If you regularly use Microsoft Windows and only Microsoft Windows then this article will probably suit you best. It is short, but before you read through this, please read this as well. Don't worry, the two combined should not take up more than 5 minutes of your time.


The Choice of a GNU Generation!

1. What is it?
Linux is, loosely speaking, an operating system. Microsoft Windows is an operating system - you are surely familiar with this. Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows 2000 and Windows XP are some of the various avatars of the Windows operating system. An operating system is what you must have in order to "do things" on your computer, as it manages the basic operations and resources of your computer. Now Linux, albeit an operating system, is internally a whole lot different from the Microsoft ones. To be technically correct, Linux is just an operating system kernel - the core manager of your computer. The Linux operating system was born way back in 1991, when a student of the University of Helsinki posted the following message on a newsgroup (comp.os.minix):
From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Newsgroups: comp.os.minix
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system
Message-ID: <1991Aug25.205708.9541@klaava.Helsinki.FI>
Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki

Hello everybody out there using minix -
I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).

I've currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that I'll get something practical within a few months, and I'd like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won't promise I'll implement them :-) Linus (torvalds@kruuna.helsinki.fi)

PS. Yes - it's free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs. It is NOT protable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that's all I have :-(

If you want to hear the complete story right from the horse's mouth, then you may want to see this. However remember that Linux is just a kernel. Think of a kernel as... Windows without any programs pre-installed - no notepad, no windows media player, no internet explorer, not even the "search" box or the command window. You'll probably argue then, that a kernel is useless all by itself - and you are absolutely correct. In Linux, these useful programs, the equivalents of Notepad, or the search utility and so on were built by the Free Software Foundation, under the brilliant Richard Stallman. The FSF aimed at a free implementation of the UNIX operating system, and named the project GNU (for GNU's Not Unix), and they implemented alternatives to most of the programs found on the then available UNIX systems (but they had not built the kernel yet). These 'useful programs' and the Linux kernel together make up what is loosely called the Linux operating system - the FSF more accurately calls it the GNU/Linux operating system. For brevity we shall call this magical union of the Linux kernel with GNU's programs just Linux.

You dont need to remember all this - just keep in mind that Linux is a free alternative to Windows, the definition of 'free' being the one described on this page.

2. Why use GNU/Linux anyway ?

I am assuming that you are only a user for the time being - tha you are not a tech-minded person. You just use your computer to get your work done, such as creating/editing documents, spreadsheets, surfing the net, checking mail, viewing movies and so on. You are sometimes bothered by viruses and that really irritates you. And you don't wish to spend thousands of rupees (or hundreds of dollars) on software, its updates and so on.

Well, what can I say ? Try Linux. Here's why: With Linux you get an operating system, and lots of programs (sometimes too many) to get your work done. You get it for free. What the heck, how does "free" work - you ask. As I said before, may be you should read this before jumping here.

Here's another perspective - in my country (India), most home users use Windows. And most of these people use pirated versions of Windows as well as pirated versions of proprietary software. Now, like it or not, that is illegal. Even if it is all too common, this is simply not right. Whether software should be proprietary at all or should cost so much is a different debate. The fact is, you are on the wrong side of the law. So, whats the alternative ? Moving away from proprietary software is an excellent alternative.

With Linux, you get a really high quality assortment of tools for doing your work. Gone are the days when Linux was simply a programmers operating system, and used only at servers or at universities. The days of Linux on the personal desktop computer are right here. Some people even have the notion that the GUI of Linux is way below the standards of Windows. However, the GUI of Linux nowadays can challenge its Windows counterparts easily.

Here's an old snapshot of my desktop, running Slackware Linux 9 (Kernel 2.4). Click on it for a 1024x768 image.

Slackware 9 on my desktop

And here's the snapshot of my current desktop, running Slackware Linux 10 (Kernel 2.6.7). Click on it for a 1024x768 image.

