Finally trying out Linux

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by bledsoe on January 18, 2009

As someone who has often been frustrated by the MS Windows virtual monopoly on PC operating systems, I've been wanting to try out Linux for a while and have finally gotten around to it. Linux is a free, open source operating system for PCs which first came on the scene back in 1991. It was the brainchild of Finnish software developer Linus Torvalds and is one of the most well-known and widely used examples of open source software.

Other than being free, Linux has quite a few qualities that make it appealing:

It's remarkably easy to try out on your own computer, without uninstalling Windows - This was what finally got me to try it out.  I had wanted to try Linux for a while, but I wasn't ready to dump Windows, along with all my Windows software and related files.  I happened to see a special edition of Linux Pro Magazine at a bookstore, and the magazine was all about a version of Linux called Ubuntu, a variation of Linux that's specifically targeted at the "average" (i.e., non-techie) user, and how to get started with it.  The magazine came with a bootable DVD which allowed me to run Ubuntu from my own computer without making any changes to my current system.  Even better, it showed me how to set up my computer with a "dual boot" option, which allows me to choose either Ubuntu or my regular Windows system whenever I turn on the computer.

After trying Ubuntu from the DVD and finding it impressively easy to use, I installed it on my computer alongside my Windows XP OS and now when I turn on my computer, it asks me which OS I want to use.  So now I have the best of both worlds: my current system remains as it always was, plus I have Ubuntu installed and can play with it as much as I like.

Linux has been around long enough to establish a reputation as a quality OS - While there are no doubt many who are only comfortable with OS software that they purchase from a traditional software company, many others are impressed not only with the reputation of Linux and its development community, but with the open source approach to software development in general.  There are a number of books and articles that describe and analyze the open source software development process (including the famous and highly readable essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar) and it's not at all clear that the traditional approach is superior to the open source approach when it comes to designing software, even highly complex and technical software like operating systems.

The software options available with Linux are actually pretty good - It used to be that running a non-Windows OS meant being cut off from most of the rest of the computer world because most computer users, and almost all business computer users, used MS Word and Excel and you had to be able to read and create Word and Excel files.  Since Microsoft only had versions of its MS Office software for Windows and Macs, those were pretty much your only choices.

Now there's a collection of office software called OpenOffice.  It's open source (i.e., free), is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, is remarkably powerful and easy to use, and best of all, it can read files created by MS Word and Excel, as well as save files in Word or Excel format.  (It also has a presentation program similar to MS Powerpoint and a database management program similar to MS Access.)  With the minimal testing I've done so far, I've confirmed that docs I've created with OpenOffice are in fact readable by Word and Excel, and vice versa; not all of the formatting translated perfectly, but it was pretty close.

There's also a version of the open source Firefox browser that runs on Linux, as well as email programs, photo editing programs, DVD player software, and pretty much every other PC software application you can think of, all open-source and free.  Plus, with so many computer applications now online rather than on your computer (e.g., Google docs, Facebook, games, etc.), just having a browser and internet access diminishes the need for any one particular OS.

While I have no doubt I will encounter annoyances and irritations with my new Ubuntu Linux system, and while I am not at all certain that I will abandon Windows for Linux, it's reassuring to have options for my computer system(s) that don't involve depending on a single software company.

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