Monday, March 10, 2008

A Basic Take on Using Ubuntu

Well, last month I took the plunge and installed a dual-boot installation of Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux, and I wanted to share my thoughts about the choice of using Linux and the experience I've gained.

Why Would You Want to Use Linux?

A basic question that you need a good answer to before embarking on any Linux project. My answer is that I began using open source software while in grad school and have been interested in what Linux is and what it does for about three years now. In one my classes we were required to learn UNIX commands (a predecessor to Linux), which gave me some basic ideas about how UNIX-derived systems work. The main thing I learned from this experience is that Linux is an alternative operating system that achieves many of the same purposes as Windows (or any other operating system).

There is a great deal of politics that surrounds the "free" or "open source" (another viewpoint here) software world. For many within this world, the whole point is to be free of corporate control over what you do on your computer. Computer software companies learned that they can license their products in ways that limit the way they are used. Free or open source software is almost always licensed to require the user to release the software from any proprietary limits and allow others to use, modify, or adapt the software in any way they see fit. Truly living this way requires sacrifices that I imagine most computer users are not willing to make. In any case, most users would not give up all proprietary software for the sake of a fairly obscure political stance that requires constant definition and clarification and that even its proponents do not always agree on.

So my own interest in using Linux is not political, even if I am not a fan of big corporations. I'm pragmatic enough to allow myself to continue to use Windows. To be even more heretical from the open source standpoint, I've found that I still like Windows, particularly Windows XP. Yes, it's not as secure. Yes, it sometimes takes a long time to load. etc. etc. But I'm not really a power user anyway. :-) I have no plans to "upgrade" to Vista anytime soon. By the time XP stops being supported, I will probably be in a position to fully commit to a Linux box.

What are Similarities Between Linux and Windows?

Well, I'm not a programmer, and with the exception of HTML and its variants, computer code looks like hieroglyphics to me. The desktop versions of Linux I've used mostly look and act a lot like Windows. Here's a screen shot of my current Ubuntu desktop:

Ubuntu uses Gnome, which is only one option for a desktop program on Linux operating systems (the other most popular one is called KDE - there is actually a historic competition between these two - I prefer the aesthetics of Gnome, myself). Visually, the layout is very similar to Windows, with an added "menu bar" at the top. There are menus and files and folders just like you'd be used to. Your mouse, printer, network card, and sound cards all work the same. I don't know why this impresses me so much, but it does. This is the power Microsoft has - that we think they're the only ones who know how to program for our PCs. There are many differences, though.

I'll go into the differences in another post.

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