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What is GNU/Linux?

GNU and Linux - Dynamic Duo

    Most users out there have never heard about the GNU Project, or about Linux, and much less about the GNU/Linux operative system.  In fact, few people have heard that "Linux" is an operative system.   This page will provide you with information about this issue, and why do I use this operative system in my computer and why I'm using it to develop this site instead of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Frontpage.

History of the GNU ProjectGNU - GNU is Not Unix

    Most people begin the story of how Linux was created by Linus Torvalds in 1991, but I'm going to break that rule, and begin much earlier than that.  It began with Richard M. Stallman, a computer programmer and software developer at AI Labs at MIT.  During many years software was shared among many hackers and programmers, specially the source code, to be able to solve problems, fix bugs and modify the software to benefit the users.  However, when he was denied the source code of a Xerox printer driver to be able to solve a problem, he decided to create an operative system which could be sold, copied, modified and redistributed by everyone else.

    Stallman created the term "free software" to refer to this kind of software.  The word "free" is not used in the sense of "no-cost", it refers to "freedom"; so when you see the term "free software" think "free speech" not "free beer" (this is the favorite example Stallman uses).  Free software is that which protects the following freedoms for the users:

Freedom 0:   The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
Freedom 1:   The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs.
Freedom 2:   The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
Freedom 3:   The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

Access to the source code is necessary to carry this out.  In order to protect the freedom of the users of the new operative system, he created the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), and essentially all it says is:  "You are authorized to use this software, to copy it, to modify it, to redistribute it (with or without your modifications), but you have to redistribute it under this license." In this way, not only when you buy or obtain the software you have all these freedoms, but the person who gets it from you will also have those freedoms.

    The new operative system would be called GNU (an acronym that stands for "GNU is Not Unix").  The idea behind it was to create an operative system similar to Unix (the most popular and reliable operative system of the time), that could be free software.  Unix consists of several programs that communicated with each other, so they had to be replaced one by one.  He began writing a variety of programs, like a text editor, a text formatter, a compiler, other programs to help the compiler to change source code into binary codes, mailers, etc.   Among the programs he wrote for the GNU operative system we can mention:  GNU Emacs (powerful text editor), BASH (command prompt), GNU Make, GDB (debugger), GNU C Library (gclib), GNU C Compiler (gcc), Bison (parser generator), among many others.

By 1990 he had finished all the essential tools he needed for an operative system except one, the kernel.  The kernel is the heart of the operative system and its role is provide all the modules that makes the operative system and the programs run in the computer.  He initially began writing a kernel that ran on top of Mach kernel (which is a microkernel).  A microkernel is a series of separate servers that communicate with each other, which is a very powerful model, but in the end it has a great potential for bugs.  The reason is that since they communicate so rapidly, it is very hard to find out the bugs, since they depend greatly on when did the bug happen after which communication from which server to which other server, etc.   Evidently he would delay writing the kernel, which he would call GNU Hurd.  In fact, the first reliable and stable version of the GNU Hurd was available more than 10 years later in 2001.  But, to run GNU, people didn't have to wait for the GNU Hurd.  A Finnish student, wrote a kernel that became available freely.

The History of Linux    Tux

    In the University of Finland, a student called Linus Torvalds wrote a kernel with the purpose of creating an operative system.  This kernel was not a microkernel, but a monolithic kernel:  that means that the entire kernel is one entity, it is not separate servers like the microkernel.  He made it available in 1991, and the next year he made it available under the GNU GPL.  People around the world began using Linux and actually began to see what else was available on the net to use it to make a complete operative system.  For all practical purposes, everything they needed was provided by the GNU Project.  So they practically filled the hole that was left by the GNU Project to create the GNU operative system, and it became the GNU/Linux operative system.

    This is the main reason "Linux" is not an operative system, Linux is the kernel, the core, of the GNU/Linux operative system.  So, millions of people right now running a GNU operative system in their computers and servers, and they don't even know it.  They know they run a "Linux" operative system, while all along they are running a modified version of the GNU system:  the GNU/Linux operative system.  And we emphasize on the fact that "Linux" users are running a GNU operative system, it doesn't matter if they call it merely "Linux" by mistake.

The Benefits of GNU/Linux

    I wish to be fair in many ways and say that GNU/Linux is not the best free operative system available.  In fact, I think FreeBSD is much better in many aspects than GNU/Linux.  However, unlike FreeBSD, GNU/Linux has a lot of support from both the free software community and the open source community.   It has also stimulated people to run GNU programs, and hence promote the freedom to users all around the world.   It recently has become a focal point of discussion within the software world.  I wish also to emphasize that certain distributions (like Gentoo Linux, for example), GNU/Linux is reaching almost FreeBSD high quality.

