Guide to Free Computing Part I: Operating Systems

In the coming weeks we will introduce you to the relatively unknown world of free – or open source – software. This is part one of a series.At the core of all computers – whether they be PCs, Macs or servers – is the operating system. For most people that is synonymous with Windows. At present over 80% of PCs world wide run some form of the Microsoft operating system giving the company a virtual monopoly on personal computing. With the introduction of Windows Vista and the upcoming release of Mac Leopard the cost of maintaining and upgrading the operating system has come back into focus. The average price of a Windows Vista upgrade is around $200 and it is estimated that for every $1 spent on the software upgrade users will spend $18 on hardware upgrades.

You have probably heard of the free open source alternative called Linux but few have ever ventured into this realm. This operating system has long been the exclusive domain of programmers and computer geeks but in the last few years focus on the everyday user has lead to great leaps in user friendliness and accessibility making Linux a viable option to Windows and Mac OSX.

Linux is an operating system developed by the users themselves and is therefore defined as “open source”. As such there are a plethora of versions (or “distributions”) tailored to the specific needs of different users available, from large commercial enterprise packages like Linux Red Hat to Live CDs systems that will run on any computer without being installed. The distributions are usually released in versions that allow you to run them on both PCs and Macs.

Ubuntu DesktopUbuntu – Linux for human beings

Rather than go through the whole Linux universe we are going to focus on “entry level” Linux distributions that any person can install by themselves with little or no knowledge of computers. The most well known of these is Ubuntu. Taking it’s name from the African word meaning “humanity to others” Ubuntu is a distribution aimed at being usable out of the box. It comes in numerous versions – from the full size Ubuntu suite to the server package, Xubuntu (a smaller package for laptops and slower systems), Edubuntu (a free software platform for schools and students) and Kubuntu based on the KDE user interface. This brings us to an interesting topic. With any distribution of Linux you have a wide range of choices of what you want your computer to look like. The operating systems themselves can be customized to your needs but more interestingly the desktop environment itself can be changed depending on what system you use. Ubuntu comes standard with the GNOME user interface but you can download and change this desktop at any time. This gives you more control of your own work environment without having to change your operating system.

A curious aside: Programmers released a 3d desktop environment that looks a lot like the new Vista Aero look with 3d folders several years ago.

Everything you need – right out of the box

Ubuntu comes standard with a large package of software that lets you do pretty much whatever you want right out of the box. At the centre of this package is the OpenOffice suite which contains a word editor, spread sheet, calendar and presentation software much like the Microsoft Office suite. A special feature on OpenOffice will be published shortly. Other programs include the Firefox web browser, Thunderbird email and numerous other applications. In addition all Linux distributions come with an ingenious feature that lets you access and install almost anything from the ever growing catalog of free software directly through your Internet connection. This process is surprisingly simple and largely handled by the programs themselves.

But this option also causes some problems: Because of the many programmers working on Linux software there are a lot of overlapping applications and installing several programs that do the same thing can cause unwanted problems in system performance. Likewise it can be hard to find out what application will best suit your needs. To avoid some of the deepest pitfalls it is often necessary to consult some of the numerous message boards and forums. The Linux community is vast and very helpful and you will usually get a response within hours.

Making the switch

To make it easier for people to experience what Linux has to offer many distributions are now published as so called “Live-CDs”. This means that once downloaded and burned to a CD you can run the operating system from your CD drive without actually installing it. In short it means you have the opportunity to test out numerous different versions of the software before actually making the switch. Running the Live-CDs will not compromise your current system in any way and is not dangerous. If you find a distribution you like you get the option of installing it directly from the Live-CD.

Warning: As with any installation of a new operating system there is a high chance you’ll lose some if not all of the contents on your computer. We advise that you purchase an external hard drive and back up all your data before doing any major changes to your operating system. A large external hard drive runs around $150 – $200 and works with most computers without additional software.


One worry that always arises when dealing with operating systems is hardware and software compatibility. Apple’s recent “Mac vs. PC” campaign is almost entirely based around this point and the launch of Windows Vista has brought up numerous complaints about things not working as they should. One would think that a free open source system would have similar issues. But surprisingly this is not the case. Most hardware manufacturers now provide users with Linux drivers and even for the hardware not supported there is usually an “unofficial” driver out there that will work with your hardware. Thus installation usually transpires with less problems than a normal Windows installation.

The only major issue when using Linux is that many large software manufacturers still do not create software for the operating system. Most importantly software from Adobe / Macromedia and other specialized applications do not work. At least not right away. But even here there is a solution and it’s called Wine. With this application you can run Windows based software on a Linux computer with few if any problems.

Why migrate to Open Source?

There are many advantages to using Open Source software and although appealing the fact that it’s free is not the biggest one. Open Source means that anyone can develop and distribute program updates and new applications without having to go through a lengthy legal process. As a result the software is ever-evolving and ever changing. If you encounter a problem and post it on a message board someone will probably have it fixed within a short period of time. This is in stark contrast to commercial applications that often don’t have bug fixes for years. Another major advantage is that the information flow is truly free: Content created on open source software can be accessed by anyone with open source software. That is why many European governments are now migrating to Open Source only: Not only is it much cheaper than purchasing software but you no longer have the problem of incompatible software and unreadable files. It is also fair and impartial. And as an added bonus it is fairly safe. There are very few viruses created for Linux (since Linux is not owned by a corporation there is no protagonist like Microsoft to attack) and security issues are quickly uncovered and fixed by the community.

Should you switch?

In the end it boils down to what you want. At present there are several solid easy to use distributions of Linux available and they provide the necessary tools for the everyday user. At the speed of development we are seeing today and the introduction of commercial applications like design software programmed for Linux we can expect the Open Source alternative to be a viable competitor within a few years. Until then we recommend you give it a try: If you have one computer set up a dual boot so you can switch between Windows and Linux to see if you like it. If you have two computers install Linux on one of them to get used to it.

The Bottom Line: You can perform 90% of your computing using only free Open Source software. The only reason you don’t right now is because you don’t know about it.

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