Kevin Colyer's thoughts and ponderings

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This Linux thing

If you are wondering what is all this Linux thing about then perhaps this little explanation will help!

Linux is the core of an operating system, like Windows or Mac OS X, and is a variant of Unix if you have ever heard of that. The Linux kernel is at the heart of the Gnu/Linux Operating system and was started off as a project of a young Finnish, Linus Torvalds, under-graduate in 1991 during his summer holiday break. He started the project just for fun yet the project has mushroomed into a multi-billion dollar software industry.

Where would you find Linux? Pretty much everywhere these days. Due to its open nature it can be taken and modified for many different applications. For example, whenever you watch Shrek, all the animation and rendering was done using computers running Linux. When you buy a book on Amazon (their entire business is built on Linux), when you search Google! Linux runs on nearly all of the fastest 500 supercomputers in the world. It also runs on mobile phones, TV set top boxes and all sorts of electronic gadgets. Where you might not see it is on Desktop computers as only about 1% or 2% of desktop computers run Linux but it is gaining more and more acceptance.

Why would I want to run Linux on my computer? Well, its cheap! Often free. It has a great reputation for being very secure compared to Windows. It has been designed from the start to work on the internet and with multiple users safely and securely. You will not need to run a virus checker as there are not really any serious viruses compared to the tens of thousands of viruses for Windows. It also runs very well on older hardware as it is efficient and fast. It is really stable too. It is very hard to lock up a Linux machine. Programs that break often do not take crash the whole machine along with it! It generally uses less memory than Windows making a struggling computer feel responsive and zippy again. It has tons of great software built in and installing new software and keeping it up to date is really simple and pain free. It is also often easy to install, as there are no license keys to remember and no endless searching for this and that driver you can’t find, plus hours spent in installing and rebooting that you need to add software to make it useful. Linux can be up and running in 20 minutes, and you can be doing useful work straight away. There are even a few powerful office suites right at your finger tips. Linux can save you hundreds of Euros on software and hardware.

Why is it called Free and Open source software? Linux belongs to a class of software called Free and Open source. This is free as in Freedom, and Linux is released under a special free software agreement. This does not always mean zero cost but it means that you will have several freedoms when using the software that you wont get elsewhere. These include the freedom to run the software, examine the code, modify it and improve it and also give those changes away to others (to help you neighbour). You really can share a great game or other program with friends without needing to pirate or pay large fees to do so. What this means is that there has grown a community of people who develop the software. Big business is involved (like IBM and SUN for example) just as much as ordinary people in their spare time. Very often the software is created for, and by the people who use it. That means that the users are the ones who get to dictate the direction of the software and not a corporation for its own profit. This can produce software that is more innovative, easy to use and productive. A good example of this is the Firefox web browser that has revolutionised innovation on the World Wide Web.

Is it hard? Well, yes and no! In many ways it is often very easy and a modern Linux distribution is no harder than Windows. There is much to learn and you can go as deep as you wish in exploring this fascinating system. There are some hard things and not all hardware works straight away. This is often because the manufacturers are unwilling to write the driver software or open up the specifications to allow the Linux community to write their own. However, when hardware works it often does so out of the box. There will be things that wont work but shopping wisely by researching your purchase is the best way to prevent disappointment. Help is often on hand too both on the internet and from enthusiasts who will willingly give you a helping hand.

What can’t it do? Well, it can’t do everything. Some weak areas are: video editing, there might not be a Linux version of your favourite software (games especially), some hardware is difficult including wireless internet cards and some video cards. But it can do everything else including making coffee.

How do I start? Get hold of a Live Linux CD (say Ubuntu, OpenSuse or Fedora) from a Linux Magazine, from a friend or even downloading a CD image and burning it onto a CD. Run that CD and see what happens! Live CD’s run a version of Linux directly from the CD, not touching your other data at all on your hard disk. It will be slower than normal but you will get a good idea if it is likely to work or not on your machine without having install it. Buying a cheap second hand machine and installing Linux on to it is a great learning tool.

What ever you do make sure you enjoy the freedom Linux brings, and spirit of Linux, which is to have a lot of fun!