Why everybody should use GNU/Linux, and how?

Why everybody should use GNU/Linux, and how?


GNU/Linux is getting bigger and bigger. Microsoft’s recent patent threats are definitely helping GNU/Linux to gain mainstream popularity. Unfortunately, new users are often confused by why they should actually use GNU/Linux, and how to go about the transition. Hopefully, this article will fill that gap!

Why should everybody use GNU/Linux?

Number one reason, it’s fun. Windows XP has been around so long and changed so little, it’s boring. Vista looks slightly more interesting, but it’s expensive and won’t run on a lot of hardware (including mine!). GNU/Linux caught up with XP a few years ago and beat Vista to things like 3D desktops and windows with variable transparency. Even if you stick to basics, it’s fun learning a new operating system and new applications. It’s especially fun if it doesn’t cost you anything.

Figure 1: Beryl 3D desktop on MepisFigure 1: Beryl 3D desktop on Mepis

Reason two, therefore: it’s free. If you download a user friendly distro like Kubuntu it will fit on a single CD, so a cheap CD-R from your local bargain store is all it will cost. It’s free in a more important sense too. No one stops you from copying Linux: the trademark is owned by its creator Linus Torvalds, and the code is owned by many programmers worldwide, but the actual code is released under the GNU Public Licence (GPL) so anyone can do what they want with it. You can install it wherever you like on as many PCs as you want, copy it, sell it, give it away, even hack into the code and change it if you know how. You don’t need to activate it or register it.

Reason three: community. Conventional software comes with a user guide and sometimes a help desk that you can phone and argue with when it doesn’t work. GNU/Linux doesn’t: it comes with a community of people all over the world; some of them are developers, some write help files or design icons, some are just users. All of them are committed to using GNU/Linux and encouraging others to use it. So, if you’re stuck, there will be a forum or a mailing list somewhere that can help. But they’re not getting paid and they’re not there to blame, which brings me to...

Software for grown ups

Figure 2: Xubuntu is Simple clean and fastFigure 2: Xubuntu is Simple clean and fast

Reason four: responsibility. Buy a proprietary software licence and it comes with some (often limited) guarantee from the vendor, especially if you are a big company. GNU/Linux, and free software generally, doesn’t. It comes with a warning that this is offered free to people that think it might be useful. If it isn’t useful, if it doesn’t work or doesn’t do what you thought it did, or even if it trashes your PC and burns the house down, that’s your responsibility. You are expected to treat it sensibly. To test it thoroughly, to take sensible precautions like doing a back-up before you install in case it goes wrong. In short it’s software for grown ups. But...

Reason five: it is very reliable. In four years I have never crashed GNU/Linux, despite installing some experimental “alpha” versions and taking liberties with things I didn’t really understand. Some free software will crash, especially early versions. The well established stuff like OpenOffice.org, the GIMP, Kontact and Konqeror are bomb proof. About two years ago I managed to crash the KDE Desktop by trying to use the same “home” directory and the same KDE settings on two computers with very different hardware. I was simply dumped back at the log in screen but the underlying operating system carried on quite happily. Basically it was saying, “You boobed, you’re out of here, but I’m fine”.

Now, four years of using (and frankly messing around with) GNU/Linux have taught me a lot, and I’ve had beginners and potential GNU/Linux users ask the same questions over and over, so here’s Phil’s Top Ten Tips:

