An Introduction to Linux, for Windows n00bs

When I first started considering Linux, I could not obtain answers to some very basic questions. Neither Wikipedia nor the Linux documentation were of much help. This article intends to fill those gaps. It is intended for Windows users who are considering Linux for the first time. This article is non-technical and fairly opinionated as opposed to those consensus driven Wiki articles.

Why you may need Linux

You may consider Linux as an alternative for Windows for several reasons, such as,

You want to use a computer just for email and browsing.

Most Linux distributions come bundled with Mozilla Firefox and Mozilla Thunderbird. Anything that you can do with these applications on Windows, you can do in Linux. The pioneering ASUS EEE netbooks dramatically cut costs by offering a Linux alternative, considering the fact that most netbook customers just wanted to browse and check email.

You want to use a computer just for basic word processing.

Most Linux distributions come loaded with OpenOffice. While not as feature-rich as Microsoft Office, OpenOffice does the job quite well. And its documents, spreadsheets and presentation files are compatible with Windows as well as Microsoft Office.

You have no access to Windows

Lets suppose you cannot afford a legitimate copy of Windows. Linux is as free as water Linux is more free than water. Or lets suppose you do not have the technical means of installing an illegitimate copy of Windows.

You want to try something new.

Assuming you are tired from looking out of the same “Window” again and again.

You want to save on Antivirus and Anti-Spyware subscriptions, while optimizing performance.

Suppose you are OK with Windows but you detest forking extra money for paying for antivirus and anti-spyware, which ultimately slow down your system. Unlike Windows, Linux does not have vulnerable components like the Windows Registry. And installing (malicious) code on Linux requires administrative (root) access as it does on Windows. But obtaining these credentials in Linux is far more complex than it is on Windows, which ultimately makes Linux safer. And since malicious code reflects market proliferation of the OS its intended to be used on, most viruses are built for Windows, rather than Linux. Linux thus offers you a more safer computing experience without having you pay for third party antivirus and anti-spyware, which can ultimately slow down performance.

You want to save on expensive hardware upgrades

If you bought a “state of the art” computer in 2003, chances are that it cannot run Windows 7 (unless you commit yourself to expensive upgrades). On the other hand, Linux can be installed on almost all of the most barebone hardware configurations that exist.

You want a transparent computing experience.

Unlike Windows, Linux source code is available for scrutiny to every Tom, Dick and Rosenthal. A lot of updates to the Linux operating system are a result of people pointing out vulnerabilities in the source code, rather than actual security holes. In contrast, Windows source code is proprietary, and only a select bunch at Redmond gets to see it naked. While Microsoft does its own audits, Windows security holes are usually discovered when an advanced user

  1. Stumbles upon the security hole.
  2. Notifies Microsoft.
  3. Microsoft acknowledges the presence of the security hole after some dickering.
  4. The special group at Redmond that has access to the Windows source code creates a patch for the security hole, and the patch is released via Windows Update.
  5. Microsoft PR releases a vague “security bulletin” publicly acknowledging the vulnerability. Since Windows source code is proprietary, only Microsoft can truly judge how the vulnerability affects Windows. The rest of us are expected to trust them.

While Microsoft has considerably streamlined its Windows Update process, most Linux distros have a fairly sophisticated update engine as well. Linux security updates are extensive and timely. Linux updates are not limited to the operating system, and extend to practically all applications installed. On the other hand, Windows Update only updates Microsoft products, such as Windows OS, Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer. You have to manually update non-Microsoft applications such as Firefox and iTunes.

You have “special needs.”

You may want to run special software that can only be run on Linux.

Why you don’t need Linux

You should not consider Linux for the following reasons,

You want a perfect substitute for Windows.

If you are looking for a substitute for Windows, you will be disappointed. Linux was never meant to be a Windows substitute and originated as a tool for developers. Linux obviously cannot run or install programs that are meant for Windows (and vice versa). It is technically possible but requires tinkering. And since Windows has a much bigger market proliferation, most of the programs available are for Windows. Add to that, downloading and installing a program in Linux is more complex than it is in Windows. The range of programs available for Linux  can pretty much cover all your computing needs, in addition to some seriously advanced programs that are Linux-only. But limited market proliferation takes its toll. Programs for Linux can be rudimentary and lacking GUI features. Most of the programs available for Linux are open source. But as Linux grows more popular, commercial programs are being offered for Linux as well. For example, Skype is now available for Linux. Linux also comes preloaded with drivers for most computer hardware that is available. I have installed Linux on three different computers and in all cases, Linux was able to load all the required drivers. Its even better than Windows at this!

You want to save costs in a networked environment

Lets say you want to cut corners in a school or office by installing Linux on several networked computers. There are several reasons to avoid this. Users may insist on a Windows environment. In addition, troubleshooting any issues that may arise will require extensive Linux-specific know-how.

You want to take advantage of the advanced features of your computer hardware.

Suppose you have a pricey scanner and its Windows software is choc full of sophisticated features. These features may not necessarily be available on Linux. But check with the hardware manufacturer. Many hardware manufacturers now offer software for Linux as well.

You want to look cool.

Given the ease with which Linux can be installed, nobody really cares these days. And contrary to urban legends, running Linux won’t give you hax0r powers.

What else you should know

Whatever you learnt from Windows will be good for Linux only on a basic level, such as navigation. Linux has its own learning curve, philosophy and jargon. The following are some Linux terms you are expected to be familiar with, even when you start considering Linux.

Distro

Short for distribution. The Linux operating system is open to modification. Therefore different groups have created different distributions of Linux, based on their needs. There are dozens of them. For example, BackTrack is a Linux distro packed with security tools. And within these distributions, you will find different versions, analogous to Windows 95, 98, Me, 2000, XP and Vista. Choosing a distro is a touchy subject and depends upon your needs. You can find a list of available distros here. If you are new to Linux, I suggest the Ubuntu distro. It is highly evolved, and comes bundled with everything a beginner would expect.

LiveUSB

Linux is very versatile. It can be installed on a hard drive as expected. It can also be installed on a Windows hard drive while creating the option to boot as Windows or Linux upon start-up (dual boot). It can be installed on Windows in a non-intrusive way, just like another Windows program functioning within Windows (Wubi). It can also be run from a CD (LiveCD). But the most non-intrusive way to use Linux is to install it on a USB thumb/flash/key drive (LiveUSB). This can be done in a Windows environment, provided you download and install UNetbootin and you also downloaded the Linux installation file (.iso) to your Windows Desktop.

Repository

When you want to install a program in Windows, you go to the program website, download and install it. While this is possible in Linux too, it requires some mastery of command line (Referred to in Linux as terminal). Most popular programs for Linux are available through “repositories” instead of isolated websites. A repository is a website that hosts updated and malware-free versions of software provided by the software developer. To search several genuine repositories and to install programs from them in Ubuntu, you go into the “Synaptic Package Manager.”

root

A distinguishing feature of Linux is a strongly enforced user account control. Only one account, the root (aka superuser) has the ability to modify the system outside the limited scope granted to other user accounts. This account will be created when you install Linux and you will be asked to set a password for it. For example, when you install new software or make configuration changes, Linux may prompt you for the root password. This contributes to more safer computing, as malware and spyware cannot surreptitiously install itself as it does in Windows.

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3 Responses

  1. Hamad Subani says:

    March of the Penguin: Ars looks back at 20 years of Linux

    http://arstechnica.com/open-source/news/2011/08/m

  1. August 9, 2009

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