What is Linux?

This starter guide is for the absolute beginner, someone who might have only just heard of Linux yesterday. I hope it’ll help people get to grips with what Linux is, and why they should care. So, without further ado…

PART 1: Which logos are which?

To the vast majority of computer users, this logo will be instantly familiar – the Microsoft Windows logo.

To people who prefer the high-end and stylish side of computers, these will also be familiar – The Apple Mac logo and the Apple logo.

But how many people will recognize this?

Linux Logo

This is the Linux logo.

PART 2: What exactly is Linux?

In layman’s terms, Linux is, as a whole, a completely free Operating System – a set of applications and code which runs your computer. Just like using a Mac PC or a Windows PC, Linux will allow you to do the same things, like edit documents, listen to music, browse the internet and play games.

Hang on, did you just say it’s free?

Yes. Linux is completely free. You don’t have to pay anything for it.

…Then how can it be any good?

Because, unlike Microsoft Windows and Apple’s Operating System, OSX, Linux can be described as Open-Source software. This means that the underlying code which makes the whole PC do what you want is available for anyone to edit, improve and share. Whereas computers in general have been turned from Tools into Products by various multinational companies like Microsoft, Linux attempts to promote the freedom of technology, information, and computer knowledge. A popular analogy is with a recipe. A recipe is, like a computer, a tool – it gets the job done. What would you do if the recipe for baking bread was not freely available? What if you couldn’t change it without being sued? Linux attempts to bring the ownership of the PC back to you.

I understand the ideology behind Linux now, but what’s in it for me? What actual, practical advantages does it have?

Linux’s main advantages in general are:

  • It’s free to share, modify and edit.
  • More people have access to the code, and so bugs/glitches can be fixed very fast.
  • It has been built to be absolutely water-tight in terms of security. You will not need a virus scanner / anti-spyware program on Linux.
  • Years of improvement have made it very fast indeed.
  • Some aspects of it are light-years ahead of Windows/Mac, and will probably be copied poorly a few years after that feature is added, if ever. This means you can essentially experience the absolute latest technology on your PC… for free!
  • It currently supports more hardware than any other operating system, and can be made to run on pretty much anything.
  • You can save over $400 in terms of software.

What’s the catch? There’s got to be a catch…

For the common public, Linux is only just starting to be usable. Only 3 or 4 years ago, you would have probably screamed when you saw what you needed to do to get Linux working. There has been a massive drive, however, over the past few years, to make Linux easy for people to use. As such, you won’t be able to easily run iTunes or Microsoft Office on Linux. Don’t run away yet! You can still connect to your iPod and edit Word documents on Linux, though not using these programs.

If you are any kind of gamer, this is also where Linux falls short. Microsoft has prevented people from accessing their technology, known as DirectX, on anything else other than Windows, which is fair enough from a business point of view. However, this move is extremely anti-competitive and restricts what people can do with a computer.

Finally, despite the fact that Linux has made incredible strides in the last few years, you need to realize that it may not be plain sailing! You must be prepared to get your hands dirty if something doesn’t work perfectly. Society has yet to produce a system that can do everything, so keep this in mind. Be prepared for something not working as it should, whether it’s your wireless card, the printer, or special keys on a keyboard.

Sounds scary.

Honestly, it’s not. Learning to use any new software takes time, and is a valuable learning experience. Remember that there are forums with upwards of 500,000 active members willing to help you if you get stuck. Plus, remember that the only investment you are making by trying Linux is some of your time – if it goes well, you will save countless hours in the future.

PART 3: Other questions answered…

Time for an introduction on “Distributions”

Because Linux is not one object, but a system encompassing a huge range of software, you can’t just “download” Linux itself. What individuals and companies do is take the “core” code of Linux (which anyone can contribute to, just like Wikipedia), and package it with the software that they think will give you the best experience. This package of software is known as a Linux Distribution (or “Distro” for short).

Also, remember that not everyone is trying to create something for you to use. Linux is used in a whole range of equipment. Some companies have adapted Linux to run perfectly for their needs.

To give you an idea of the range of systems which run Linux:

  • Ever heard of TiVo? It runs on Linux.
  • Google? Linux.
  • Large parts of the Internet itself? Linux.
  • Supercomputers? Linux.
  • Motorola Razr? Linux.

Remember, that every time one of these companies/organizations adapt Linux, or fix a problem, it all gets fed back to the core – so Linux gets better for everyone.

Currently the most popular distribution of Linux for the average user to use is called “Ubuntu”. Ubuntu began as a concept described as “Linux for human beings”, a humorous suggestion that now, you didn’t need to have unnaturally large amounts of knowledge to run Linux just like you would Windows or OSX.

