GNU/Linux is a free software operating system; in this case ‘free’ as in freedom, rather than any other idea of free (e.g. free beer). Most software vendors sell you software, which you then have no right to re-distribute. Free software (or open source software as it is sometimes called) is given freely (for no charge) and can be re-distributed and changed to your liking.
When people first hear about this they often think that because the software is free it will be of lower quality. The reverse is true. The freedom to change software means that people contribute time to fixing and improving it and know that they (and everyone else) will benefit from the result.
What is an Operating System?
It is the basic set of program that sits in the background and lets you interact with the hardware. It lets user applications have access to the bits of the computer they need in a way which is simpler than talking to them directly. Other well known operating systems include MAC OS, Windows, BSD and DOS.
Linux usually refers to the operating system and to a suite of software to go with it. When you install Linux, or GNU/Linux, you also get a whole range of programs: office tools, graphics, games and much more.
Isn’t Microsoft better because you pay for it?
It might seem hard to understand how something that is free can make people money, but new financial models are providing jobs in Free and Open Source Software and in support services associated with that software.
Open source software has over a million commercial development programmers worldwide. They’re involved in work that pays them to improve open source software. It doesn’t end there; volunteer contributors to open source software probably far outnumber the paid workers. Some people’s contributions are small, but they all add up to something great.
Microsoft can only afford to employ a few thousand software developers. Microsoft is secretive and closed off and so simply can’t afford to employ millions of people to make its software better. Many people say that an open development model is the only way to create a secure and stable operating system.
Some people also have ethical objections to Microsoft practices, which have in the past been condemned by both the US Department of Justice and the European Commission. To quote from IT journal The Register:
Bill (Gates) has never wanted to own the world, he’ll settle for the the whole world to pay him a royalty, and that’s an important distinction.
Though it is not the only reason to choose Linux or BSD as an alternative, many people feel that free operating systems are the only way to keep the Microsoft monopoly in check. Linux distributions have been making considerable market gains in recent years, particularly with regard to webservers and supercomputers.
You can find out more about Linux here.