If you own a computer, you’ve heard of Microsoft Windows. After all, Microsoft owns, arguably, between 87% and 92% of the market share for home and office PCs. Apple’s Macs make up another 5% to 10% of the market share with Linux taking up most of the remaining crumbs. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though.

Many Linux users have purchased a copy of Windows, if nothing more than to get a good deal on a computer. They often own multiple computers, each with their own proprietary blend from Microsoft. They usually own just one copy of a Linux operating system that they can run on all the computers, without violating any laws set up to help prevent that type of behavior with Windows. So the market share of Linux may be a much higher percentage than can be determined by the number of operating system packages sold.

So, what is Linux and why is it different? That’s pretty easy to describe, not so easy to visualize if you have been in a Windows world for most of your life. Linux is an open source kernel, or language that’s used to talk to the hardware components of your computer. If you could look at your computer’s mouse and tell it to “draw a square, fill it in with blue then make the picture of the cat jump onto the blue box”, and your mouse could do that, you would have created a new operating system. Linux is a link between your operating system (how you communicate with your computer) and how your computer works. It’s the operating system that facilitates communication. The Linux kernel, unlike the Windows or Mac kernel, allows for anyone to develop an operating system (often called a distribution) and for any user to pick up a copy.

Linux programming used to be considered a hobby for some, an obsession for others. As it’s popularity became more mainstream, Linux programming became easier, better understood and much more useful than previously believed. Some Linux distributions allow for users to install and run Windows applications, others keep multimillion dollar companies running seamlessly.

Before you buy or download your operating system, you’ll need to install the file storing system. Many boxed copies of Linux operating systems will include the file storing system they use, at no additional cost. This file storing system is essentially the organizational processes your Linux operating system will use. Installation is usually quick, easy and once you’ve done it, you won’t need to know much more about it.

Ubuntu is a more recent and currently the most popular Linux operating system, or distribution. It’s designed to be used for servers (great for small to medium networks) and clients. Linux has a history of being less secure than, say, Windows, Ubuntu has taken a peculiar measure to keep things a bit more locked up. The root account is disabled upon install, the first registered user after installation of this distribution is granted administrator privileges. To download your free copy of Ubuntu, visit www.ubuntu.com. You may be able to pick up a copy at a software store for under $50, as an alternative.

Ubuntu is super easy to install and use. The standard menus will be familiar to recovering Windows users. This distribution packages office applications along with the operating system. Applications include a word processor, spreadsheets, presentations and a database as well. What’s more, you have the option of saving your Ubuntu created documents in formats that are accessible by Microsoft Word, Word Perfect, KOffice and Star Office programs. You can also create PDF files with a single click, without downloading anything from Adobe.

Plug and play your music, video and photographic devices quickly and easily. There are hundreds of other software applications available by Ubuntu, all completely without cost. Ubuntu is open-source, meaning you can practice your Linux programming to your heart’s content, customizing anything and everything.

If you are looking for a solution for your business, Mandriva Linux, the second most popular Linux distribution, might be exactly what you’re looking for. Not only is it easy to learn and customize, Mandriva offers all sorts of business packages, including servers, a firewall for security and certifications from Oracle, IBM, Sun and SWsoft.

Client versions of Mandriva start at about $40 US and servers start at about $330. You can either purchase a boxed copy at your local software store or visit www.mandriva.com for their online store.

Another popular Linux operating system is SuSE Linux, most popular among those that enjoy Linux programming. The Debian GNU/Linux distribution has a very long history with Linux programmers, offering more than 15,500 applications. Xandros Desktop is a popular Linux distribution for beginners. While their premium package dons a price tag of over $75, it makes Linux much easier to learn than most of the free distributions, save Ubuntu.

-Ben Herman

Mad Fish Linux Programming