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Issue #136 December 3, 2007

INFOCUS
Linux for the Desktop
The other operating system

By Donal Loch Hinman
Desktop computing technology is making leaps and bounds on a daily basis. When the first Linux operating system appeared on the scene in the early 1990s, you had to be a hardcore computer engineer to make it go. (To learn more about the origins of Linux, and the world of open source software, check out this earlier article.)

That's right—free
Today, there are literally hundreds of different distributions of Linux, many of them just as easy to use as Windows or Mac. And most of these distributions are available to download and burn for free, or you can purchase the installation discs for a very low price (most ranging from about $1 to $10). But no- or low-cost availability isn't the only reason you might want to consider trying out this upstart operating system.

Security & functionality
Historically, Linux systems have proven to be virtually impervious to spyware—and viruses also have a rough time finding their way to system vulnerabilities. Some argue that the hardy Linux architecture might not be the reason for the low number of attacks. Rather, it's just due to a low percentage of the system's market share: hackers simply think, "Why bother?" The truth is, the vast majority of attacks occur on the server level—not aimed directly at specific networks or single work stations. In any case, there's a lot more to security problems than even meets the trained eye.

For a little education on this heady part of the subject, have a look at this detailed article, which describes some of the security differences between Windows and Linux.

As far as actual use goes, how would you like to boot up that free system for the first time and find a first-class office suite, media player, advanced graphics design application, digital photo organizer, HTML editor for your webpages, and much more? Instead of paying dollar after dollar to add such sophisticated applications to your computer, these and literally thousands of others are either already included or available for free from the repositories that are associated with many Linux distributions.

Selection
By now you might be asking yourself, "If this is free, why don't more people know about it and use it? How can I check it out? And what does this egghead mean by 'distribution'?" Well...

  • "Free" because an open source-based business model can make money in other ways than the usual methods of marketing and product distribution (see that earlier article I mentioned, uh, earlier).
  • "Check it out" by trying a live-CD: A complete Linux system that runs entirely off your computer's CD-ROM drive, which means there's no lasting effect on your system whatsoever (never even gets near your hard drive).
  • A Linux "distribution" includes the operating system kernel along with thousands of programs and applications that make for a complete desktop experience (and I'm not really an egghead – as previously mentioned).

 

So, if your appetite has been whetted, a good place to get some rudimentary information on beginning your Linux quest is at Linux.org. Learn as little or as much as you like about applications, available books, downloads, and ongoing projects. From there, your next stop would be Distrowatch, a site of news, reviews, and links to downloads of the top 100 Linux distributions.