Linux can give you:
A modern, very stable, multi-user, multitasking environment on your inexpensive PC hardware, at no (or almost no) monetary cost for the software. Linux is a rich and powerful platform--don't think of it as a "poor people" operating system. Out-of-box Linux has as much capability as MS Windows NT with $5000 in software add-ons, is more stable, and requires less powerful hardware for comparable tasks.
Standard platform. Linux is VERY standard--it is essentially a POSIX compliant UNIX. (Yes, Linux is a best-of-the-breed UNIX. The word "UNIX" is not used in conjunction with Linux because "UNIX" is a registered trademark of "The Open Group".) Linux includes all the tools and utilities typically associated with UNIX, plus more, significantly more than even the most expensive commercial UNIX implementations. To be able to run Linux software, proprietary UNIX vendors implement "Linux compatiblity layers" into their platforms.
Unsurpassed computing power, portability, flexibility, and customizibility. A Linux cluster recently (April 1999) beat a Cray supercomputer in a standard benchmark. Linux is most popular on Intel-based PCs (low price for the hardware), but it runs very well on numerous other hardware platforms, from toy-like to mainframes. One distribution (Debian) expresses the idea like this: "Linux, The Universal Operating System." Linux can be customized to perform almost any computing task.
Advanced graphical user interface. Linux uses a standard, network-transparent X-windowing system with a "window manager" (typically KDE or GNOME but several are available). The graphical desktop under Linux can be made to look like MS Windows (or probably ANY other graphical user interface of your choice).
Dozens of excellent, free, general-interest desktop applications. These include a range of web browsers, email programs, word processors, spreadsheets, bitmap and vector graphics editing programs, file managers, audio players, CD writers, some good games, typing tutor, etc., even a sophisticated planetarium.
Thousands of free applets, tools, and smaller programs. "Small is beautiful" goes well with Linux philosophy. The small Linux tools and applets often work in tandem to perform more complex tasks.
Hundreds of specialized applications built by researchers around the world (astronomy, information technology, chemistry, physics, engineering, linguistics, biology, ...). In many fields, Linux seems like "the only" operating system in existence (try to find out what your friend astronomer runs on her computer). The software in this category is typically not very easy to use, but if you want the power, it is the best software that humanity has in these areas.
Scores of top-of-the line commercial programs including all the big databases (e.g., Oracle, Sybase, but no Microsoft's). Many (most?) of these are offered free for developers and for personal use.
A truly great learning platform. If you are a parent, you should be really glad your daughter/son does Linux--s/he will surely learn something of lasting value. If you are a teacher, you should consider the installation of Linux at your school. "It is indeed a strange world when educators need to be convinced that sharing information, as opposed to concealing information, is a good thing" (http://edge-op.org/grouch/schools.html). You select Linux if you care to provide education, not training. The better the university, the greater the chance their computer department uses Linux in teaching. For example, under Linux, you can immediately begin modifying and compiling for yourself a spreadsheet application which is in every bit as advanced and capable as MS Excel. Linux puts you right on the cutting edge (in technology, project management, QA, methodology of science). Many teachers won't use Linux in schools because they are lacking in computer education themselves (at least that's what I see).
Excellent networking capability built into your operating system. You think you don't need a network? Once you try home networking, you will never be able to live without it! How about connecting the two or more computers that you have at home and sharing your hard drives, CDROM(s), sound card(s), modem, printer(s), etc.? How about browsing the net on two or more machines at the same time using a single Internet connection? How about playing a game with your son over your home network? Even your old 386 with MS Windows ver.3.11 may become useful again when connected to your Linux Pentium server and when it is able to use your network resources. All necessary networking software comes with standard Linux, free, just setup is required. And it is not second-rate shareware--it is exactly the same software that runs most of the Internet (the Apache "web server" software runs 66% of all Internet web servers and Sendmail touches some 70% of all e-mail). The pleasure of home networking is something I was able to discover only owing to Linux.
Connectivity to Microsoft, Novel, and Apple proprietary networking. Reading/writing to your DOS/MS Windows and other disk formats. This includes "transparent" use of data stored on the legacy MS Windows partition of your hard drive(s).
State-of-the-art development platform with many best-of-the-kind programming languages and tools coming free with the operating system. Access to all the operating system source codes, should you require it, is also free. The "C" compiler that comes standard with Linux can compile code for more platforms than (probably) any other compiler on earth. Perl, Python, Guile, Tcl, Ruby, powerful "shell" scripting, and even assembler tools also come as standard with Linux.
Freedom from viruses, "backdoors" to your computer, software manufacturer "features," invasion of privacy, forced upgrades, proprietary file formats, licensing and marketing schemes, product registration, high software prices, and pirating. How is this? Linux has no viruses worth mentioning because it is too secure an operating system for the viruses to spread with any degree of efficiency. The rest follows from the open-source and non-commercial nature of Linux: Linux evolved itself by "bazaar-like" mechanisms to encapsulate the best computing practices, code legibility and maintainablity, security, flexibility, usefulness, coolness, and performance. (The most important of these attributes is probably maintainablity.)
