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The focus of this guide is on the operating system kernel known as Linux, and the family of Unix-like operating systems based on this kernel, generally known as Linux distributions.

The kernel is the formal core of an operating system on which everything else depends. The kernel is the core piece of software that powers essential components of the operating system, including file management systems and system processes. The kernel usually communicates directly with the motherboard, the RAM, and other parts of the computer to provide the foundation for everything else.

In order to understand Linux it is important to acknowledge the role played by the Unix operating system. Developed by Bell Labs and AT&T in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Unix was distributed to government and academic institutions, which led to its being ported to more machines than any other operating system at that time. However, Unix was proprietary software, and the license fees were prohibitive for most purposes.

Richard Stallman and others created a project that became known as GNU, whose purpose was to create free Unix-compatible software. Stallman later created the Free Software Foundation and the GNU free and open-source licensure program.

It became clear that a free alternative to Unix was needed. The first alternative operating system to be based on Unix was Minix. However, its licensure limited its usage to teach the fundamentals of operating systems, so it could be used only for academic purposes.

Frustrated with the licensing limitations of Minix, Linus Torvalds, a university student, began development on his own operating system kernel, which would later become the Linux kernel. Although it began as a pet project under the GNU license, it grew larger and larger.

When Linux was released in the early 1990s, it competed for the hearts and minds of computer users with Microsoft and Apple.

Microsoft had long dominated the OS market with its MS-DOS operating system, and it soared in popularity once its Windows operating system stabilized and became a replacement for the DOS system. Personal home computers were becoming common and the ease of the Windows graphical interface was popular, particularly since most of the computers sold in the United States were delivered with Windows preinstalled.

Apple's operating system proved to be a poor competitor to Windows, largely because it would run only on Apple computers, which sold for a price considerably higher than the average PC. Apple products are only compatible with other Apple products, and Apple computers are incompatible with other operating systems. Still, Apple was a popular choice for those who could afford it.

As a counter-movement to the growing Microsoft monopoly and Apple's closed system, a segment of the population gravitated to Linux. Even today, Linux users tend to have more technical skills than those using Microsoft of Apple systems.

A major setback to the general usage of Linux systems is the domination of the computer market by Microsoft. Very few computer retailers ship computers with any version of Linux preinstalled, and only those who are tech-inclined feel comfortable installing a new operating system on their computer. There was also the fact that early implementations of Linux required far more in the way of technical skills of the user than the Microsoft or Apple systems.

It's fair to say that the Linux movement began with technophiles, and I think it's fair to say that these are the people who dominate the Linux community yet today. However, today there are many Linux implementations that do not require the level of expertise that may have been necessary a couple of decades ago.

Although there are Linux distributions that require the payment of a fee, the majority of them do not require payment and, more importantly, most Linux distributions are free in the sense that the source code is made available under licensure that allows for modification and redistribution.

Linux distributions are mostly driven by their developers and user communities. Some distributions are funded and developed on a volunteer basis and made available to whoever wants them as free and open-source software. Other distributions maintain a free community version of their commercial distributions, which fund continued development and enhancements.

Linux and its various distributions have attracted a large and energetic user community. In some areas, local Linux groups promote their preferred distribution, holding meetings, offering training, and assistance with installations. Internet communities have also formed around various Linux distributions, offering support to users and developers. Most distributions have forums, newsgroups, or IRC chatrooms, where support is offered by the user community. Frequently, a Linux distribution is financially supported by one or more companies.



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