GNU/Linux - an alternative to MS-Windows?
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Why Not Microsoft?!
Most of us have a copy of MS-Windows on our computer - that's what it came with and what we're used to. And anyway, does it really matter what we have running on our computers?
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The issue of control has a more immediate impact for end users too - Microsoft has continually been suspected of building 'back doors' into their software to gain access to all data on users' hard-drives. These range from the so-called 'NSA-key' scandal to the way XP deals with your data when determining your licence status. How true these theories are is difficult to prove when the source (the human readable text of the software) is not available to be inspected. What is undeniably true, though, are the general security problems associated with MS-Windows. Vista, the so-called "most secure system in the world" has already had several major security problems exposed, and in May 2002 a senior Microsoft executive told a US court that some Microsoft code was so flawed it could not be safely disclosed - doing so could damage US national security and threaten the war effort in Afghanistan(!)
Yet another aspect of control is the way businesses (Microsoft and AOL chief among them) steer people to commercial aspects of the web. To quote Noam Chomsky:
They want to control access, and that's a large part of Microsoft's efforts: control access in such a way that people who access the Internet will be guided to things that they want, like home marketing service, or diversion, or something or other. If you really know exactly what you want to find, and have enough information and energy, you may be able to find what you want. But they want to make that as difficult as possible. And that's perfectly natural. If you were on the board of directors of Microsoft, sure, that's what you'd try to do.
So if you're not entirely happy to see your budget go into Bill Gate's back pocket, (and then be spent on lobbying for globalisation and free trade), if you don't want a costly cycle of software and hardware upgrades, then what do you do ?
(There is lots more information about Microsoft's activities on the internet - do a search, have a look at Coporate Watch's Company Profile of Microsoft.back to top ^
After years of frustration (crashing, viruses, data-loss...) with MS-Windows we decided back in 2000 to convert completely to Linux - an operating system that is causing a revolution in the world of computer programming. It's now shaking even the foundations of mighty corporations such as Microsoft and IBM.
Linux is the product of a worldwide community working together co-operatively to create exciting alternatives to Microsoft and the like. This is one of the reasons why we like Linux so much - it fits into our vision of how society could be (but hopefully not as geeky!) The resulting software is revolutionary not only because of the co-operative way in which it is developed but also because it is Free.back to top ^
(For a discussion on the politics of Free Software see The Free Software Movement - Anarchism in Action on Indymedia UK)
In contrast to software corporations like Microsoft and Adobe, most Linux
developers are individuals, and are not in it for a profit, but out of a passion
for computing and for fun. This is reflected in the underlying concept of Open
Although Linux is nowadays rated by industry analysts as being as user friendly (sometimes rated as being more) as MS-Windows XP (we'll be nice and not mention Vista here), we would not recommend installing Linux by yourself to absolutely everyone. Just as with MS-Windows, if you're not frightened of playing with your computer then really do give it a go.
If your computer is not connected to a network (other than the internet) and you use that computer for surfing, emailing, word-processing etc, then you'll be able to use your computer for all of these with no fiddling - immediately after installation. The learning curve starts if you have strange needs/tastes/hardware.back to top ^
Running Linux from a CD-Rom: Live CDs
Perhaps the best way to try out Linux is to run it from the CD-Rom. There are versions of Linux (see list below) that you put into the CD drive of your computer and switch it on. Two minutes later you have Linux. It won't touch what you have on your hard disk (unless you tell it to...) because it's running only in memory (RAM). Because of this it is safe and hassle-free to use. It will generally run more slowly than if you had it installed properly on your hard disk - the more memory you have the smoother it will run.
Running Linux from the CD-Rom is also a great way to test and get details of your hardware or to temporarily change a MS-Windows computer to Linux (e.g. for a workshop).
We recommend the following if you want to try out Linux on a CD-Rom
Ubuntu a very popular distribution. It comes as a LiveCD so you can try it out before you install. If you like what you see all you have to do is click on "install Ubuntu". See the section on Ubuntu in the Which Distribution section below.
Knoppix - we can't tell you how impressed we are with this - Knoppix has an amazing amount of up to date programmes (2Gb on a normal CD!)- we love it! Worked incredibly well and fast on newer machines, but some older machines didn't like it so much... nevertheless highly recommended if you have 96Mb or more RAM.
Knoppix has become so popular that there are dozens of adaptations and variants for different purposes. One of these is Damn Small Linux:
Damn Small Linux runs on older machines (reportedly as old as 486s), and does much the same as Knoppix - but with lighter and simpler software. This means it doesn't look as cool, but it does run well and fast. Use this if Knoppix is too big, or you want to boot off something small like a Business Card sized CD or even a USB Thumbdrive!
There are literally hundreds of these LiveCDs - some are quite specialised for different tasks (such as firewalls, medical applications, to check out a new distribution, clustering etc), or different hardware (such as your Mac - PowerPC) - have a look at this Live CD List if you want to try out other ones.
