Hail the penguin

Last year Linux celebrated its 20th birthday. The operating system began life as a cut-down version of the commercial Unix system, which turned 40 last year, and has become the largest distributed software development project in history.

The kernel – the bit between the hardware and software – consists of more than 11 million lines of code contributed by more than 500 companies and tens of thousands of developers around the world. It has been estimated that commercial redevelopment of Linux would cost more than US$3 billion, yet it’s yours for free.

Linux’s logo is a cheerful Happy Feet lookalike called Tux, and my own first brush with it came a decade ago when, stuck for a column idea for the IT magazine PC World, I set myself the task of installing and using nothing but Linux for a month. That column, Learning to Love the Penguin, is still popular online, but more importantly, as a result of that exposure, I have used little else since. It runs my desktops, my server, my backup machine, my laptop, my netbook, and my home theatre. But it’s also tucked away in other systems too, most notably my mobile phone, where it takes the form of the Android operating system.

Nine out of 10 web servers run on Linux or its close relation, OpenBSD. Ninety-five per cent of the servers and desktops in visual- effects companies use it, along with 459 of the fastest 500 computers in the world.

It is embedded in phones, television sets, digital recorders, firewalls, routers, music workstations and even stage lighting systems, but the one place it tends not to be found is on the desktop.

That’s curious, because desktop versions are as good as rival operating systems, and they are free – not just free to use, but free to copy and distribute as you wish. On top of that, Linux happily co-exists with other operating systems, meaning both can be run on the same machine, so there’s really nothing to lose.

Of course, the one thing that Linux doesn’t have is a marketing department. There is no one to spend millions of dollars on advertising campaigns, fly journalists around the world for the latest launch, or wine and dine government ministers and IT executives.

It does, however, provide free access to its source code. If you want to add a feature, change the way something works or even take an application in a new direction, you can. And that leads to the real mystery. Why isn’t Linux in all our schools? If we are ever to develop what was once called a knowledge economy, we need people who can do this stuff – not to reinvent the wheel, but to stand on the shoulders of giants and create the next big thing.

You will find desktop versions of Linux on the cover discs of many computer magazines, or you can download it and burn it to a CD. The DistroWatch website lists more than 4000 variants of Linux and BSD distributions, but the perennial favourites are Linux Mint, Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE and Debian. You will find links to all on the site. At PC World, you will find a blog describing the installation and configuration of one of them.

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