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Use and Learn Linux

Let’s face it:
Many people don’t like Microsoft or its products. In fact, over the last fifteen years there’s been a slow but steady increase in the level of dislike, distrust, or outright hatred of Microsoft among ever-increasing numbers of people.

Whether it’s the (ever-more-exorbitant) prices, the constant security concerns over viruses and trojans, the restrictions imposed by the infamous EULAs (“End-User-License-Agreements”), growing evidence of bad business practices, or just plain digust with a percieved lack of functionality and quality tech-support, Microsoft is seen by large numbers of people as a “neccesary evil” — neccesary because of percieved market dominance, and “evil” because of how it uses such dominance.

But (as the old Song says) “The times, they are a-changin’.” A viable alternative to Microsoft Windows already exists, or rather, a veritable cornucopia of alternatives exist.
This article is about one of them: LINUX.

So what is Linux, anyway?
A potential stumbling-block for “newbies” to the Linux “scene” is the fact that many of the things that Windows-users take for granted or never even think about become rather involved topics within the LInux context. This is primarily due to the two factors which most differentiate the Linux “scene” from Microsoft Windows: a total lack of centralization in regard to development, and an approach to software development which makes even the “freeware” from the Windows world seem extremely “liberal”.
I’ll cover both of those topics briefly later, but to get an idea of what Linux is, we need to take a look at it’s history.

Linux is, first of all, a subspecies of Unix (similar to the BSD family of operating systems). Unix — for those readers not very conversant with the history of computer technology — was originally developed in the 1970s by AT T; as one of the first truly “general-purpose” operating system, originally used on the large “mainframe” computers of the time.

Linux itself was first developed by Linus Torvalds in Hellsinki, FInland, originally as an attempt to create a “clone” (fully-compatible duplicate) of existing Unix variants from scratch, using his own source code. His primary purpose was to create a Unix version that wouldn’t cost thousands of dollars, and which was more optimized for the emerging “microcomputer” technology of the era. His approach was novel: instead of a single, centralized team of developers, Linus essentially opened the project up to anybody — allowing unrestricted access to the source code. Thus, in principle, anybody with a usable-level of programming skill could modify Linux to be what they wanted it to be — fix “bugs” as they became apperent, add or improve functionality, etc.
Over the next decade, the Linux developer “population” grew to hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — of individuals, groups, startup companies, hobbyist-clubs, etc. on every continent, giving Linux what is probably the biggest and most active “developer base” of any OS in history. The net result has been that Linux is developing extremely quickly as compared to other, more centralized, operating systems (Windows and Mac OS, for example.) Another result which can be downright intimidating for Newbies is the existance of a plethora of different “flavors” of Linux — known as “Distributions” or “distros” — from which to choose. The best analogy I can come up with is to describe the more centralized Ooerating Systems as similar to typical automobile manufacturers and Linux “distros” being more like “hot-rod” clubs.

This state of affairs can be downright intimidating for someone contemplating Linux: “How do I know which distro to choose?” “Isn’t Linux really complicated?” “Won’t I have to learn a lot of new stuff?” Those three questions haunt just about every new user of Linux at some time or other.

Because Linux is often self-described as a “hacker’s OS” (with “Hacker” in this context meaning ‘really skilled programmer/developer’ rather than “digital burglar”), until recently, relatively little development time was invested in making versions of Linux that were suitable to “regular” (non-techie) people. As such, the overall level of “user-friendliness” of many Linux distros tended to be less than Microsoft Windows (whose development approach concentrated on automating just about everything behind ‘wizards’ that supposedly took care of everything, so the user didn’t have to.)

However, in recent years (since about 1998) that’s been changing; many of the newer “distros” are directly concentrating on user-friendliness, and there are large numbers of books about Linux which specifically cater to the “newbie”. One of the most overtly “user-friendly” distros out there right now is Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com) — “Linux for Human Beings”. While I personally would not recommend Ubuntu as the primary distro for “techie”-types, it is specifically developed to make it easier for individuals who are new to the Linux ‘scene’ to “get their feet wet” so to speak.

Another good distro for beginners is Knoppix (www.knoppix.org). Developed as a general-purpose distro by Klaus Knopper, this distro has the added advantage that it was — and is — designed to run in “LiveCD” mode (you can boot knoppix right from your CDROM drive, without having to install it to your hard drive, although it is also a great distro for hard drive installs as well.) Knoppix includes extremely good hardware-detection (like “plug-and-play” was supposed to be!) and is preloaded with a really good selection of programs which will allow just about anybody from the most basic computer-user to the advanced programmer/hardware geek to get things done.

One thing I haven’t covered in this article is why switching to LInux is a good thing. The most basic answer is: freedom. The Linux community is explicitly founded on the idea that everybody should be free to use, develop, and distribute computer programs. As such, Linux programs, and even whole distributions, are very often available under extremely lenient license-terms. They’re “free” in the sense of “free to use and modify.”
They’re very often also “free” in the sense of price. The Linux development model isn’t quite like a “hobby”, but it isn’t very much like the typical corporate business-structure, either. As such, Linux distros can very often be freely downloaded from Internet, or a CD containing them can be bought for a few dollars. (The most ‘expensive’ distro I’ve come across recently is Xandros, whose premium version costs less than fifty dollars as of a few months ago.)

Linux is also pretty much virus-proof, due to the structure of the Operating-system itself. Say “goodbye” to endless worries over viruses and trojans. In fact, the NSA (national security Agency) of the United States has developed their own linux distro — SElinux — which was designed explicitly for high-security environments.

Linux IS indeed the wave of the future. Don’t be afraid to “run with the Penguin!”

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