10 tips

Figure 3: Puppy Linux a fast Live distroFigure 3: Puppy Linux a fast Live distro
  1. Nervous first timers should try a LiveCD version such as Knoppix, Puppy or Mepis (see links). It will run more slowly than an installed operating system, but it will give you an idea of what a GNU/Linux distribution looks and feels like. Live “distros” use Windows “temp” directories which are wiped when you shut down, so no permanent changes are made to your hard drive. Work is generally saved to removable media, though Puppy Linux will (if you wish) create a permanent Windows directory to store your files.
  2. Live distros “mount” Windows drives (a:\, c:\ etc) so you can open and save to your existing files. This feature can be used as a means of rescuing work off a Windows drive that won’t boot. Run your LiveCD, and copy your files to a USB memory device or external drive, to a network drive, to an optical RW drive, use FTP to move them to a website or even email them to yourself!
  3. Many LiveCDs put an “install” icon on your desktop for when you decide to take the plunge, but beware...
  4. Having two or more OSes on your PC requires either two or more hard drives, or more commonly, your single drive to be divided into two or more partitions. Most distros provide tools to re-size existing Windows partitions and re-format the freed space, but do it wrong and you’ll wipe out Windows, so back up important data first (and make sure you’ve got your Windows installation disk).
  5. There are hundreds of distros and each has its followers. Safest choices for beginners are boxed sets from major distros such as SuSE, Mandriva or Fedora. Reliable single CD downloads are Vector SoHo (or Vector Linux’s basic offering for older hardware), Ubuntu or Kubuntu. (See links). Ubuntu will even send you a CD—FREE.
  6. Free software developers prefer open standards such as .xml, .jpg, .odt, .html but are pragmatic enough to provide filters for common proprietary formats such as .doc, .xls, .wav.
  7. The GNU/Linux file system is different to Windows, but on a single PC with a single hard disk it’s easy to understand. /, known as “root” is the starting point—roughly equivalent to c:\ on Windows. Directories such as /bin, /opt, /etc contain applications and configuration files. Your work is saved in /home/username which equates to c:\Documents and Settings\username.
  8. Many GNU/Linux applications equal or surpass their Windows counterparts. As most are free, there is little point in creating “lite” or cut-down versions: GNU/Linux apps are fully featured professional packages. As many developers are academics there is tremendous range of educational software from KTouch, for down-to-earth keyboard training to KStars, a desktop planetarium.
  9. WINE enables some Windows apps to run on GNU/Linux. Cedega from TransGaming is a WINE based subscription service optimised for running popular games.
  10. GNU/Linux is built for networking, even beginners can connect to the internet, create a SoHo network, even communicate with Windows PCs thanks to Samba. Shared printers on a Windows PC are accessible from a GNU/Linux PC and vice versa.
Figure 4: Networking UbuntuFigure 4: Networking Ubuntu

So why are you waiting? Have fun.

Links

Live distros

Knoppix.

Mepis.

Puppy Linux.

Installable distros:

Ubuntu.

Open SuSE.

Mandriva.

Fedora.

Cedega

Cedega.

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Comments

clievers's picture
Submitted by clievers on

Ooh, very nice intro for beginners. It is definitely a good idea to start with a Live CD to see what you're getting.
You are correct in the directory structure being confusing at the start (/, /opt, etc). Sometimes I still have issues with the more obscure ones. But they come around after a while.

------
let's all play nice!

mykeyspace's picture
Submitted by mykeyspace on

I have to agree with you that this is quite a good intro. It sums it up quite nicely. You could stress the freedom part a little bit more though, IMHO ;).

One tip i give to all new soon-to-be-converts is to listen to this podcast I discovered a little over one year ago: linuxreality. It was at that time at episode 2, but I always felt the potential in this one and I have been advising it to people interested in gnu/linux ever since.

Don't get me wrong, this is not the linux podcast. There are a lot of great ones out their and they all deserve your attention (eg. lottalinuxlinks, TLLTS, LugRadio, ... and a lot more). But linuxreality is tailored for new users and in my opinion succeeds in doing that very well. Although I've had the enjoyment of a free system for over 5 years now, it still is capable of teaching me some great tricks that are so easy I simply overlooked them.

I' m in no way affiliated to this podcast so i don't actually care if you are going to use it or not. It's just a great resource that is there for you to use it. Use it if you want to.

peace,

Michael

mykeyspace's picture
Submitted by mykeyspace on

I forgot to mention linuxreality has a very nice Filesystem Hierarchy episode (episode #11).

How forgetful of me since it was the reason I replied to Mr. clievers in the first place :)

peace again,

Michael

dorgan's picture
Submitted by dorgan on

I would definitely recommend Ubuntu to anyone thinking about making the switch over. Its extremely easy to use and setup.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Hello.
Just writing to say nice article. However all Ubuntu (Kbuntu, Ubuntu, Xubuntu) have live cds.

Andrew Min's picture
Submitted by Andrew Min on

Just so you know, Ubuntu is also a live distro. Also, Puppy may not be the best introductory GNU/Linux distro, since it's interface uses IceWM (and most modern distros use Gnome or KDE). Other than that, wonderful intro!

