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2011 May 16 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: After Twenty Years, Linux OS Still Endures

In an industry with a wealth of quirks, eccentricities, and oddities, Linux (pronounced LIN-uhks in American English) is right at home. This computer operating system is celebrating its 20th anniversary in August 2011.

Created in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, a software engineer and hacker from Finland.

Today Linux’s still tiny worldwide market share belies its influence and allure, especially among geeks and other information technology experts.

For desktop PCs, laptops, and other computerized devices, the various versions of Microsoft Windows control about 82 percent of the market, Apple Mac OS X about 7 percent, and Apple iOS and Linux each about 2 percent, according to StatCounter (gs.statcounter.com).

One of the idiosyncrasies of Linux is that it’s not controlled by a single company. More than six hundred different Linux “distributions,” based on the same Linux kernel, are available for machines ranging from game consoles to the fastest supercomputers in the world.

Linux distributions, or “distros,” typically bundle application software with the operating system, including mainstream business programs such as word processors, spreadsheets, and database programs as well as games, graphics programs, and utilities.

Much more so than on “desktop” PCs for individual users, Linux has a presence on “servers,” which include the computers that make websites available over the Internet. Among these are the most popular sites on the entire Web, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

For individual desktop or laptop users, one of the main attractions to Linux is price, particularly compared to what’s available from Microsoft and Apple. Some Linux distros are free, others are pay, typically low cost. The most popular free Linux distros include Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com), OpenSuse (www.opensuse.org/en), and Fedora (fedoraproject.org).

Other benefits to Linux include security and stability. Mostly because of the ubiquity of Windows, the bad guys who develop and distribute malware primarily target Windows PCs. Linux users also report greater reliability and less downtime.

Linux has a reputation for being strictly for technies, and this accounts in part for its small user base compared to Windows and Mac OS. But for years the ease of use differential has been shrinking, and today it’s virtually nonexistent, particular for such major distros as Ubuntu. One important area, however, in which Linux suffers on the desktop is DVD playback and video streaming over the Internet, particular with popular services as Netflix.

You can download the major Linux distros over the Internet. But easier still is buying a PC desktop or laptop computer preinstalled with Linux, which can save you the money that Microsoft charges PC makers to include Windows on their machines.

Dell (www.dell.com) is the major PC maker that has been most active with Linux-based products. As of the time of this writing, it was offering an Ubuntu Linux-based laptop PC and netbook PC. Hewlett-Packard recently made a major commitment to Linux, announcing in March that it would be preinstalling its own Linux-based operating system, webOS, as an option along with Windows on all of its desktop and laptop PCs by 2012.

Linux’s main claim to fame these days, however, is with Android-based mobile devices such as smartphones, tablet computers, and e-readers. Android is Google’s mobile operating system based on the Linux kernel. It’s a direct competitor to Apple’s iOS mobile operating system, which runs on Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

Android devices include smartphones from Acer, Dell, Lenovo, LG, Motorola, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson; tablet computers from Acer, Dell, Motorola, Samsung, and Toshiba; and e-readers from Barnes & Noble.

All of these devices, as with all Linux distros, share a lineage back to Linus Torvalds, born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1969. While still a computer-science graduate student, Torvalds made his first public announcement about Linux with a post to the Usenet discussion group comp.os.minix in 1991. Unlike other operating systems based on Unix, an older operating system that predated PCs, Linux could run on inexpensive off-the-shelf PCs.

Linux, also, was free, deliberately distributed to allow for the contributions of others. Over the past 20 years, thousands of programmers have contributed code to the Linux kernel. Today, Torvalds works for the Linux Foundation and lives in Portland, Ore.

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