What is Linux, and why should you care?

By Jon: First published in Online Currents 2004 – 19(2): 22-24

Operating systems

The basic function of an operating system (OS) is to allow a computer user to run programs. In order to do this the operating system must be able to: a) keep track of and modify the contents of the computer’s storage media; and b) start up automatically when the computer is turned on – i.e. ‘boot up’.

These two requirements mean that it is quite difficult – and can be dangerous – to have two or more operating systems installed on the same computer. Minor failures or idiosyncrasies by the operating system which has booted up and is currently in control may lead to catastrophic results when another operating system takes over. Nearly all users opt for single-OS systems, and – because the OS controls which programs are allowed to run – this in turn restricts them to a particular subset of programs. What we think of as ‘IBM-compatible software’ is in fact ‘DOS/Windows compatible software’; an IBM-compatible PC running a different OS has a completely different range of programs available to it. read more