If you want to learn all about Linux then the best way is to install it and play with it. After a while you'll be either hooked or turned off. If you're hooked you'll soon get to the stage where you'll feel confident enough to use Linux full time, and can provide support to others. If spending lots of time in front of the screen learning by doing isn't an option for you, but you still want to try out Linux, then look around for support. By that we mean look around for somebody who knows their way around Linux and is prepared to spend some time setting up Linux and making sure that everything works for you. (If you have an IT budget then you can save lots of money by converting to Linux - even if you pay for installation and support). Most people who are into Linux are happy to help others get to know the operating system - providing they have the time. If you have someone prepared to help out then you've crossed the first hurdle to getting Microsoft off your computer.
Once you get started then you'll find your best sources of help are on the web. Many distributions have help sites and discussion boards, and any questions posed there usually get answered within a few hours by other users. Have a look at the alt.os.linux Newsgroups, UbuntuForums and these guides to Ubuntu and Kubuntu to get an idea of how things work, or consider a paid for support service.back to top ^
Which Distribution ?
A distribution of Linux is a set of Linux and software which is aimed at different types of users - whether beginners, experts or for specialized purposes (e.g internet server). Below is a list of some of the more popular distributions that we can recommend. A good place to compare the various distributions is DistroWatch.com and Linux.org. After having a look at the various distribution websites, chances are you'll still have no idea which distro to go for. The best thing to do is to ask the person you're most likely to turn to for Linux advice - they'll probably have their own preferences and advice to give. If someone is setting it all up for you then it's probably best to let them decide.
So once you've decided - whether by flipping a coin or after hours of exhaustive research, where do you get the Installation CDs? If you have a fast internet connection and a CD burner then you can download the isos (images to make your own CDs from) from the distributions' websites or from LinuxIso.co.uk, otherwise you can get them for just a few pounds (generally less than £10) from Linux Emporium. If you want a nice shiny shrink-wrapped box and an installation manual you'll have to pay extra (although the manuals are usually included on download CDs so you can read them through before you start).
Ubuntu - is a very popular distribution with people new to Linux. Very easy to install and maintain with excellent support from many sites such as UbuntuForums and the Ubuntu guide. We recommend the Kubuntu flavour which uses KDE as the main desktop.
OpenSUSE - a free version of Novell's SUSE, like Mandriva it is an impressive distribution which is very easy to install, and is easy to maintain.
Debian - In one way Debian is definitely the most interesting distribution because it is completely 'Free' (as in free-speech, free-code) - no companies are behind this distribution, and it is completely run by volunteers. Straightforward to install but requires some knowledge to maintain. If you really want to use Debian we'd advise you to start with an easier Distro (such as Ubuntu), and then try out Debian when you're more confident.
BLAG - is made by activists for activists. It is based on (and 100% compatible with) RedHat/Fedora, and runs really well on older hardware.
Linux Terminal Server Project - This is a distribution for those wanting to set up a network using one decent computer and lots of old computers working as 'X-terminals'. Originally developed for schools, but can be used anywhere, and easy to install. (see Networking for more details).
Ubuntu, Yellow Dog and Debian all do versions for Apple Mac hardware. Everything's the same, it's just been adjusted to work on an iMac or anything newer. (Older Macs like Classics, LCIIs etc sort of work, but are still difficult to install).back to top ^
The installation of Linux used to be the most demanding part. This has
changed dramatically over the last few years, and we can now from
experience say that installing most distributions of Linux is a lot more
straightforward and painless than installing MS-Windows.
Installing Linux onto your Hard Disk
The most frightening part of the installation process is when it comes to 'partitioning' your hard disk. Partitioning your hard disk is literally what it says - you divide up your hard disk into compartments - for example one for MS-Windows to live on, and several for Linux. But why would you want to do this? Well, when you install MS-Windows it just greedily grabs the whole of the hard disk and doesn't leave any room for anything else. If you want to put another operating system on your computer you'll have to make room for it by either getting rid of MS-Windows or squeezing it up. You could of course just get rid of MS-Windows (which you can do during the installation - there's usually a question whether you want Linux to take over the whole hard disk), but if you're trying out Linux for the first time you'd be unwise to do this - probably best to wait until you've worked out whether you want to change full time to Linux.
The safest way (in terms of not risking the data you have you on your MS-Windows partition) of installing Linux onto your hard disk is to get a second hard disk, build it in, and give that over completely to Linux. (MS-Windows has to be on the first hard disk - it can't work out how to run off the second when you start your computer).
But what about those of us who don't have a second hard drive, have tried running Linux on CD and want to make use of the advantages of having it installed permanently on our hard disk? This is where the slightly scary bit is: we have to squeeze MS-Windows up (or in geek-speak: resize the partition). Any operation that involves messing around with partitions risks losing your data - so back up first!
