operating system. He bought a 386-based laptop, and armed with the general idea of how UNIX, the OS initially developed at AT&T's Bell Laboratories in 1970, worked, he sat out to make a better UNIX. Or, at least a free UNIX.

As Linus was working on the development, he made snapshots of his work available on the Internet. Other people from around the world started contributing to his work. In fact, thousands and probably tens of thousands of people contributed ideas, code and testing support. There was even a collection taken up to make the last payments on Linus' laptop.

Today, Linus works for Transmeta in Silicon Valley, but continues to be the organizer of further Linux development. By organizer, I mean he coordinates what goes into new Linux kernels.

Where is Linux Most Popular?

Linux grew up on the Internet, and Linux developers are located all over the world. That meant Linux had to shine as a system of the Internet if development were to continue. It does.

Because of its excellent connectivity, great price point (free) and reliability, Linux quickly became the server of choice for individuals and companies around the world. Linux systems with the Apache web server (included with Linux) are likely to be the most popular OS/web server combination on the Internet today. Linux has also proven itself as an enterprise-class file and print server.

The Commercialization of Linux

While taking the program code available on the Internet and building a personal Linux system meets the needs of some, many consumers will need a package they can purchase that includes support. So, while Linux is still free if you want to do the work yourself, there is a market for complete packages, customization and support.

The first commercial Linux distribution appeared in 1993. Today, major Linux distribution vendors include Caldera, Corel, Red Hat, SuSE, TurboLinux and Walnut Creek CD-ROM (Slackware distribution) with many others out there as well.

Distributions vary as to what software is included, how the software is installed and what documentation and support is included. See our distributions web page for more information.

Linux and the Stock Market

Finally, what does all this have to do with a program named "Wall Street News Hour"? Two things. First, it is pretty likely that if you are into business, you have a computer. Knowing that Linux is an alternative to the operating system you are running is good for anyone.

More specifically, however, Linux has gone from computer geeks writing software to a place of investment opportunities. Companies such as, Cobalt Networks, Corel Corporation, Red Hat and VA Linux Systems have all had IPOs. Other vendors, including Caldera Systems and Linuxcare, made their S-1 filings and have IPO dates in March. Still more are on the horizon. Other companies which have publicly traded, such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM, have recently moved into the Linux arena.

A good place to see the status of Linux stocks is

At the time of this writing, the web page for "The Wall Street News Hour",, is still under development. When available, it will show a complete list of the stations that carry the program. I look forward to having you as a listener on the program.

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