The GNU/Linux operating system is quite different from Microsoft Windows or Apple MacOSX in that nobody really owns it.
That means people are free to modify and change it as they see fit. And, they do all the time!
Today, there are literally hundreds of versions (they get called “distributions” or “distros for short) of the GNU/Linux system.
Some GNU/Linux distributions are developed by large multinational corporations like Red Hat, Novell and Oracle. Some are developed by smaller companies. Some are large global community projects. Other distributions are put together by small groups of basement hackers.
Some distros run large corporate server farms that run stock exchanges, scientific research projects or gigantic web servers like Google, Facebook and Amazon. Other distros are designed for a specific purpose like running a firewall, partitioning a hard drive or rescuing a broken computer.
Most distros are designed for day to day usage by ordinary folks on their desktop, notebook or “netbook” computer.
In the world of GNU/Linux, you have a choice as to the graphical user interface (GUI) that you use. By the way, what’s a GUI? It’s the “point and click” desktop system that you use to open and close programmes and manage your files.
The most widely used desktops in the GNU/Linux world historically have been KDE and Gnome. These desktops are designed for computers made in the last few years. On older computers they’ll work but will run rather slow.
More recently the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution has developed a modified version of Gnome called the “Unity” desktop. Just to add to the mix, the Linux Mint community has developed the “Cinammon” and “MATE‘ desktops.
If your computer is a bit older, let’s say more than five years old you’ll want to use a bit more “lightweight” desktop like XFCE or the even lighter LXDE. On the other hand, if you run a lightweight desktop on a newer machine you’ll find that it runs lightning fast!
An up and coming lightweight desktop used by distributions like Bodhi Linux and ElementaryOS is the Enlightenment desktop.
There are many other even lighter weight GNU/Linux desktops like Open Box, Fluxbox, IceWM, JWM and Window Maker. They’ll either make your old clunker computer functional or run like a Ferrari on your recent computer.
The other thing that’s great about installing a GNU/Linux distribution on your computer is that you’re not just installing an operating system. Along with it you’ll also be installing all kinds of software for surfing the web, office tasks, photo and image editing, playing multimedia etc. Once you’ve installed GNU/Linux, your computer is usable. That’s not the case with the two big proprietary operating systems.
Another great thing about GNU/Linux is a thing called “package management”. If you need some additional software that didn’t come with your distro’s “base” installation, you just use your package management software to install it.
When you open up your package management software you’ll see lists of hundreds of software programmes ready to be installed on your machine. You just point and click on the programmes you want to install, your package manager goes to a software repository or “repo” on the net, downloads and installs the software for you.
The package management software also helps to keep your software up to date with security and bug fixes too. You aren’t constantly getting multiple alerts from a variety of different programmes that need to be updated. Instead, you do them all at once!
Sometimes, one programme will conflict with another. The package management software will alert you of this and offer you a solution.
Security is also an advantage of moving to GNU/Linux. GNU/Linux uses the Unix model of security that separates the “user” space from the “system administration” space. To install a programme you have to enter an administrative or “root” password. There’s no such thing as programmes mysteriously being installed on your computer from the net as is common with Microsoft Windows.
Malware in the world of GNU/Linux is extremely rare.
Most GNU/Linux distros are on a six month “release cycle” as opposed to years between new versions of Microsoft Windows. That means that there are usually small incremental changes as new versions are released.
So how do you get started? Probably the best “no risk” way to do it is to use an old cast off computer that’s sitting around gathering dust. Almost everyone in the developed world has one somewhere.
Depending on the vintage of your “clunker”, pick a distro that’s appropriate. The best place to find out about GNU/Linux distros is from Distrowatch.com
Distrowatch has all the latest news about GNU/Linux distros along with news about other free operating systems. You’ll find a weekly newsletter and podcast, along with links to distro reviews and links to podcasts from the GNU/Linux community.
Will you run into problems working with GNU/Linux? Of course you will. There’s no such thing as a problem-free computer!
Most of the problems you’ll run into will tend to be proprietary software “gotchas” i.e. hooks that consciously or not, proprietary software vendors use to lock you into using their software.
But most of the time there’s a solution or at the very least, a work around. Like anything new there’s a learning curve. But making the switch today is much easier than it was a decade ago.
What will you gain? Almost no worries about malware, free as in freedom and free as in free beer software to perform all kinds of computing tasks, you’ll be able to keep your older computer hardware running for a longer period of time (I’m typing this on a thirteen year old laptop!) and computing becomes fun again!
There’s also that warm and fuzzy feeling you get from breaking with the big software conglomerates!