A: The name "Linux" is used to refer to three
similar yet slightly different things, which can be confusing
to all but the hardcore geek. The three usages vary by how much
of a complete software system the speaker is talking about.
At the lowest level, every Linux system is based on the Linux
kernel the very low-level software that manages your computer
hardware, multi-tasks the many programs that are running at any
given time, and other such essential things. These low-level
functions are used by other programs, so their authors can focus
on the specific functionality they want to provide. Without the
kernel, your computer is a very expensive doorstop. It has all
of the features of a modern operating system: true multitasking,
threads, virtual memory, shared libraries, demand loading, shared,
copy-on-write executables, proper memory management, loadable
device driver modules, video frame buffering, and TCP/IP networking.
Most often, the name "Linux" is used to refer to
the Linux Operating System. An OS includes the kernel,
but also adds various utilities the kinds of programs you need
to get anything done. For example, it includes a shell
(the program that provides a command prompt and lets you run
programs), a program to copy files, a program to delete files,
and many other odds and ends. Some people honor the request of
Richard Stallman and the GNU
Project, and call the Linux OS GNU/Linux, because
a good number of these utility programs were written by the GNU
Finally, software companies (and sometimes volunteer groups)
add on lots of extra software, like the XFree86 X Window System, Gnome, KDE, games and many other applications.
These software compilations which are based on the Linux OS are
called Linux distributions.
So, there are three Linuxes: the Linux kernel, the Linux OS,
and the various Linux distributions. Most people, however, refer
to the operating system kernel, system software, and application
software, collectively, as "Linux", and that convention
is used in this FAQ as well.
See also the Wikipedia articles on the Linux kernel and the Linux operating system.