An Introduction to Linux

One thing that makes the FreeTech Project unique is our promotion of free and open source software. But what is free and open source software?

There is a debate around the emphasis on “free.” Yes, it usually is free as in “free beer,” but, importantly, it also means free as in “freedom.” This is because the source code used to create such software is open, for you to read, change, and apply to another project. Some of these projects have given us programmes and applications and even entire operating systems that allow our computer to enable communication between the keyboard, mouse, monitor, and just generally create everything you see on the screen, from the menu to your desktop wallpaper to your different programmes (many of which are also open source, such as Libre Office and VLC Media Player)! Here, we’re going to focus on operating systems – the most famous you’ll probably know of are Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac.

Photo by Chris Betcher

Open source code (as opposed to the closed source code by, say, Apple), means people can share and alter such code to suit their own technology, customising it for themselves or others. From this, a plethora of projects have been spawned. We’ll talk about that in a bit.

The important thing to remember is that gigantic corporations such as Apple and Microsoft have largely dominated the computer scene for years, with the massive marketing departments to promote their products around the world, and the business influence to strike deals to ensure their dominance.

Most people will use either a laptop manufactured to carry £100 worth of Microsoft Windows on it, or an expensive Apple Mac, with both the computer and its closed source code created by Apple, who are notorious for not only making their own hardware, but also their own software – and ensuring they play nicely with one another, rather than other different products (and this encourages lovers of, say, iTunes to buy Apple gear to run it, for example, helping to trap them in the Apple world).

There’s an alternative to these, of course: Linux.

Chances are, you’ve already used Linux. Android is a version of Linux, and a great deal of technology is based on Linux – companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and even NASA have used Linux for years in order to develop their websites and projects, but they hardly brag about it because Linux is free and open source for all of us; Linux (named after its principle developer, Linus Torvalds) is an idea, something to share, rather than a company that’s driven by profits for shareholders, or at risk of going bust.

You don’t hear about Linux much because of this very reason: as it isn’t a company, it doesn’t exactly have a designated marketing department throwing up billboards to advertise it – and there’s not much to sell, since Linux is free, whereas Windows and MacOS are extremely expensive (and in many ways, inferior as well as less ethical).

Ironically, Linux came from something called Unix – and so did MacOS, but Apple keep their source code closed; they don’t want anyone looking at it, sharing it, or changing it, and they build their hardware specifically to run just that.

Because Linux has always been free and open source, it has of course therefore been shared and changed, meaning there are now a myriad of different distributions (or “distros”) of Linux – from Debian, Linux Mint, and Ubuntu, to Raspbian, Peppermint, and Xubuntu.

You want your Linux distro to look like a Mac you’ve switched from? Try Elementary. You want something reliable, stable, and simple to use? Give Linux Mint a go. You want something powerful with seemingly limitless programmes at your disposal? Get Manjaro. Maybe you want it to look like a phone or tablet layout? Use Endless OS.

And the options are indeed seemingly limitless. Some people make the mistake of trying one version of Linux and then judging all distros based on that experience. It’s really important to take so many different things into consideration – from what computer you already have, to what you want to use it for, as well as what you want it to look like.

Most malicious software (or “malware”) such as viruses are created for Windows and, to a lesser extent, MacOS. And even if a Linux distro did somehow get a virus, there are millions of hobbyist programmers around the world, all part of the Linux community, all working to patch things up and boost security pretty quick. This is another benefit of relying on a community rather than a corporation. There’s no catch. There’s no money involved (unless you want to donate to these community projects!). There’s just sharing.

Photo by Igelball.

Not that there aren’t companies set up to run Linux-based businesses: some are not-for-profit and rely on donations to keep their particular Linux distro going, others are entire teams of experts who of course share their distro for free but charge for their IT support, since they know the distro better than anyone else (for example, the Fedora project is very popular, but its parents company Red Hat made a fortune selling such support for the Red Hat Enterprise Linux distribution, and even ended up on the stock exchange, eventually bought, sadly, by IBM – but you or I would use Fedora rather than Red Hat Enterprise Linux; it’s just a question of whether you’d want to use a distro that is largely reliant on support from IBM, a corporation with a murky past!)

So let’s do a refresher of the benefits of using Linux:

Fun

Free

More ethical

Community-led

Better protection from viruses

But where to get started?

Well, like we said above, many make the mistake of diving straight in to using Linux after switching over right away. This can often pay off and be a breath of fresh air, especially if you have an older laptop and have wiped it and put Linux on it – many Linux distros are so “lightweight,” they’re often used to add more life on to an old laptop and make it run faster straight away!

But often computer users without such an issue make the switch to a Linux distro that doesn’t work as well on their computer as other distros might, rushing in to the whole experience when they don’t have to.

So there are a few steps we might recommend – some of these you might be confident or knowledgeable enough to skip, some not.

The first step we’d recommend is to complete the test at LibreHunt.org. This is an excellent website that many of us have been clamouring for, as it asks you a series of questions for you to answer in order to give you the most appropriate Linux distros for your needs!

