Sick of your computer, try Linux!

by Mike Reynolds,
Ability Maine Staff 


Late last winter, I was given an older desktop computer. I had planned to install Microsoft's Windows 7, but the audio card I had was not supported; the audio drivers (software that allows the computer to work with the audio card) were not compatible with Windows 7. Eager to use my new machine, I quickly grabbed a DVD of Ubuntu Studio, a Linux operating system built primarily for audio and video multimedia production. The operating system worked with my hardware, and the installation was relatively painless. Within an hour, my computer was up and running. I had access to programs such as the OpenOffice suite (similar to Microsoft Office); GIMP, a graphics manipulation program on par with Adobe Photoshop (the industry standard for photo editing and graphics); and a host of audio and video editing programs. In the Windows operating system, a setup like this would have cost thousands, yet I paid nothing.

Linux is an open-source-code operating system. "Open source" means that the source code* that runs the system is available for free (with a specific type of license) and can be modified, customized, or improved by anyone. (Windows is an example of a closed-source-code operating system.)

Linux is based on Unix, a powerful operating system that can create computer programs from source code, network with other computers, transfer files, and be customized for serious computer science majors. Unix was conceived by researchers at AT&T's Bell Labs in 1969. In 1971, AT&T was able to develop Unix in a proprietary format that could be used with different computer systems, and Unix became a leading operating system in academic and scientific settings. Because of a legal glitch, Bell Labs had to give Unix’s source code away. In 1984, AT&T sold Bell Labs and began to charge for the operating system.

In September 1983, Richard Stallman started the GNU Project at MIT, with the goal of creating a free version of Unix that everyone could use. In 1985, Stallman started the Free Software Foundation, and in 1989 he created one of the first open-source licenses, the GNU General Public License, which allows for the free distribution of software.

Linus Torvalds created the first Linux kernel in 1991; the kernel is the basic core of the operating system. The Linux kernel was released under the GNU General Public License. There are now more than a hundred Linux distributions (Linux distributions combine the Linux kernel with other software for specific, targeted uses). For example, there is a Linux distribution designed for blind users and another that performs computer maintenance.

Linux has a reputation for being difficult to install and use. While in the past the installation process was akin to pulling teeth, the user experience has
become significantly easier with the introduction of Ubuntu, a Linux distribution whose success spawned over 40 other distributions. Some Ubuntu distributions focus on older hardware, while others act as web servers (which send or "serve" web pages to your Internet browser). There is even a distribution that helps users turn their PCs into home theaters. Ubuntu produces a new release every six months, and their Long-Term Support (LTS) distributions are supported for five years.

Other distributions that are not affiliated with Ubuntu have excellent reputations. For example, Damn Small Linux can run on a 486 (a computer popular about 20 years ago) with only 8 MB of RAM.** Damn Small Linux released a new version in September 2012.

One of the nicest aspects of Linux distributions is that they're easy to obtain. Much of the software is designed by groups of dedicated volunteers using shared code, which makes it easier to get access to a variety of distributions. Ubuntu made availability one of its primary goals.

Additionally, trying Linux is much easier than it used to be. With the advent of distributions formatted for CDs, programmers made versions of the software that could be installed from CDs. This allows users to see how Linux will work on their computers. A first-time user may want to use a corded connection to the Internet, as it can be tricky to get Wi-Fi to work when you're using the operating system during a trial. For those who feel apprehensive about trying Linux, if you have used TiVo*** or a cell phone running Google's Android operating system, you have already used Linux.

My final suggestion is to look online for more information. Distrowatch is a great site to find and compare distributions. Wikipedia has information about most Linux distributions, and can be a good place to start researching the characteristics of each distribution.

*Source code – text written in computer-programming language that governs how operating systems and other software work

**RAM – an acronym for Random Access Memory. RAM is the type of computer memory used when running computer programs. Having more RAM makes your computer faster and allows you to keep multiple programs open at the same time. RAM is measured in megabytes (MB).

***TiVo – a brand of digital video recorder used to record television programs