I often need to explain to people what Linux is, but I couldn’t find any articles or videos that I think explain what it is sufficiently well. In an earlier blog post I lazily linked to a youtube video that explains how to install Linux mint, but now I’m going to explain it in more depth.
What is Linux?
The short answer is that Linux is an operating system kernel. Most people are unfamiliar with what an operating system is, much less a kernel. So let me explain. An operating system is merely a program, or series of programs that manages the hardware and software on your computer for you. When you download and install a program that program gets registered with the operating system, and when it runs it makes requests to the operating system to do things.
A kernel is just the core program of an operating system. You can’t use just a kernel on it’s own. You need other programs to run with it. There are many operating systems that use Linux. These are called “Linux distributions” You are probably already familiar with Microsoft Windows (which is an operating system), and you may have even used Mac OS X. Unfortunately Apple and Microsoft have created some widespread misconceptions about how operating systems work so let’s clear them up.
Microsoft does not sell computers. They do sell some hardware, but they are a software company first and foremost. Their main product is Microsoft Windows. Most places where you can get computers from sell computers from different various companies (Dell, Toshiba, etc) which have Microsoft Windows already installed. This has led many to believe that Windows is a part of the computer, rather than a program running on it.
Another misconception is the idea of “Mac Vs PC”. Apple released and advertisement campaign where they compared “Macs to PCs” which created the notion that there are only two options. It didn’t help that Apple’s Mac OS X operating system only likes to run on Macintosh computers, and that Apple doesn’t like anything else running on their machines.
Linux is a series of alternative operating systems. There are hundreds of Linux operating systems (AKA distributions, or distros), but the main ones for a beginner are Ubuntu and Linux Mint. Linux distros have the stereotype of being hard to use, so Ubuntu was made by a company called Canonical to be a user-friendly Linux distro; however they were recently accused by many of having lost touch with what their users want (the same old story every time, am I right?).
Thankfully the license that Linux distros are under encourage people to look at the code behind them, modify the code, and then give away the modified version for free, or for a price. The end user license agreements for Windows and Mac OS X say that you can’t do that. Linux’s license encourages that.
How do I get Linux?
Here are the home pages of some Linux distros:
Debian was thrown in there because that’s the one I use. Installing an operating system is different from installing other kinds of programs. You’ll need to download an ISO image, and then burn it to a DVD (like people did in the good old days), or a USB drive (many old computers don’t support this but all the modern ones do).
You might also want to back up all your files, have a Windows install disc, and also have defragmented your drive. The next step will be to reboot, but before we do let’s talk about a little bit of theory here. Your computer uses what’s called a BIOS (Basic Input Output System). When the computer starts it runs the POST (Power On Self Test) where it checks the hardware to make sure it’s not missing anything. At this point it will display the logo of the company that made your computer onto the screen very briefly (unless it’s been configured not to).
In the old days the BIOS would check different things on the computer to see what operating systems it could find. It would start with the DVD, and if there was no DVD then it went on to the hard drive (where Windows was preinstalled). If there was a DVD in the tray really ancient computers would try to run what’s on the DVD as an OS, and if it was actually just a movie on the disc it would give weird errors. Later ones would be smart enough to check if there was an OS on the disk.
Unfortunately, because everyone and their brother was using Windows anyways computer stores would reconfigure the BIOS to start with the hard drive, and only check the DVD tray, or USB drive second. This means that many of the users who have little ability to solve technical problems on their own will have a hard time installing Linux.
When the logo for the company that made the computer is displayed it will tell you to press a button to reconfigure the BIOS (usually F2), most of them will also tell you which button to press to choose which device to boot from (usually F12). Some users need guides that tell them exactly what to do step by step right down to which button to press, unfortunately there’s no universal way to install an OS. You’ll need to have some ability to solve technical problems on your own (though you won’t need very much).
Now we can reboot the computer with the USB stick still in (or the DVD still in the tray). Once we’ve selected the device to boot from Linux will be running and there will be a nice installer that you can follow. You can install Linux so that it’s a replacement for Windows, or you can set up your computer to ask you whether to use Windows or Linux when it starts up (this is called “dual booting”.) The installation process is very simple for Ubuntu and Linux Mint. Debian’s is more advanced, but I have no problem with it.
Once it’s installing it will probably take a while to run, so let’s go over the advantages of Linux. Linux is far more secure than Windows is. You’ll still run into technical problems with Linux, but security won’t be one of them. There’s no need for antivirus software for Linux. Linux is also much faster, and can run on much older hardware.
Unfortunately many of the programs you use on Windows will not run on Linux without WINE. WINE allows Linux to run Windows programs, but it eliminates some of the security Linux has. Thankfully most programs for Windows have Linux alternatives which are very compatible with the Windows versions.
Something you might want for Linux is this: The Linux Command Line By William Shotts
With that you’ll be able to solve technical problems, and automate daily tasks in ways that will make you wonder how you ever managed without it.