Put simply, Linux is a computer operating system. An operating system is the first program a computer executes when it’s switched on; it manages the system resources and provides an interface through which tasks are performed. Windows and Mac OS are the best known operating systems. When a user browses the Internet or plays PC games, he does so by interfacing with Windows or Mac OS. The Linux platform’s distinguishing characteristic is that it’s open source software, meaning it’s available to anyone free of charge. While Linux lacks the popularity of Windows or Mac, computing enthusiasts all over the world admire its clean interface, efficiency and ease of use.
University of Helsinki student Linus Torvalds began developing Linux in 1991. The system is descended from the older UNIX OS, which was itself developed in 1969 by AT&T employees Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie. Linux first became public knowledge in August 1991; Torvalds posted a message to the newsgroup “comp.os.minix” soliciting suggestions regarding the OS he had been working on as a hobby. From its inception, Linux depended on an enthusiast community to guide its evolution. In 2000 that community formalized itself as the nonprofit organization Open Source Development Labs, which sought to effectuate widespread Linux distribution and promote its advantages as a business tool. OSDL merged with the Free Standards Group in 2007 to create the Linux Foundation, which in turn seeks to establish Linux as a direct competitor to mainstream computer operating systems.
Linux’s open source ecosystem is its most important characteristic. For-profit companies do not inherently have the end-user’s best interests in mind. Consider the outcry that arose over rumors that Microsoft intended to establish an App Store on its Windows 8 platform. To distribute on iOS, Apple requires that software be consistent with its internal quality standards, and appropriates a percentage of their potential profit. Windows developers would be required to adhere to any similar system Microsoft imposes, regardless of however stringent it may be. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it would be unfortunate if users had no option other than conformance to company policy. Thankfully, Linux provides an invaluable service by offering just such an alternative.