What people should know about Linux-based operating systems
In my last blog entry I talked about buying a new computer, which I got without an operating system and installed Linux Mint on it when I got home. Which got me thinking a lot about the operating systems that run our computers. And my growing passion for GNU/Linux.
About three years ago I started investigating this mysterious thing called “Linux” that I kept hearing about on the internet. I knew, or thought I knew, that it was another kind of computer operating system, an alternative to Windows and Mac OS. I discovered that ‘Linux’ refers to the kernel of the Unix based operating systems officially known as GNU/Linux. In computing, the kernel is the central component of most computer operating systems; it is a bridge between applications and the actual data processing done at the hardware level. The kernel’s responsibilities include managing the system’s resources (the communication between hardware and software components). The Linux kernel was initially conceived and created by Finnish computer science student Linus Torvalds in 1991. The word ‘Linux’ is a combination of ‘Linus’ and ‘Unix’.
But I really don’t want to go into the origins of what we now call Linux, which can get boring pretty quickly for the average computer user. And I don’t understand most of the technical jargon myself. What’s important is that the Linux Kernel is the basis of hundreds of different free and open source operating systems for your computer. (“Open source is a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.” – from the Open Source Initiative website). The open source community is a global, cooperative network of people and corporations whose goal is to provide software and computer operating systems available to anyone at no cost. How cool is that?!
For the previous ten years I’d been a Mac user. I loved my Macs and OS X. I had used Windows a little bit in the past, but found it a bit more difficult and convoluted to use compared to the Mac OS. Then just before I started using Linux, I had a laptop with Windows XP for a few days, and I enjoyed it, since by then I knew a hell of a lot more about using a computer! But I could never understand why anyone would choose to use an operating system that’s susceptible to viruses, trojans, worms, malware and spyware, when you could use an Apple computer, which was not. Except of course for the cost. But there are a lot of people who would argue that a computer that came with lots of great, easy to use software and did not need to be brought in as often for repair or periodic virus removal was worth the somewhat higher relative cost.
Anyway, back to 2008. I started learning about FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and discovered all kinds of cross-platform software that could run on Windows, Macs and Linux. I got to download and try out GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), a program that is very similar to Adobe Photoshop, but doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars. And Open Office, the free alternative to Microsoft Office. And Inkscape, a free vector graphics application very similar to Adobe Illustrator, and many other free and open source versions of popular software. I was getting hooked!
And around this time I was hearing more and more about Ubuntu (the most popular Linux distribution/operating system) on the internet. Linux distros have been around for a long time. There was Slackware, Arch Linux, OpenSuse, CentOS, Gentoo, Yellow Dog, Fedora, Mandrake (which is now Mandriva) and Debian, to name a few. But Linux mostly had a reputation of being accessible only to geeks; that only hard-core technical nerds used or understood it. And for many years I think that was true! But then in 2004 along came Ubuntu, a distro that was based on the venerable Debian Linux, but which aimed to create an operating system that was geared toward the average home computer user. Again, I won’t bore you with more history. But since I started using Ubuntu in September of 2008, the improvements for each version, which has a release cycle of every six months, has been amazing! As has the development of the other major Linux distros and their offshoots. The aim of Mark Shuttleworth, the father of Ubuntu, has been to make it comparable to the Mac OS in ease of use and visual attractiveness, and I think they’re just about there. And the fact that there are no viruses that affect Linux makes it even more attractive. In thirteen years I’ve never owned a computer that got any type of virus, nor have I ever used any ‘virus protection’ software.
In the past few weeks I’ve talked to a several friends who use Windows on their computers, or bought new netbooks, and I hear the same story. Strange behavior, unintelligible text appearing on their screens, or something (they’re not sure what) automatically downloading that slows their machine to a crawl and other weird behavior. And every few months their computers become so unresponsive that they need to take it to a computer shop and pay a hefty sum of money to have viruses and malware removed. And I can’t help but wonder: why?
The major reason I decided to write this is just to spread the word that there is an alternative! There are many alternatives! And not just by paying a lot of money for an Apple computer. If you can afford a Mac, great! They’re beautiful and everything pretty much ‘just works’. But even though I’m fond of Macs (we still have our nine-year old G-4 Mac that works quite well) I’ve come to see the tremendous benefit of open source software. A Linux distro is extremely configurable to fit the users needs and taste. Much more so than a closed source OS like Windows or Mac. Hence the proliferation and variety of Linux distros. Anyone with the know-how can improve upon a distro or go off in new and innovative directions. And bugs can be reported and fixed much faster when you have a world-wide community of developers who all have access to the source code, and the ability to review the work of others.
I believe the reason for the general lack of awareness about Linux is:
A) Microsoft has done such a good job for such a long time at building their monopoly. They’ve simply spent an insane amount of money buying off the computer manufacturers and retailers to sell machines with Windows pre-installed; to the point where the general populace has been conditioned to equate ‘Computer’ with ‘Windows’. (Though Apple is certainly making a headway at changing that over the past few years.)
And B) You’ve never seen a commercial for a Linux-based operating system. Although Ubuntu may change that in the near future. But with Linux, there’s not One Brand. Or a single company behind it. There are many, and a huge variety of choices in operating systems that is growing all the time. (Just check THIS out to get an idea. And look at the list on the lower right of the page.) Linux developers spend their resources on improving their software. Free and Open Source means they don’t have millions to spend on commercials! Yet.
Which leads me back to Linux Mint. Mint is an offshoot of Ubuntu which I started using about a year and a half ago. Though it’s based on Ubuntu, the Mint developers have gone off in many different ways and made it a truly unique and separate entity. And in my experience everything ‘just works’ out of the box. Because of that, Linux Mint has become my favorite distro out of several that I really love, and the Linux OS I would recommend to any novice to try out. I’ve talked a lot about using Linux Live CDs here before. One of the neat things about Linux is the ability to download, burn to CD or DVD, and boot your computer from the removable disk (or portable USB device) to become acquainted with any Linux distro before installing it to your hard drive, or a separate partition on your hard drive so you can dual-boot along with Windows. And from there the adventure just begins!
So it’s time to get down from my soap box! I hope I didn’t bore the crap out of some of you. And if you remember nothing else from my rantings, please remember this folks:
Linux is not just for geeks.
You have a choice of what operating system you run your computer with.
Learning new things is fun!
Next Up: My other new favorite Linux distro: Bodhi Linux