The operating platform that is guaranteed "here-to-stay." Since Linux is not owned, it cannot possibly be put out of business. The Linux General Public License (GPL) insures that development/maintenance will be provided as long as there are Linux users. There are a great number of highly-educated Linux users and tens of thousands of actively developed projects.
A platform which will technically develop at a rapid pace. This is insured by the modern, open-software development model which Linux implements: "build-on-the-back-of-the-previous-developer" and "peer-review-your-code" (as opposed to the anachronistic closed-software model: "always-start-from-scratch" and "nobody-will-see-my-code"). Even if the current "Linux hype" died out, Linux will develop as it did before the media hype started. Open source development does have its peculiarities: the development appears rather slow (vertically) but it proceeds on a very wide front, dangerous security bugs are fixed almost upon discovery, there are typically several alternatives for a program of similar functionality. Linux depth cannot be overestimated.
If you wanted to learn first-hand about the General Public License, check these famous GNU documents:
In a nutshell, the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) allows anybody to:
use the software at no charge, without any limitations,
copy, and distribute or sell unmodified copies of the software in the source or binary form,
use the software with propriatory (e.g., your own) modifications, free of charge, as long as you do not distribute or sell the modified version,
modify, and distribute or sell a modified version of the software as long as the source code is included and licenced on the same terms as the original you received (the GPL),
sell support for the software, without any limitations.
What the GPL license *does not* allow code recipients to do is to take somebody elses software licenced under GPL, modify the software, and then distrubute a this modified version of the software under a propriatory licence. Speaking plainly, the GPL licence just forbids stealing existing (somebody else's) software for incorporation into a closed, commercial-only product. However, you may incorporate GPL software in a commercial computer program if you obtain permission from the copyrigtht holder. GPL is certainly not more restrictive or imposing than a "typical" propriatory licence. GPL is a licence that grants the recipient right which he otherwise does not have, but takes away none. Excluded from the use of GPL are persons who have violated the GPL.
In general, copyright laws regulates 5 rights: to copy the work, to make derivative works, to distribute the work, to perform the work, and to display the work.
Here is a table which contrasts the licence of Linux with that of MS Windows (put together by a RedHat lawyer, based on http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20031231092027900):
Linux MS Windows98
Right to copy the work Yes No
Right to make derivative works Yes No
Right to distribute the work Yes, under the same licence No
Right to perform the work Yes Yes
Right to display the work Yes Yes
The GPL license under which Linux is distributed is probably the most important part of it. It is designed to perpetuate the freedom of information. Other important open-source projects include science and law (hardly a joke). The Linux method is really nothing new--it is simply the application of the scientific method to software: you get information free, you add your ideas and make your living, and finally, you leave it free. However, some big corporations and their lawyers seem to be trying hard to change this, to push us back in time, to the dark ages, when information was kept "proprietary." Hence, you see in newspapers some famous Linux-connected persons involved in all kinds of struggles.
To get a flavour for the value of Linux, here are some prices for commercial software as listed at www.amazon.com. All prices are in $USA, as listed on 2001-02-03, with discounts. Roughly equivalent Linux software is included on almost any Linux CD set (but with no restrictions on the number of clients). In addition, the hardware for Linux is typically significantly less expensive, since Linux can run all services on a single server:
Microsoft Windows 2000 Server (5-client)--$848.99; Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server (5-client)--$1,279.99; Microsoft Outlook 2000 (1-client)--$94.99; Systems Management Server 2.0 (10-Cals)--$994.99; Proxy Server 2.0--$886.99; Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Standard Edition (5-client)--$1,229.99; Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Standard Edition (1-user License)--$4,443.99; Microsoft BackOffice Small Business Server 4.5 NT (Add-On 5-CAL)--$264.99; Windows NT Server Prod Upgrade From BackOffice SBS Small Bus Server (25-client)--$558.99; Microsoft Windows 2000 Advanced Server Upgrade (25-client)--$3,121.99; Microsoft FrontPage 2000--$129.99; Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration Server --$664.99; Site Server Commerce 3.0 (25-client)--$4,092.99; Visual C++ 6.0 Professional Edition with Plus Pack--$525.99; Microsoft Visual Basic Enterprise 6.0 with Plus Pack--$1,128.99; Microsoft Visual Sourcesafe 6.0 CD--$469.99; Microsoft Office 2000 Standard (1-client)--$384.99; Adobe Photoshop 6.0--$551.99; Microsoft Plus Game Pack--$19.99.
Linux (and thousands of other programs distributed under GPL) is often described as "free software". The word "free" has two quite different meanings in the English language, and it sometimes leads to misconceptions about the free nature of Linux. These two meanings follow the Latin adjective "liber" and the adverb "gratis," and they are often illustrated with the phrases "free speech" and "free (of charge) beer." Most Linux software is free in both senses, but it is only the first sense which is essential to Linux.[an error occurred while processing this directive]