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So You're Curious About Linux...

Date/Time Permalink: 01/21/07 12:45:48 pm
Category: HOWTOs and Guides

Every now and then I make a personal acquaintance with somebody who's never seen Linux, but has heard of it. They want to know what it's like and should they try it. I always find myself making the same speech, and I figure lots of other Linux users do too. So here is my canonical About Linux speech. Feel free to clip and save so you have it all in one place for you to point to:

First off, even as a die-hard Technology Freedom paladin, I always tell people that Linux is not for everyone. Specifically, if all you use a computer for is to surf the web and play games - in other words, if a computer is nothing to you but an entertainment device - , Linux won't make much of a difference to you and in the case of games may be a headache; and in fact I should wonder why you bother to own a computer at all when a nice gaming console and a cell phone will provide all the functionality, none of the headache, and be less expensive.

You will most likely have difficulty with Linux if you are below the age of 25 or so (as of 2007). This is "Generation Microsoft" Ω, which was born and raised under the monopoly and has known nothing else. If you've never used anything but Microsoft, you're going to come to a computer with a bunch of preconceived falsehoods that are going to get in your way. And the truth is that Microsoft actually came very late to the operating system game; they were originally a programming language company who kind of scoffed at the idea of a graphical user interface and selling an operating system as a product. Apple, Unix, IBM, Xerox, Commodore/Amiga, and countless others were already well established in computers and doing nicely before Bill Gates even showed up on the scene.

Linux is based on Unix, and so it behaves like Unix. If you had exposure to computers before your first copy of Microsoft Windows, you will find it easier to understand Unix systems. Unix, as time and experience has shown, is really the right way for a computer to function. Different from Microsoft, Apple's OS X system runs a Unix implementation under the surface, Sun's Solaris is a Unix variant, BSD is another Unix variant (and currently exactly twice Linux's age!), and in fact Linux and other Unix variants have become standard in every computer device, from servers to cell phones. The only exception is the home and cubicle-office desktop machine. We already knew what we were doing before some uppity millionaire came along and tried to take over the market. So, all of your complaints about how Unix isn't "just like Windows" will be a waste of time. Unix is Unix for very good reasons. It is Microsoft which is the nonconformist.

To get into Linux, your very best option is to obtain a bootable live CD. You can download them free all day and burn them to CD, or get them from the back of a book about Linux, or have a friend share one with you. A live CD treats your CD-ROM drive (and RAM memory) as if it were the whole computer, and so you can boot Linux and run it as if it were installed, without touching your hard drive and without disturbing your current system and its files. The beauty of this is that you can run risk-free! You can boot up the CD and play around with it at your leisure, without any pressure to learn it all right away.

Probably your biggest difficulty will be getting to grips with the huge variety of GNU/Linux software. If you feel overwhelmed in a Linux environment, it is because you have ten times as much operating system as what you're used to. It is, after all, free, and licensed to the public so that anybody can rewrite it, update it, put their personal stamp on it, re-release it, and port it to other platforms. There is no such thing as abandonware in the Linux world, there are just projects currently lacking an active developer. This has a side benefit: learn a core Unix program today, and forty years from now it will still be relevant. The Linux learning curve is steep, but you only have to climb it once.

Today's Linux systems have evolved through the free software process into the most sophisticated software around. The day is gone when Linux was "for geeks only" - today there are beginner distros which go to great lengths to hide ugly command lines and system driver tweaking from your notice, contrary to what some FUD-sayers would have you believe. If at all possible, find a nearby person (as opposed to somebody you know through the Internet), to sit down and tutor you through a lesson or two about the system. It's amazing how much one-on-one experience helps in learning a system.

Another thing that you will need to get used to: GNU, Linux, BSD, and other free systems are based on the ideal of absolute computing liberty. So the system is designed not just to be used, but to be molded by anybody. Compilers and interpreters are everywhere; there's a programming language every two feet. Configurations are done in plain text files, source code is open and generously documented, and there are buttons and switches all over of which you will only have the faintest idea how to use.

The system is open for you to explore endlessly, like a car with the engine exposed. So remember that even though it isn't geek-required, it is very, very geek-friendly. This also means that if you have a problem, the chances are good that somebody, somewhere else has had the same problem and already found a solution. You don't have to be a programmer to run Linux, but you will find yourself rubbing elbows with a lot of programmers in the Linux community. This is the effect of the idea of technology freedom, erasing the line between user and developer, between owner and customer, and between newbie and engineer. Try to not see this as being intimidating, but rather as complimenting your intelligence instead of insulting it.

Lastly, give yourself a chance. I can't count the number of people I've met who have said that they were computer-illiterate, until they had a chance to explore computers and discovered that they really weren't dumb about technology after all! So take your time, explore the system, sample a few different flavors of Linux, and read as much as you can about it. There's no way you can learn it over night; and there's no reason you - the average person - cannot learn it. The Big Secret that proprietary software monopolies don't want you to know is that computers are actually very simple. All they are made from is circuits with electricity going through them, set up in logic gates. The software is just what we run through the circuits to try to make them do something useful.

This is the new way that we, the free people, can handle our technology. And whether by GNU, Linux, BSD, Solaris, or tomorrow's Next Big Thing, it will be the way of the future.

Ω: As a couple of comments have pointed out, the age-limit thing is an arbitrary guess on my part. I say it's likely, but it isn't always true. Grade-school-aged children, for instance, also have zero trouble picking up Linux. My kids have Linux at home and get exposed to Microsoft and Apple at school. To them, they're all just different computer systems, nothing more, nothing less.

I'm still groping with the root causes. The generation thing is just the closest thing to a pattern I've seen.

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