December 2007

It is assumed that not all readers of this blog will already know everything. Therefore…

Linux is, for most of us who use it, the open source operating system (OS)1. It competes directly against Windows and the Macintosh OSX. Linux differs from those two systems by being open source and “free” in two ways.

  • You can get Linux for no cost. It is “free as in beer”. Gratis is often the term used.
  • You can get Linux with no corporate limitations. It is “free as in speech or as in personal liberty”. Libre is the recommended term.

In English, “free” doesn’t adequately convey the significance of both gratis and libre. Nonetheless, Linux is free in both senses. You do not need to pay for it, and you are at liberty to modify it for your own specific needs without restriction.2

Initially, many people get Linux from a friend who recommends it. The donor friend didn’t need to pay for the OS or even buy the installation disk, and has the right to make copies of the disk and install from it an unlimited number of times on as many different computers as desired.

By contrast, Windows (in all its versions) and Macintosh OS (in all its versions) usually come installed by a computer manufacturer. The cost of the computer includes the cost of the operating system, but is not “free” in either sense. The computer manufacturer had to pay for the OS and passes the cost on to you. Secondly, the OS is licensed only for use on the computer you purchased and cannot legally be installed on even just a second computer.

Linux was initially the brainchild of Linus Torvalds from whom the name “Linux” has been derived. When Linux was put on the Internet for comment, many developers gathered around it, and it quickly became the most popular of the “like Unix” operating systems.

The operating system is similar to the Unix operating system, built on the same concepts of many small components which work really well for their single job, but which combine to provide Linux great general power. Linux is strictly speaking the operating system kernel. Together with all the other program elements of open source GNU3 That is the core element of making a computer function for practical uses. Linux is part of the GNU group of programs. Together they are the full operating system. Therefore, many people want to call the OS “GNU Linux”.


1 Linux isn’t the only open source operating system. There are several others based on the Berkley Software Distribution (FreeBSD, NetBSD, etc.) that also work “like” Unix. Unix itself was originally developed by AT&T for its internal use, but it became very popular and had many versions licensed from its corporate creators.

2 Linux is released under a license that expects you to distribute your modifications in a way that others can read them (source distribution) and make further use of the modifications. You cannot modify and distribute changes just in binary (executable) format. (See the Gnu General Public License, GPL)

3 GNU is a recursive acronym “Gnu’s Not Unix”.

–Algot Runeman, retired computer coordinator

“It is free,” says a tall guy in the back of the auditorium. That’s pretty good, but what if your school has invested money–and more importantly, time–in another computer operating system? What reasons could you have for making a switch?

In no particular order, here are a few suggestions you can take to the principal and superintendent.

  • You can use your current computers. Replace old hard drives, maybe and have some spare power supplies handy. Most of the rest of the components in your current computers won’t wear out quickly.
  • You can explore a broad range of software. You don’t need to buy an evaluation copy. You don’t need to panic if the software really fails in its implementation with students. You have not invested in a site license or multiple copies for all the lab computers. Keep looking and find a better solution for your needs.
  • You can stay in contact with users of Microsoft OS. Software written for Linux is commonly built to work in the world that exists. Open Office opens and saves to the Microsoft Office basic file formats.
  • If you use Microsoft Word, you will be able to use Open Office or most other word processors. While the menus are not an exact match, you really will be able to figure out how to get bold text, italics, etc. and then save/print. Let’s face it. Mostly that’s what you do, right?”

On that last item, “I have teachers who will complain,” comments a tech support person in the front row. Teachers want to teach. Successful teachers love the classroom interaction with their students. Great teachers can educate students anywhere, with no support tools. Computers are now part of the classroom toolset, like desks, textbooks, blackboards, etc. Most teachers use computers as tools routinely now, but didn’t they complain when you asked them to start reading and sending email instead of getting the daily bulletin on paper from the main office or submitting grades electronically?   

Adults don’t like change. It is a sad reality. We like to do things in essentially a habitual way. “Lifelong learing” is an educational catch phrase. Learning requires a willingness to make mistakes, to wander and explore. With the limit of 180 school days (Massachusetts) and xxxx pages of textbook to cover, and MCAS, the excitement of change isn’t what it was once.Will Linux fix that? Not likely, but the cost savings of moving forward with Linux and Open Source software can partially offset the raise the teachers want in the next contract. [grin] 

Okay. Now you have a short list of positive things about Linux. It isn’t exhaustive.Let’s gather some questions…challenges posed by you, your staff, your administration, your students, your community. Add them here as comments. If you have “answers”, post them, too. If you need answers, we will work to come up with them.

–Algot Runeman (retired computer coordinator and contributing mosssig writer)