Of course, after narrowing down the recommendations to say, two or three distros, it may then be about actually having a look at what those distros would actually look like: how would the screen layout be, for example? Or where’s the menu? (And fret not, many distros let you customise all these kinds of things anyway – the main focus should be how it’ll work with your existing laptop, and what programmes it offers you for your needs.) If your existing computer is quite fast, it might be worth trying out distrotest.net, a website that amazingly loads a distro in your browser window where you can pretend you’re actually using that distro, trying it out almost for real! Again, this will be a much slower experience than the real thing, as you’re relying on the web to run a pretend version of the distro, but if your computer can handle it, it may give you a good idea of what it’s like.

You can also look at distrowatch.com, a remarkable catalogue of pretty much every Linux distro out there, and a ranking of the world’s most popular ones (at time of writing, a distro named MX Linux is topping the charts). Feel free to have a look at the distros you’re interested in while you’re at distrowatch.com, read the reviews, and even look at screenshots of what they look like, and from there you can visit the distros’ official websites.

This is where it gets a lot more technical, so read on if you dare!

So how do you install your chosen distro on your computer? Traditionally it was from a disk, but most people these days instead use a USB stick (also known as a memory stick or flash drive). Even though the Linux distro itself is free, some people like ourselves offer the hassle-free option of making available the distros via a ready-made USB stick that covers our labour time and materials. But there’s no need to spend a single penny if you can do put your chosen Linux distro on a USB stick by yourself! And it can be a satisfying experience to have a go at!

At the distro’s official website, there will be a download page from which you can save the entire distro itself (an .iso file) to your computer. You will then want to burn, write, or “mount” the distro to a USB stick, and there are a number of ways of doing this, but the easiest way is often via a clever little free programme called Etcher (yes, it “etches” the distro onto the USB stick). Once it’s properly mounted on the USB stick, you have your Linux distro handy and ready to try out on any computer of your choice! The way of doing this varies slightly…

Before your computer boots up into its operating system such as Windows, you’ll usually see a few flashes of text and this is where your computer gives you an option, via the BIOS, to boot up into something other than your pre-existing operating system. This can be a headache for many of us, and it’s always a little tricky because every computer is different, looks different, and has different keys to hit in order to choose! This is where websearch and tutorial videos are your best friend!

The key thing to remember is that your chosen distro will remain on your USB stick until such a time as you wipe the stick, erasing it or re-formatting it – and that you can literally run the operating system (albeit at a usually slightly slower pace!) right from the stick, to try out on your laptop to see how it feels. You can connect it to your internet, browse the web, and use the pre-existing programmes it comes with, such as office suite or media player. This is sort of like trying out a computer in the store – you won’t be using it as your own, installing programmes, saving files on it, and such, but you can get a feel for it. Once you’re happy, you can use the option to install it permanently on your computer (for example, replacing Windows, or if you’re less sure, installing it alongside Windows, so you can boot your computer up and use Windows at one point in the day, and Linux at another – particularly useful if you’re taking time getting used to Linux, or still transferring your files over; it’s literally like using two completely different computers!)

The important thing here is that of course Linux is wonderful, but when we say “Linux” we’re talking not about one operating system, but hundreds, probably thousands, and so you can’t judge all Linux by one distro. They’re all unique in different ways. You might love Linux Mint but absolutely loathe Ubuntu, even though they’re very similar “under the car bonnet”. You might not know what all the fuss is about when it comes to MX Linux, but your partner might think it’s the best thing since sliced bread (as an example, we here at the FreeTech Project don’t get its popularity and rarely if ever recommend it, but MX Linux remains one of the most popular distros in the whole world, so what do we know?!)

The only reason any of this is so difficult is because Windows have deals with computer manufacturers to have them sold with Windows on them already, much in the same way Apple sell their computers with Mac on them, for instance. There are a few stores out there kind enough and dynamic enough to offer computers with Linux already on them, but they’re not that common.

Be aware of the salespeople!

Go into a high street store and tell the salesperson you want a computer with Linux on it, and of course they’ll try to convince you that that’s a terrible idea, that Linux is “too complicated,” or “everyone uses Windows,” and that’s because they don’t have a Linux computer to sell you. If they did, they’d leap on your request by reassuring you that you’re so very intelligent to choose Linux, how it’s about freedom, and how you’ll save money in the hundreds, not only on the computer itself but by it lasting a lot longer without a horribly heavy operating system on it, and no doubt a few anecdotes about how NASA and Google and Facebook and Twitter all use Linux! But they won’t do that, because they have no Linux computers to sell you.

Microsoft and Apple, as corporations, have spent millions on force-feeding us their (in many ways inferior) operating systems for decades now, and we’ve long been hoodwinked into believing common means good. Linux, on the other hand, is about the common good – community, sharing, ethics, adaptability and efficiency. It sounds hard to believe when you tell someone they could save money and also have something better, but in this case it’s true.

The programmers behind the plethora of Linux distros out there aren’t exactly focused on marketing and promotion, especially when they’re not trying to sell anything for money (except sometimes their own expertise!) With nothing much here to really sell, many of us using Linux forget to spread the word about it, and are probably too busy enjoying the experience anyway. But we hope you enjoyed this blog entry about it nonetheless.