    GNU/Linux has become practically the symbol of free software and open source, and a model that rivalizes the proprietary software model (specially Microsoft's way of doing business, which is diminishing the rights of the users as much as it can).  GNU/Linux has also made many governments around the world realize that they don't need to be subjects nor slaves to the "good will" of companies like Microsoft, nor any other company of proprietary software.

    GNU/Linux is a free operative system, which means it can be copied, sold, modified and re-distributed according to the user's needs.  There are commercial and non-commercial distributions of it such as RedHat Linux, Debian GNU/Linux, Gentoo Linux, SuSE, Turbolinux, Lindows, Lycoris/LX, Xandros, Knoppix Linux, among many others.  So, the users will have a choice depending on which distributions serves them better and whether if they are beginning to use GNU/Linux, or if they are advanced users.  Commercial and non-commercial distributions of GNU/Linux provide support to all users, and even if they don't have the support of those companies, they can go to someone else to help them.

    GNU/Linux is also the best operative system to substitute for MS Windows.  Most of the programs that are available for Windows have an alternative in GNU/Linux.  I'll give just a brief list:

Programs Available for Microsoft Windows

Free Alternatives in GNU/Linux

MS Office, Corel WordPerfect Office

MS Word

MS Excel

MS PowerPoint

MS Access

MSN Messenger

Yahoo! Messenger

AOL Messenger




Adobe Photoshop

Corel Draw

MS Frontpage


MS Outlook, Corel Mail

Adobe Acrobat Reader

MS Internet Explorer

WinDVD, PowerDVD and others

Nero Express, and other CD burning programs

Windows Media Player, WinAmp

Adobe Acrobat

Norton Firewall, ZoneAlarm, McAffee Firewall

Quicktime Player

WinTV, LifeView


Windows Media Player (used to rip CD's)

OpenOffice.org, KOffice, GNOME Office

OpenOffice.org Writer, KWord, Abiword

OpenOffice.org Calc, KSpread, Gnumeric

OpenOffice.org Impress, KPresenter

MySQL, Kexi

Gaim, aMSN Messenger, Kmess



Gaim, Licq

Gaim, Gabber


GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), Krita

OpenOffice.org Draw, Karbon 14

Quanta Plus, OpenOffice.org HTML Writer, Mozilla Composer

Dia, Kivio

Ximian Evolution, Balsa, Kmail


Mozilla, Konqueror, Galeon

Xine, Mplayer, Ogle

XCDRoast, K3b, Gnome CD Burner

XMMS, Zinf

OpenOffice.org Writer

IPtables, Firestarter

MPlayer, Xine

XawTV, KWinTV, Zapping

Dia, Kivio

Grip, ripperX

These are just few of the programs (free programs) which can be used instead of the proprietary programs under Windows, and most of them are available gratis (at zero-cost). Some of them have not reached the level of quality that some Windows programs have, others are far more advanced than Windows programs in many other aspects, and the free software and open source movements are working intensively to provide free and open source alternatives to Windows and proprietary programs.

    I wish to add that the vast majority of GNU/Linux distributions include gratis lots of free programs that are used professionally such as GNU Emacs, LaTeX, an online dictionary (GNOME Dictionary), Gnucash (to manage finances), vector drawing programs (Sodipodi, Sketch) and other professional programs. Many of them are not even included in the Window$ operative system (at least not high quality proprietary programs that can compare to these free programs).

    It is also necessary to point out that, for example, many of the alternatives to proprietary software don't yet exist, and that many codecs that were created under Windows are not yet able to run on GNU/Linux, although practically codecs have been provided by the free software and open source communities to compensate at least 90% of what Windows codecs do.

    In case a user needs a proprietary program which is the only one that can provide for a certain service that has no free alternative, the open source movement has created WINE (it stands for WINE Is Not an Emulator), which lets run some proprietary programs made for MS Windows Operative System. CrossoverOffice is also an utility based on WINE to run those programs more effectively. If there is a case in which an user really really really need to run a proprietary program under MS Windows, there is a proprietary program called VMWare, that lets users run Windows (among other operative systems) on GNU/Linux. Though we recognize the need for certain users to use proprietary programs (and this is our small difference with the Free Software Foundation), the less ths users depend on these programs, the better. The less an user needs a proprietary program, the more his or her freedom is guaranteed.

    So, it doesn't matter how a person looks at this, GNU/Linux is a much better choice to substitute for MS Windows than any other operative system (proprietary or free) with the possible exception of FreeBSD.

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© 2003, Pedro Rosario Barbosa

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Verbatim copying of the Dynamic Duo graphic and the GNU Head Images is allowed verbatim by the Free Software Foundation.
Tux (the penguin) was created by Larry Ewing, and anyone can freely use it.