Linux is, in simplest terms, an operating system. It is the software on a computer that enables applications and the computer operator to access the devices on the computer to perform desired functions. The operating system (OS) relays instructions from an application to, for instance, the computer's processor. The processor performs the instructed task, then sends the results back to the application via the operating system.
Explained in these terms, Linux is very similar to other operating systems, such as Windows and OS X.
But something sets Linux apart from these operating systems. The Linux operating system represented a $25 billion ecosystem in 2008. Since its inception in 1991, Linux has grown to become a force in computing, powering everything from the New York Stock Exchange to mobile phones to supercomputers to consumer devices.
As an open operating system, Linux is developed collaboratively, meaning no one company is solely responsible for its development or ongoing support. Companies participating in the Linux economy share research and development costs with their partners and competitors. This spreading of development burden amongst individuals and companies has resulted in a large and efficient ecosystem and unheralded software innovation.