July 18, 1999
By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1999, Al Fasoldt
Q. What's Linux?
A. Linux is an operating system for a PC.
Q. Operating system? Like Microsoft Office?
A. No, like Windows. Basically, if you've ever used a PC with Windows, you know what an operating system is even if you can't define it. It's something that lets the computer do what it does. The operating system is a set of instructions. They are loaded into the computer's memory when it boots up. Without an operating system, the computer can't do anything useful.
Q. So Linux is a program. Does it run under Windows or s it like some of the games I have that force you to boot up in DOS?
A. Linux isn't a program. It's an operating system. It doesn't run under Windows and it doesn't run under DOS. It's not Windows and it's not DOS. It's a separate operating system. You don't need Windows to run Linux just as you don't need a Toyota to drive a Honda. Windows is one operating system; Linux is another.
Q. You're confusing me. You need Windows to run a PC. So Linux doesn't work with Windows? What are you telling me?
A. I'm saying you're confused. It's not your fault. Microsoft, the company that makes Windows, would be overjoyed if everyone in the world thought PCs couldn't run without Windows. But the facts are otherwise: Every single PC ever made can run without Windows. Think of Windows as just one flavor of ice cream or as just one TV channel and you might understand this better.
Q. Hold on. You don't need Windows to run a PC? I've seen PCs that wouldn't even run because Windows was messed up. How would they start up at all if you took Windows off?
A. They'd run just fine using a different operating system. Linux is a different operating system. Linux replaces Windows as the PC operating system.
Q. Why would I want to do that?
A. It all depends. If you're happy with Windows, you wouldn't.
Q. I didn't say I was happy with Windows.
A. That's the point. Many PC users aren't happy with Windows, yet they don't think there's anything they can do about it. They think they're stuck with Windows. But they're not. They have a choice.
Q. If Linux is so great, how come we're not all using it on our PCs?
A. Rhetorical questions don't count. But here's a rhetorical answer anyway: If a hug is better than a poke in the eye, how come some folks are still getting poked in the eye? And here's an answer that's more to the point: There will never be a universal PC operating system, so we won't all be using Linux even it becomes wildly popular. But Linux is catching on fast. There's no way to get an accurate number of Linux PCs, but estimates run from about 10 million to about 20 million worldwide.
Q. A universal PC operating system sounds like a good idea. I think you're wrong. I think we should all get together and agree on one or the other.
A. Or WHICH other? That's the problem. We have Windows, of course, but which Windows? Microsoft sells two main versions, and will have two more versions soon. We have Linux (which comes in many versions, too), and there are other PC operating systems, including ones you probably have never heard of -- Free BSD, OS/2 Warp, the Be operating system and Solaris for PCs, just to name a few. Now that many PC buyers and owners are learning that there is a choice -- that they aren't stuck with Windows -- programmers will work harder on alternative operating systems. There will never be a universal operating system.
Q. Yawn! Nerd stuff. All that matters is whether the computer does what you want.
A. Perfectly said. And many users are fed up with Windows for just that reason. It doesn't do what you want often enough. It crashes or locks up too often, or it refuses to do things it should be able to do.
Q. Oh, you're just picking on Microsoft. Nothing's perfect.
A. If we had nothing to compare Windows with, we might be excused for thinking there's nothing wrong with computers that crash or lock up or misbehave. But we DO have something to compare Windows with. It's called Linux. And Linux PCs don't crash or lock up or misbehave.
Q. But I still think you're picking on Microsoft.
A. There's a lot to like in Windows and in software that runs under Windows. But Microsoft made Windows pretty instead of making it solid. This was a choice Microsoft made, and a lot of PC users are convinced that Microsoft could have done both. The fact that an operating system created by volunteers and given away on the Internet behaves better than Windows should tell us something.
Q. Huh? What operating system is given away?
Q. Created by volunteers? Yeah, right. You're gonna sell me a bridge, too.
A. Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student, created Linux in 1991. He asked for help on the Internet, and many volunteers responded. Torvalds insisted on making Linux free and keeping it free, no matter how fancy it became. (And it is VERY fancy now.)
