Initially developed and used mostly by individual enthusiasts, Linux has since gained the support of industry heavyweights such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, overtaken many proprietary versions of Unix, and even challenged the dominance of Microsoft Windows in some areas. Analysts attribute this success to its low hardware cost and high speed compared to proprietary Unix, its security and reliability compared to Windows, and its low cost and vendor independence overall. Proponents attribute these traits to the open source development model.
The Linux kernel was initially written as a hobby by Finnish university student Linus Torvalds, who was attending the University of Helsinki, as a free and modifiable Minix-like kernel. (Minix is a Unix-like teaching project designed for simplicity rather than production use.) Version 0.01 of Linux was released to the Internet in September 1991, 0.02 on October 5, 1991. Subsequently, thousands of volunteer developers throughout the world have participated in the project. The essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar discusses the development model of the Linux kernel and similar software.
The history of Linux is closely tied to that of the GNU project, a prominent free-software project led by Richard Stallman. The GNU project was begun in 1983 to develop a complete Unix-like operating system — compilers, application programs, development utilities and so on — composed entirely of free software. By 1991, when the first version of the Linux kernel was written, the GNU project had produced nearly all of the components of this system — except the kernel. Torvalds and other early Linux-kernel developers adapted their kernel to work with the GNU components to create a fully functional operating system. The Linux kernel thus filled the last major gap in the GNU project. (Note that the Linux kernel is not part of the GNU project, although it is now licensed under the GNU General Public License.)
Tux the penguin is the logo and mascot of Linux. The Linux trademark (SN: 1916230) is owned by Linus Torvalds, registered for "Computer operating system software to facilitate computer use and operation." The assignment of the trademark to Torvalds occurred after an attorney, one William R. Della Croce, Jr, in 1996 began sending letters to various Linux distributors claiming to own the "Linux" trademark and demanding 10% royalties. The distributors rapidly pooled resources, appealed against the original trademark assignment and had it reassigned to Linus Torvalds. The licensing of the trademark is now handled by the Linux Mark Institute.
"Li" is pronounced with a short [ee] sound: compare prInt, mInImal etc. 'nux' is also short, non-diphtong [sic], like in pUt. It's partly due to minix: linux was just my working name for the thing, and as I wrote it to replace minix on my system, the result is what it is ... linus' minix became linux.
An audio file of Torvalds saying "Hello, this is Linus Torvalds, and I pronounce Linux as Linux" also exists . Note that in English, "Linux" and "Minix" are often pronounced with a short I sound that is different from Torvalds' Finland-Swedish pronunciation of these words.
See also List of words of disputed pronunciation#Names for a discussion of the various ways "Linux" is pronounced.
Because GNU — without which the system would not resemble Unix — stems from a long-standing and well-integrated free operating system project that predates the Linux kernel itself, Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation ask that the combined system (regardless of distribution) be referred to as "GNU/Linux." Some people do — notably the Debian project — although most simply call the system "Linux."
The distinction between Torvalds' kernel and entire Linux-based operating system distributions (of which the kernel forms only a small part) is a perennial source of confusion, and the naming remains controversial.
In March2003, the SCO Group (SCOG) filed a lawsuit against IBM claiming that IBM had contributed portions of SCOG's intellectual property into the Linux kernel in violation of IBM's license to use UNIX, now claimed to be held by SCOG. Additionally, SCOG sent letters to a number of companies warning them that their use of Linux without a license from SCOG may be actionable, and have claimed in the press that they would be suing individual Linux users. This controversy has more recently involved lawsuits by SCOG against Novell, DaimlerChrysler, and AutoZone, as well as by Red Hat and others against SCOG.
Linux is almost always used as part of a Linux distribution (distro). These are assembled by individuals, corporations, countries, and other organizations, and each may include any number of additional system software and application programs, as well as a program to install the whole system on a new computer. Distributions are created for many different purposes, including localization, architecture support, real-time applications, and embedded systems, and there are many which deliberately include only free software.
A typical general-purpose distribution includes the Linux kernel, the GNUlibraries and tools, command-line shellss and also offers a tremendous amount of application software, from office suites and the graphical X Window System to compilers, text editors, and scientific tools.
The majority of the code (71%) was in C, but many other languages were used, including C++, shell scripts, Lisp, assembly language, Perl, Fortran and Python. Slightly over half of all its code (counting by line) was licensed under the GPL. The Linux kernel contained 2.4 million lines of code, or 8% of the total — the vast majority of a Linux distribution consists of code that is not contained in the Linux kernel.
A later study (Counting potatoes: the size of Debian 2.2) performed the same analysis for Debian GNU/Linux version 2.2 (aka "Potato"). This distribution contained over 55,000,000 physical SLOC, and would have taken $1.9 billion USD (year 2000 dollars) to develop by conventional proprietary means.
With desktop environments such as KDE and GNOME, Linux offers a user interface like that of the Apple Macintosh or Microsoft Windows in addition to its traditional Unix-like command line interface. Graphical Linux software exists for many niches, although in many areas there is still greater breadth and quantity of proprietary software.
Its market share for desktop usage remains small but growing. According to market research company IDC, the 2002 Linux market share was 25% for servers and 2.8% for personal/desktop computers. However, argued advantages of Linux, such as lower cost, fewer security vulnerabilities, and lack of vendor lock-in have spurred a growing number of high-profile cases of mass adoption of Linux by corporations and governments. In these cases, only a few applications have typically been required and administration may be handled by a small number of skilled IT staff.
Linux and other free software projects are frequently criticised for not going far enough in terms of ensuring usability, and the question of Linux's usability compared to Windows or the Macintosh remains hotly debated. For those only familiar with Windows or the Macintosh, using Linux may be difficult because many things do not work identically, and substantial differences remain in more sophisticated administrative and configuration tasks. It is also usually easier to find local technical support for Windows or MacOS than for Linux.
Additionally, users will often have to switch application software as well, and equivalents of some programs may not be available (or there may be less selection, e.g. with games). However, more office and home applications now come with an installation. Because of reluctance to change operating systems, or even upgrade from one version of the same system to the next, and the fact that most computers come with Windows pre-installed, there is a slow adoption of new desktop operating systems.
There have been conflicting studies of Linux's usability and cost. Relevantive, a Berlin-based company specializing in consulting companies on the usability of software and Web services, concluded in 2003 that the usability of Linux for a set of specific desktop-related tasks was "nearly equal to Windows XP." On the other hand, Microsoft-sponsored studies by IDC have argued that Linux has a higher total cost of ownership (TCO) than Windows.
Linux has been criticized for unpredictable development schedules, thus making enterprise users less comfortable with Linux than they might be with another operating system (Marcinkowski, 2003). The large number of choices in Linux distributions has also been argued to confuse consumers and software vendors. On the other hand, Linux supporters have pointed out that Microsoft release dates also have a reputation for slipping.
The paper Why Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS)? Look at the Numbers! identifies many quantitative studies of open source software, including market share, reliability, and so on, with many studies specifically examining Linux.
Several projects attempt to make Windows applications runnable on Linux, with varying degrees of success. VMware and Win4Lin run Windows applications in an emulator, with perfect functionality but a severe speed penalty. WINE (and its commercial packaging, CrossOver Office) use a compatibility layer, allowing native speed but only for certain applications.
Distributions increasingly allow Linux to be booted directly from a live CD without modifying the hard drive. CD ISO images for these and other distributions can usually be downloaded from the Internet, burneded to a CD and booted from the CD.
Linux can also be booted over a network or, for a minimal system, from a few floppy disks or network card NetBoot flash drivers (see Isolinux).