Penguins, Lizards and Apple's X Factor: How Famous OS Logos Got Started

Ronald McDonald and the NBC Peacock may get more TV air time, but today's operating systems have cool logos, too. Google, Apple, Microsoft and the Linux crowd crafted mascots ranging from cute lizards to circles of life. Here we look at the origins of the logos and look ahead to their future.

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Microsoft Windows "Flag"

The four-color design of Microsoft's Windows logo started with Windows 3.1 in the early '90s and remained in a boxy design with black borders until 2001. That year, Windows XP launched; the borders were dropped and the window became a waving flag, symbolizing exploration and discovery.

The most recent incarnation for Vista and Windows 7 has a shinier look, as if encased in pristine glass. (Must have been pretty strong glass to survive the negative Vista publicity.)

Why red, green, blue and yellow? They are all considered "pure" colors, and contrast well to the human eye.

The logo most likely to: be used as a dart board by Apple fanboys.

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Linux Penguin

Who doesn't love Tux the Penguin? The official mascot of the Linux kernel was originally a submission to a Linux logo contest. It didn't win, but Linux creator Linus Torvalds liked it enough to have one of his designers create what became Tux in 1996. It's assumed that Tux is short for tuxedo, but some say it stands for (T)orvalds (U)ni(X).

Also, Torvalds was once allegedly bitten by a penguin at a zoo and thereafter became obsessed with the waddling snowbirds.

The logo most likely to: also be accused of being the mascot of a Pittsburgh hockey team.

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Ubuntu's Circle of Life

The red, orange and yellow circle logo of Ubuntu, a free Linux OS designed for consumers, looks like something you would toss to a drowning man, but if you glimpse a little closer you'll see three people forming a circle holding hands.

Group hug, anyone? This symbol of unity ties to the origin of the word "Ubuntu," an African expression that describes human solidarity and compassion.

The logo most likely to: be mistaken for a crop circle.

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Google Chrome OS Sphere

For Chrome, Google's browser and forthcoming operating system, the search king chose a multi-colored sphere for a logo. Its influences are many: The Windows logo (same color scheme), a Webcam, the Pokeballs from Pokemon, the "Simon" electronic memory game from the '80s.

Inspirations aside, the Chrome ball is a powerful image on its own. It's no accident that it resembles an eyeball, signifying knowledge and insight.

The logo most likely to: do no evil.

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Red Hat Linux

This Linux vendor that distributes an open-source OS for enterprises has the logo with the most panache. Something about a grim-faced dude in fedora will always be cool. The only thing missing is a cigarette dangling from his lip. The company was named after the red Cornell lacrosse hat that founder Marc Ewing wore constantly while at Carnegie Mellon. But the Red Hat logo, known as "Shadow Man", is more enigmatic. True to his name, his origins are shrouded in mystery.

The logo most likely to: second as the poster of a 1950's French heist film.

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Apple's Mac OS X

Apple has been using a big "X", the Roman numeral for 10, as the logo for its Mac OS X operating system since 2001. The X looks like it's made of steel, in keeping with Apple's stark, minimalist aesthetic. The latest packaging, for Leopard version 10.5, evokes the mysterious monolith and space voyage of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", a movie that has also influenced Apple's hardware design and product names ("Open the pod bay doors, HAL.")

The logo most likely to: convince you that you're cooler than you really are.

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OpenSUSE from Novell

openSUSE, a general-purpose, Linux-based OS sponsored by Novell, uses a cuddly chameleon named Geeko as its mascot. This little green guy has been with openSUSE since the beginning in one design or another, and was given his moniker by users in an open name competition. "Geeko" is a contraction of geek (what most people are who care about open-source technology) and gecko (a small lizard found in warm climates). No relation to the GEICO car insurance mascot, by the way.

The logo most likely to: catch a cricket with its tongue and eat it.