Q. But I thought you could buy Linux at stores?
A. You can.
Q. Then how can it be free?
A. Linux is available through an arrangement known as the GNU Public License. "GNU" doesn't stand for an oddball animal; it's a name made up as a way of poking fun at one of the oldest operating systems around, Unix. "GNU" just means "GNU is Not Unix." (Linux is an offshoot of Unix.) The GPL, as this license is usually called, usually refers to software (computer programs, including operating systems). It specifies something so unusual that most folks don't understand it the first time they hear about it.
Q. Try me.
A. OK. Here's what the GPL specifies, in four basic parts: 1. Software covered by the GPL has to be made freely available to everyone. 2. Everyone is free to change the software to improve it or customize it. 3. These changed versions must also remain freely available Altered versions of the software must also be freely available to everyone. 4. Both the programs themselves and the original code (called the source code) that they were produced from must be freely available. The idea of making both the software and the source code freely available is also called the Open Source system, and there are many Open Source programs available that are not covered by the GNU Public License.
Q. I don't understand it.
A. The GPL in some ways is like an anti-copyright or anti-trademark. That's the first thing. Copyrights and trademarks protect the person who created something and limit the rights of everybody else. The GNU Public License protects the rights of everybody while limiting the rights of the person who created something.
Q. That's crazy.
A. Yes, it's crazy -- if you're used to the way things are normally done. Normally, you create something -- let's say it's a computer program that monitors air quality -- and you copyright it to protect yourself in case other people copy it and try to peddle it as their own work. And of course you try to sell it to make money off your invention. Under the GPL, you create the program and post a notice on the Internet. You tell where the program and its code are located so that anyone can download it and try it out. And, especially, so that anyone can improve it.
Q. Or steal it.
A. What's there to steal? It belongs to everybody already. People who steal software for their own use (a big activity all around the Internet) don't have to steal software that has the GNU license; they already have a right to download it and use it. People who steal software to alter it and sell it as their own don't do it with GNU software; there's no market for it, since the software is already available for free. (Nobody would buy something they can get legitimately for free.)
Q. Of course people steal things that are free. Put a table out on the sidewalk piled high with silver dollars and put a sign on it that says "FREE!" and some people will grab all the silver dollars they can stick in their pockets, and they'll come back and grab more. Other people who want free silver dollars won't be able to get them because the greedy ones will take them all.
A. You're right. Greed works that way. Some people try to take it all. And you're wrong. Software doesn't work that way. There's no limit on how many copies you can give away when you're dealing with software. You only have a certain number of silver dollars, but you can give away all the downloads you want. Greed never plays a part in GNU or Open Source software.
Q. OK, I'll buy that -- I mean I'll take that for free. But the big problem with that kind of free software is that it's junk. It's just about all junk.
A. As I pointed out, the GNU license has a clause that requires anyone who puts the license on software to make the original code available. That's what makes it possible for others across the Internet to find and fix bugs and problems in programs that have the GNU license. And they do that very quickly -- the day after a program is introduced, in many cases. Software that you buy is never updated that quickly. (It might not be updated at all, in fact.) What this means is clear when you gauge the quality of GNU software. Some of it is useless junk (just as some commercial software is useless junk), and some of it is outstanding software. The rest is OK. Microsoft's own study of Open Source software showed that much of it is top-notch, up to the quality of the best commercial software. (And that, of course, got Microsoft very worried, because it doesn't know how to compete with free software.)
Q. Microsoft has a lot of money. Isn't the guy who runs Microsoft worth, like, $10 billion? Anyway, Microsoft has enough money to give software away, and that's how it can compete with free software. Sheesh, sometimes the answers to your questions are right in front of your nose.
A. Not so fast. First, Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, was worth $100 billion, not $10 billion, as of the middle of 1999. Second, the point of the GNU license and Open Source software is not to give software away. Anybody can do that. (And Microsoft already does it. A lot of good Microsoft programs, such as Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, are given away.) What Microsoft doesn't do is give away its software CODE. In other words, Microsoft does not post its software and code on the Internet and encourage everyone to improve its programs. So Microsoft doesn't give away any of its software under the Open Source method.