Ubuntu’s name comes from South Africa, and roughly translates as “I am who I am because of who we all are”. A pretty nice meaning for an operating system. It emphasizes the power of the community as opposed to the company to support each other.

There are an incredible range of distributions available, but only a few are suited to you and me. As Ubuntu is the distribution that got me started on Linux, I’ll be slightly biased towards it. I’ll come back to Ubuntu in a later article, if you want to get started with Linux.

Sounds nice. Now, what does Linux actually LOOK like?

Due to Linux’s flexibility and openness, it has an incredible range of themes, styles, and other bits and pieces, meaning that you can almost achieve any look with it. In general, there are two competing Desktop Environments to choose from. These two desktops vary in the way they do things, and, usually, once you have learned how to use one, you’ll be reluctant to switch to the other. The two are called:

Gnome

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KDE

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…and just for reference, the old KDE:

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Remember that the new KDE is still a bit buggy, as it is a massive upgrade from the old version. As such, if you go for KDE in the end, use the old version.

Looks just like Windows! Where’s this “future technology?”

Here’s a video of the very latest Linux development – a project known as Compiz Fusion. It gives your interface special effects which are far superior to any other.

I’m impressed! Now, what about customisation?

As I’ve mentioned, Linux is extremely customisable. These screenshots might interest you:

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OK, so, Linux LOOKS cool, but what about the applications? What’ll run on it?

Linux has a surprisingly large software library given its nature. However, it does not have a “killer app” in the traditional sense – there’s not really any one piece of software that you can’t run on Windows or Mac (so exclusive to Linux), that would make you switch. However, remember that Open Source Software written on Linux is, by nature designed to be available for lots of people. Be assured that Linux software is absolutely sufficient to do the following (and lots more!):

  • Browse the web (with flash, and practically all the multimedia you’ll find on it)
  • Write email and keep track of it (equivalent to Outlook on Windows)
  • Watch a video of ANY file format. ANYTHING. Unless it’s an incredibly obscure format that needs one specific program to play it.
  • Listen to ANY music format OTHER than music bought from the iTunes music store. It is completely locked to iTunes, and is completely unfair.
  • Edit images with the GIMP program. If you ABSOLUTELY need Photoshop (e.g you use it for work/professionally with advanced settings), you can run the Windows version of Photoshop CS2 quite well.
  • Talk to friends on any Instant Messaging network (e.g MSN, AIM, Yahoo!, and all the others). Some are supported more than others and have most of the advanced features for the equivalent program on Windows.
  • Watch a DVD (This usually does not work “out of the box” because companies have “locked” the content. It is easy to unlock it to work in Linux, but there is an issue with licensing and so it usually isn’t available out of the box).
  • Organise Pictures
  • Edit Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents easily. Open pretty much every document format (including PDF)
  • Access files on Windows PCs or Macs
  • Audio and Video editing (mostly advanced programs)
  • Rip/burn CDs and DVDs
  • Play lots of casual games, a few 3D games, and the odd commercial game (e.g Quake, Unreal Tournament, Quake Wars: Enemy Territory)
  • Run a large amount of commercial games through a program called “Wine”. This has made a huge amount of progress over the past few years, and can run virtually all the Source engine games (this means Half Life 2, Counter Strike, etc), even Call of Duty 4 runs well. It also runs World of Warcraft almost flawlessly.
  • Use Google Earth
  • Access your camera and mp3 player out of the box (most of the time)
  • Connect remotely to other PCs (Windows and Macs included)
  • Run Windows inside Linux (as a separate window!)
  • Countless other little things like converting music, rendering, calendars

For the majority of normal, everyday users, Linux is perfectly sufficient to do all of these things nowadays. Many things can be achieved in Linux for free which would cost a lot of money on Windows or Mac. Usually these are little things like converting formats. I know from personal experience that my friends tend to give me requests to convert the odd thing. They send the file to me on an instant messenger and I get to work.

What if I still need to use Windows for one program which really doesn’t have a Linux alternative?

This is a very common question. If you use something like AutoCAD for work, you will need to keep Windows around. Luckily, you can actually have both Linux and Windows on the same PC, with a simple menu to choose between them when you turn your PC on or restart it. I will cover this in more detail in a later article.

Great. I’m interested in getting started. Where do I go next?

That’ll be the subject of my next article. For now, thanks for reading!

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4 Responses

  1. Nice article, I’ll put a post on my wordpress blog to it.

  2. This is just what i was looking for

    Thanks

    y.L

  3. That was VERY helpful, thanks a million! I can’t wait for my Ubuntu 8 CD to arrive, although it might take some time since I’m from the Philippines.

  4. You forgot to show XFCE as well as Gnome and KDE 🙂

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