Thursday, July 03, 2008

An Introduction to Linux for Activists (And Others)

So I have said that Linux is one of the keys to creating a truly free flow of information in the computer world. As such this is my first article on Linux geared towards the activist community. I'll start with a basic introduction and next week I'll start talking about some things you can do with it.

Brief History -
Linux is a free and open source operating system for computers. The term Linux itself actually refers only to the kernel (The core of any operating system is called the kernel) while GNU refers to the shell (the operating environment) that was originally developed to work with it. GNU came first. Linux came next. The two now exist in a happy union of software freedom ideals. But that's enough for the history of it all, if you want you can learn more at Or search for Linux in wikipedia.

Where to Start -
There is not just one kind of Linux. There are thousands of different versions availible. Some are called ENTERPRISE VERSIONS which generally mean that you have to pay for them. There are some very real benefits to using one of these version, but they are primarily designed for large business who need detailed support for a long time. We won't worry about these here. Most versions of Linux are completely free and all versions of Linux are OPEN SOURCE (The information on how they were made and the code used to do so is freely availible to anyone for any reason). Different versions are geared towards different uses. Some are made to be installed on servers, some on desktops, some on older computers with slower hardware, some on cell phones and other smart devices, some are even designed to act as nothing but a dedicated firewall to a larger network. So with so many versions availible to you where should you begin?

Linux Distributions for the First Time User -
Different versions of Linux are referred to as DISTRIBUTIONS or simply DISTROS. I have put together a short list of distros that are generally easier for first time Linux users to install/operate. The qualifications for the distros on this list are that they are easy to use, easy to install, well supported, and of course freely availible online from legal software sources. They are in no particular order.

1. Ubuntu -
My personal favorite. I have this distro running at all but one of my 4 computers at home. The only reason it's not running on the fourth is because it's out of commission. When it's back up it too will run Ubuntu. There are a lot of reason to love this distro. Especially if you are a first time user of the Linux system. First off it's based on the widely supported and secure foundation of Debian (Another Linux distro although not recommended for beginners). It also has the easiest installation process I have ever seen, for any operating system, ever. Answer the questions as they appear and at some point it installs. Easy. It can also function as a LIVE CD which allows you to try it out to see if you like it without having to install anything or change your hard drive in any way. Last on the installation awesome list is that you can install from within Windows thereby removing the need to partition or format any of your disk space. After choosing this option you can simply restart the computer and a new menu will appear where you can select if you would like to boot into Windows or Ubuntu. Last thing on the list is a REPOSITORY (A central location for packages which is used to easily install new software) of over 25,000 programs/plugins/etc. There is a solid chance that if you want a piece of software to do a specific thing that you will be able to find it through the easy to use Package Manager that comes with Ubuntu (More on that next week).

2. Fedora -
Not my favorite out of the bunch but still a very easy to use and very reliable distro. It's well supported as it's made by Red Hat (A company which also makes an Enterprise version of Linux). The installation for Fedora can be a little more challenging for those of you who are not great with operating systems work, but it's still a fairly simple process that uses a graphical display to guide you through. Like Ubuntu, Fedora can be used as a live CD and includes a repository with thousands upon thousands of packages. (Note: You need an internet connection to use the repository. This goes for almost of all versions of Linux and at the least, every one listed here). There isn't a whole lot I can say about this particular distro as I have only used it a few times myself just to see what it was like. I can recommend it for beginners, but if your looking for something to replace Windows, this is not it.

3. Kubuntu -
Ok this will be the only version of Ubuntu that I list separately. The only real difference between Ubuntu and Kubuntu is the graphical interface that's used by default. Ubuntu uses something called Gnome (Kind of like a Mac OS replacement) where Kubuntu uses KDE (More like a Windows XP/Vista replacement) If your looking for something that has the same feel and functionality as Windows, this is what I would recommend. Other versions of Ubuntu include Xubuntu (Ubuntu with XFCE another type of interface) Edubuntu (A special version made for schools) Gobuntu (Encourages the use of truly free, open source software. The version to use if your biggest concern is freedom of information) and Ubuntu Studio (Geared towards audio, visual production). Choose the one that best matches your needs. They are download able as ISOs from the official Ubuntu website (

4. Mandriva -
There's not much I can say about this distro as I have never used it. Not even once. However, I have often read that it is extremely user friendly and I recently aquired an install disk for it, so maybe I'll give it a try and come back and tell ya'll what I think about it. For more information check out the website above.

Well that wraps it up for what I recommend as the top distros for new Linux users. Next week I'll cover the installation process and some troubleshooting tips in case you get stuck. Until then remember that "information wants to be free." So stop paying Microsoft your hard earned money and free it!

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