Q. OK, OK. You've made your point. How come you said there's no way to know how many Linux PCs there are? Just call up Linux Corp. or whatever the name is of the company that makes Linux and ask them. Sheesh. Double sheesh.
A. There is no "Linux Corp." because Linux is not a product as such, just as oxygen is not a product. (Windows is very much a product, but Linux is not.) Linux is a group of things. Some of them are free and some of them are not. Maybe if I explain the way Linux is distributed you'll understand this better.
Q. In 25 words or less?
A. Probably not. But I can keep it short. You already know that Linux is an Open Source product with a GNU license -- meaning, of course, that anyone is free to change it and create their own custom version -- but this does not mean there are a zillion versions of Linux. There are maybe a dozen main versions. Luckily for all of us who use PCs, Linus Torvalds and his helpers have been able to keep all these versions pretty much the same. In particular, the "kernel" of the operating system (the part that does the main work) is the same in all the main versions. I'm oversimplifying this (there are newer and older versions of the kernel, for example), but the idea I'm conveying is that one version of Linux works pretty much like another.
Q. Pop corn, schmop corn. What does this kernel stuff have to do with not having any "Linux Corp."?
A. At least you didn't make a crack about "Kernel Sanders." But back to Linux. There's no "Linux Corp." because there's no official version of Linux. That doesn't mean no one's in charge of anything. A group of programmers takes care of the continued development of the Linux kernel under the direction of Linus Torvalds, for example. (He's universally known by his first name only, so I'll stop sticking in "Torvalds" from now on.) And there are groups of equally dedicated volunteers who specialize in one area or another.
Q. So Linus Whatsisname is the chief cook and bottle washer and spokesman for Linux. He should start a company called "Linux Corp." or something like that.
A. You don't understand the unique nature of Linux. Linus isn't really a chief of anything. (He does cook, however, and he surely washes baby bottles. He and his wife have two little girls.) Because he created Linux, dedicated Linux users treat Linus with the same kind of respect they give The Creator. (He's even referred to, in lower case, of course, as "god.") So his opinions are valued far more than the opinions of anyone else. But he is not the boss of anything. Linus is free to do anything he wishes, and that means he could start a company called "Linux Corp." But even if he did that it wouldn't be "the company that owns "Linux" -- because Linux is owned by the public.
Q. But isn't Red Hat the company that got famous selling Linux? Red Hat sounds like "Linux Corp." to me. And how can Red Hat make all this money selling Linux when Linux is free? This makes no sense to me.
A. It makes no sense to a lot of people, mostly because the English language doesn't have a good word for "unfettered" except "unfettered." The word "free" isn't good enough for the real meaning.
Q. Say this again?
A. The word "free" doesn't catch the real meaning of what "free" means when it's applied to Linux and to Open Source software. A saying among Linux users is that Open Source it means "free as in speech but not as in beer." You're free to do what you want with Linux, even free to get it without cost and then charge others for it, as long as you understand that "free" doesn't always mean "without cost." (You're not able to get free beer unless you go to the right kind of parties, by the way.) Most companies that sell Linux also give it away. In other words, they sell a packaged version and give away a version you can download. The versions are the same, but the packaged version might include some extras that are not part of the Linux operating system, such as a fancy word processor or a convenient installation program.
Q. Answer my question. How can Red Hat make all this money if it GIVES AWAY Linux at the same time that it sells it? Who would pay -- what, $200 or $300? -- for an operating system if you can download it for free?
A. Someone who wants the extras would pay for them. But Linux versions that are sold do not cost that much. Caldera's current version costs about $40. Red Hat's version costs about $70.
Q. I don't follow the logic. You're free to get Linux without paying for it and ALSO free to charge someone else for it?
A. Yes. Why not? Why would this be a problem? After all, you're also free to get Linux without charge and to then give it to others without charge. What you're not free to do is also clear: You can't change Linux and then give away (or sell) only the software; you have to include the code, so that others can change the version that you issued.
Q. OK, OK, OK. I promise I won't ask about this again if you promise to stop talking about it.
A. Sure. For now, at least.