--
Andrew Min

mattflaschen's picture

It's true that you can use GNU/Linux at no charge, but if you want/need paid support there are plenty of people willing to sell it to you. LiveCDs run directly out of memory, and definitely don't use any Windows temp directory. Finally, wav is about as far from a proprietary format as you get. :) Thanks again for the article.

Raithlin's picture
Submitted by Raithlin on

Excellent article, but you fail to mention Synaptic at all. Elsewhere in this issue it is called the de-facto front-end for apt, and we all know how many applications are available for installation through the various (even just default) sources. A beginner can certainly benefit from knowing that it is there. After all, show me anything even close to it in the Windows world...

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I downloaded the latest version of Ubuntu willing to try, extracted the ISO file to a CD but will not boot from the CD. What up wit dat?

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Maybe you could include a link to the forums at the end of the article stating something like: Are you interested in getting help in installing GNU/Linux? Come join our formus. Link

pedja_portugalac's picture
Submitted by pedja_portugalac (not verified) on

Maybe your BIOS is not set to run the CD-DVD drive as first device during boot up. If you enter BIOS and set up your optical drive (CD-DVD drive) to boot first, may be it will install?
Cheers

Grellin's picture
Submitted by Grellin on

It was a nice into for a beginner to check out the world of Linux. I would caution that looking through rose colored glasses can do more harm than good.

Most computer users are not super users and only want their computer to work. They don't care how as long as it does. A mention that much of their existing Windows software will be totaly useless when they swap. I know there is Wine but that is a headache all it's own. While your hardware may or may not configure there are still simple things that you grow accustomed to just working in Windows that can be a real pain in the rump to make work. For instance, streaming video / music, 3d acceleration just to name a few. The reality is, something are still just easier for a regular user in Windows.

Definitely give Linux a try but don't rush into it blindly thinking you found the holy grail.

andrewd's picture
Submitted by andrewd (not verified) on

I would recommend newbies try out the more popular distros first (Ubuntu, PClinux etc). Shopping around is also recommended due to hardware compatibility issues, for this reason I used a dedicated hard drive for the installed linux distro. After 8 months & three distros tried I have finally selected PClinux as my OS. I should also add I have retained Windows as a multi-boot option, whilst using a mounted 3rd hard drive to share documents b/w the two operating systems.

sreejith's picture
Submitted by sreejith on

Wubi installs ubuntu for free on you computer...better than live CD and installs on windows...u get at the most 20 gigs but u can save most of the things in Windows...I suggest if you want to use Linux give this a shot...

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I use a couple of distros but the one that appeals to me most is puppy - there are many colours of puppy and its the easiest distro to install as the installation wizards guide u through nearly everything - easier than ubuntu
Puppy came standard with JWM - easy simple and can be off and running with most applications in minutes
Most puppy distros are only 70-120mbs in size although Muppy and Chubby Puppy are pre-installed with much more are around 250+mbs

Boots up in 55 seconds on a 350MHz K6 64mb machine

Program installer is simple - no! very simple - if you can read then you can use it

You can load a debian installer which has a high success rate and it checks dependencies (that means u can access the huge Debian repositories - thousands of programs!)

Runs Wine very well - never underestimate what applications/games can run under Wine - I use MYOB all the time

MS Office can be run on Crossover (feepaying app')
Cedega (as mentioned above) - still working on getting it to run (only started attempting to install it today without luck) - though only a matter of time - need it to play Dark Age of Camelot and Oblivion

Community is great and helpful - especially to noobs such as myself - and its growing and the range of applications (dotpets and dotpups) is steadily increasing

After 2 months i have made my own version of puppy so i can put it on family and friends computers and im NOT a programmer nor a computer wiz and neither do i work with computers just an average joe blow with an average job - if i can do this anyone can - it makes me look like an expert rofl
well have fun
cheers
martin

Author information

Phil Thane's picture

Biography

Originally a Design & Technology teacher in England, then Support Manager at TechSoft UK Ltd in Wales, with a hobby of freelancing for educational and technical magazines. These days Phil is a freelance writer. For links to publications see www.pthane.co.uk.