Many Linux distributions will now let you 'squeeze' the MS-Windows partition during installation. Remember to first defragment the MS-Windows hard disk by using MS-Windows' own tools.back to top ^
Linux will run on anything from a 386 upwards (486, Pentiums 1 - 4, Celeron etc), including AMD (Athlon, Duron, K6 etc) systems, and there are versions which will run on Apple Macs (PPC and Mk68), not to mention SPARCs, Mainframe, Amigas, iPods, Xboxes . . .
More to the point, how well does Linux run on all of these? Well, if you can do without the nice Graphical User Interface (the nice point and click icons etc), then Linux will run great on even the oldest hardware. If however you want the point and click at icons and windows, then you'll need at least a Pentium 2. Exactly what you'll need depends on the software you use. If you want to run, for example OpenOffice (an office suite like MS Office), then it's nice to be running something above 800Mhz with 96Mb of Memory. You can run Linux with a point and click environment with less than that, and if you use lighter Window Managers and programmes then it'll be fine (see Software below for more info). Most modern distributions fit happily on 2Gb of hard disk.
The info-sheet on Low-cost Computing has a comparison of MS-Windows and Linux programmes for older machines - have a look at this to see what your machine is capable of.
Perhaps the weakest point in Linux is the support for things like
scanners, digital cameras and some printers. The problem is
that the companies making these devices generally only release software for
MS-Windows and MacOS, and ignore other operating systems. This means that the
aforementioned community of computer geeks has to sit down and work out how
to get it going under Linux.
Here's some more links for you to check your hardware:
Linux Hardware Compatibility Lists and
The problems with supported hardware are disappearing quite rapidly as the number of Linux users reaches a critical mass and hardware manufacturers can no longer afford to ignore this market.back to top ^
Another 'problem' people have with Linux is that there is so much software
that for most tasks you have several possibilities! Once you have Linux running
on your computer one of your first choices will be which WindowManager?
There are literally dozens of WindowManagers and each one is a different
'environment' to work in - that is the way you deal with windows, whether
you have a bar and a 'start' button at the bottom (or side, or top, or not
at all...). We recommend you start with KDE or Gnome, because they behave most
similiarly to MS-Windows, but feel free to experiment - and have a look at the
screenshots below which show a few of the most popular window managers.
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Here's a list of commonly used MS-Windows programmes and some of their counterparts under Linux. As mentioned above, most software under Linux doesn't cost anything - all of the Linux programmes in the list are available for free, and all except Acrobat Reader are free in the Free Software sense of the word too. The list is by no means exhaustive - there are literally dozens of applications for every task you can think of, this is a small selection to give you an idea of what's available.
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As mentioned above networking (linking computers together to share resources - whether data, access to the internet, memory or CPU cycles) is an area where Linux really shines. If you are familiar with Networking in a Windows environment then you will be able to get a similar network going under the above recommended Linux distributions easily enough (have a look at the Salvage Server Project's Networking Computer Systems Using Ethernet for more info). Linux is really good at doing things such as internet sharing (one computer dials in to the internet, or uses the ADSL, and all computers on the network can surf), sharing hardware (like scanners, printers or zip-drives) or acting as X-terminals.
X-terminals are computers which fetch all their data and programmes over the network from one or more central servers. The way this works is that you have one decent computer with all the programmes your group may need, and then all other computers can be slow old machines (eg Pentium 2s). These machines do minimal work (take input from keyboard and mouse, send it to the main computer, receive info back and put it on the screen). This means obsolete computers can be used, and is an excellent, easy and extremely cheap way of providing up to date software and fast internet access to users (typical cost - one fairly new machine (free to as much as you want to pay), as many old pentium1's as you have users (free to £100 each), ethernet cabling (about £1 per metre), ethernet cards (generally free second hand, or up to £3) and a hub (free to £50). Compare this to the cost of providing one fairly new machine per user (plus a hub and cabling and ethernet cards) if you chose to run MS Windows). If you are wanting to set up a network of workstations - whether just for internet browsing, or for power-users, have a look at our X-Terminal page.back to top ^
Hopefully this info-sheet has given you a taste of what Linux is, and why it may be for your group. If you've managed to get this far, then Linux will probably work for you - the worst part is partitioning your disk (which can be avoided), and the fact that some hardware is still not well supported. Other than that, installation of the recommended installations is a snap nowadays, and you'll be on your way in no time.
Do check out the links for other views on changing to Linux. If however after reading all of this you decide Linux is still too tough for you, but are still interested in the idea of getting Microsoft off your machine, then do check back on the development of Linux in six months' or a year's time. The pace of development and improvement is really breathtaking, and we really believe that tasks which at the moment require some technical ability will be much more user-friendly in the near future.
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Linux Linksback to top ^
A Consensus Handbook: the new guide to consensus and facilitation