Slackware 10 on my desktop

You generally need not worry on the lines of "What's gonna happen to all the stuff that's already done on Windows ?". There are excellent alternatives to almost everything. For Office software, OpenOffice is a great free alternative to MS-Office. It can read previous and new formats of MS-Office, as well as save in these formnats - so your compatibility problems are almost nil. Here is a very brief list of some common tasks for which you use your computer, and some good relevant apps on Linux.

Microsoft Windows App Equivalent for Linux
Microsoft Office OpenOffice.org
Internet Explorer Mozilla Firefox
WinAMP, Media Player XMMS, MPlayer
Nero/EasyCD K3B
Adobe Photoshop The GIMP

For a much more comprehensive list, see this page.

3. If you are a programmer

If you are a programmer, especially if you are a school/college programmer, you're really missing out if you are not programming on Linux. As simple as that. If by profession, you have to program on Windows, thats a different thing. But if, like many students out here, you are still using Turbo C/C++ for your regular console programs or data structures lessons, then really, you are missing out on a lot. I remember, when I used Turbo C++ 3.0 on Windows 98 (I have been there too), a simple program crash was often the equivalent of taking the operating system down as well. True, Windows XP is far more stable than older Windows 9X/ME systems, but it doesnt quite add up to the array of tools offered by GNU/Linux systems.

4. If you are a designer or otherwise

I admit, there are several excellent programs that are currently available only on Windows/Mac platforms. Products from Adobe and Macromedia come to mind first. There are alternatives for these too in Linux. Some of them are not as professional yet, but some are already quite impresssive. The GNU Image Manipulation Program, or GIMP is an excellent free alternative for image editing. There aren't too many established free tools for Web designing, but Nvu - a rather new tool looks really promising. If you are a hobbyist designer like I am then these are quite useful. Another fact worth mentioning is that companies such as Macromedia are considering making their products such as Flash available for the GNU/Linux platform.

5. From here on...

If you are not really enthusiastic about making the change to another operating system yet, try installing a few "free software" on Windows. Browse safely with Firefox. Access your GMail account through Thunderbird. Throw away that pirated copy of Office software you have and install OpenOffice.org - trust me, you will be impressed by all of these. Use GAIM to login into your MSN and Yahoo! accounts simultaneously. Try your hand at image-editing using GIMP. If you are a developer, develop your next GUI app using Python and wxPython for Windows. Be sure to send me feedback on how it goes. If you've got any questions that you think I may be able to help with, then please do not hesitate to contact me.

If that interests you further to explore the endless possibilities of Linux, try as many Live CDs you can - these are Linux operating systems you do not need to install to try them. Just insert them into your CD/DVD drive and reboot your system - you will be presented with a Linux desktop within a few seconds. Once you've plaayed a bit with Live CD's its time to install a full blown Linux system on your hard-disk. It is quite possible to install both Windows and Linux on the same computer (a technique known as dual-booting).

Learn about the various distributions available and choose one which suits you best. Distributions are packaged Linux systems from a particular vendor/individual having its own assortment of packages and its own flavour and feel. In short, if you want a popular distribution that has tons of readymade packages and is simple to use and configure, try one of these distributions:

  1. Fedora Core 3 / Suse Linux - good for almost everyone : fedora.redhat.com / www.suse.com
  2. Mandriva (formerly Mandrake) Linux - excellent as a desktop distro : www.mandriva.com
  3. Ubuntu Linux - another good desktop distro : ubuntulinux.org

However, if you are a developer and like to tinker around a bit, and are not afraid to explore your operating system, I highly recommend the following:

  1. Slackware Linux : www.slackware.com
  2. Debian GNU/Linux : www.debian.org
  3. Gentoo Linux : www.gentoo.org

If you are stuck anywhere, try asking for help at your local Linux forums. These forums, often called LUGs (Linux Users Group) always have enthusiastic people ready to help you out of any trouble. Google around, and youll surely find a LUG in your city or town.

As always, I am waiting for your feedback/questions.