(Image: Club Logo) HCC

For the:
Halifax Computer Club
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

By Bill Marchant


If you want the use of a computer for Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Presentations, Databases, E-Mail, Web Browsing, CD and DVD Burning, Photo handling and processing, or Finance; then Linux makes all of these and more available to you. With Linux these things are free, frequently updated, virus resistant and reliable. Linux distributions are offered with the option to install or reject any of the applications, so you have complete freedom of choice.


Linux, and most of the applications written for it are provided under licenses which allow the user freedom to use, modify and redistribute the programs without cost. Go to http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html for details of the GNU public License. The Linux Operating System is provided under this license, and the applications use this license or another very similar to it. In fact, Linux is often referred to as GNU/Linux in order to emphasize this fact. Linux is sometimes described in terms of being free (as in free beer) and free (as in freedom to use as you see fit). Major companies involved in providing Open Source Sotware (OSS), make their money by providing service to the major users of computer software in server systems and networks. Companies such as Red Hat, SUSE and Mandriva are in this group. Much OSS is provided by individuals or groups of individuals who donate their time, and make the result available free of charge. Some small groups solicit contributions, but no payment is mandatory. Debian Linux is an example of a distribution which is developed by a group of volunteers. PCLinuxOS is the product of one person. The above is not meant to promote any particular product but only to show examples of the genre.

Availability and Installation

Start your investigation at http://distrowatch.com/. This web site will show you a list of the hundred most popular Linux distributions with links to explanations for each one. The one you will want to use is probably in the first ten or so. Access to the download sources can be found starting at this site. If you have a high speed link, downloading should take minutes (as opposed to hours) If you are on dial-up, downloading will require patience. Many distros are available from http://www.osdisc.com/cgi-bin/view.cgi/index.html?ad=distrowatch at a modest cost. Remember, you are not paying for the Linux, only for the convenience of having it sent to you by snail-mail.

Ease of installation is important, and here the distributions tend to differ slightly. Some require you to answer a few basic questions. Others will require a bit more detailed information. In my experiance, the easiest to install is Ubuntu. Others will tell you that PCLinuxOS is easiest. Many distributions will allow you to run the system from the CDROM drive, without installing it on your hard drive. Thus you can see whether the distro is compatible with your hardware or not. These CDROM distros usually have a desktop icon which starts the installation when you are ready to do it.

Linux Structure

Linux is constructed of a large number of pieces, each of which is developed separately. Thus there is a kernel which is the heart of Linux. It is separate from the programs which provide the desktop graphics. In fact there are several different desktop systems to chose from. All the maintenance tools and utilities are independent of the kernel. You can install or remove them as you wish without effecting the operation of the kernel, or any other application.

Windows by contrast is monolithic. You get all of it, or you get none of it. You are no doubt aware of the controversy surrounding MicroSoft (MS) by the courts instruction to unbundle some of their applications to make it possible for competitors to offer similar products without clashing with the built-in Windows apps. MS claims to be unable to do the required unbundling because of the integrated nature of the operating system (OS). This arguement seems to have died off in the US courts, but it is still alive in Europe. This problem could not occur with Linux, since you, the user, decide what applications and utilities you want and what you don't want. And you can change your mind about any of them at any time.


Linux is reliable. The MS Windows "Blue screen of death" is unknown in Linux. That is not to say that there are no problems, however most Linux problems are recoverable without demanding a reboot or a reinstall of the OS.

Every Linux installation has a section which is accessible only by the administrator or Super User. With your private computer, you are the Super User, but you can gain access to the key files only with the use of a password. This may seem cumbersome, but in fact it protects the system from accidental changes which can cause problems. (See Viruses for a further benefit). Each user also can have a designated user space which other users cannot access. A family could for example, have separate areas for Mom and Dad and each of the children. Each would be unable to access the others' spaces without permission. Childrens' games or email would not interfere with Dad's or Mom's work. One of the family members would probably be the Super User, and he/she would have access to all the spaces, but only with the use of the password, so file changes would not be accidents.


Help is widely available both from the distribution organization and from a large number of user forums. For anyone who has not heard of Linux before, it may be surprising to realize that there are thousands or even millions of Linux users who are experts, and are willing to share their expertise with others.

Ubuntu, for example in addition to its own web sites is supported by computer departments at many Universities. Cornell University is one example. See http://www.cit.cornell.edu/computer/system/linux.html for help with installing and tuning Ubuntu. On most forums, questions asked by novices are answered within 24 hours. Scots News Letter has forums for Windows, Macs and Linux. Check out http://forums.scotsnewsletter.com/ and select All Things Linux (ATL). There are experts there who have been known to spend several hours at one sitting with a beginner helping an install or other problem. I have had a problem solved in one evening by an expert who exchanged messages with me five or six times on the ATL forum.

While you are in Scots News Letter forums you might also select All Things Windows and discover some of the problems that Windows users have to endure.


Linux is not subject to the vast number of viruses which terrorize the users of Microsoft Windows. Several reasons exist to explain this. The reason most beloved of Microsoft Windows advocates is that since so few people use Linux, the virus writers are not motivated to write for Linux because the rewards of disruption are not great enough. In fact, many thousands of home computers use Linux. The lack of satisfaction for a virus writer may be a factor, but it is more perception than reality. A very large percentage of the worlds network servers run Linux, and one would have thought that a virus writer could create absolute mayhem by infecting a large network. The fact that this is not possible is due to the structure of Linux. Linux protects the basic system by allowing only the Super User to access it. This is true even with your desktop installation. You, as principle user, must use a password to make changes to the setup of your computer. Only you would know this password. A virus thus does not get access to the programs it would otherwise infect. In short, if a virus could infect my Linux computer by guessing the password, it would have to guess all the other passwords in everyone elses computer before it could spread.

There are anti virus program which work in Linux. They are useful for detecting all the windows viruses which might come into your system with downloads from various sources. The viruses will be detected, and thus be prevented from being passed on to other Windows users if you should upload something, or give a disk to a Windows using friend. One AV program for Linux is ClamAV. It is sometimes included with the OS when it is installed, but in any case it is easy to download and install later.


There are thousands of applications written for Linux. Debian GNU/Linux, for example has over 18,000 applications available to be downloaded from any one of more than 300 mirror sites on the internet. These listed below are merely examples of which I have personal knowledge and some experience.

For Use
Word Processing, SpreadSheets, Presentations and Data Bases OpenOffice.org (Reads and writes to MS Word formats as well as to its own ISO formats)
Photograph and Digital camera Digicam, Gthumb or F Spot (Digicam reads output from digital cameras and builds and displays albums. Gthumb does the same.)
Drawing, Design and Photo Manipulation Gimp
Network exploring Firefox
E-Mail Thunderbird or Evolution
DVD and CD burning K3B
Casual Editing Kword, Gedit, Kate or Vim

Is Windows Really a Problem?

In my opinion, probably not, as long as you do not require to update with the latest changes to Vista. The last MS Windows OS that I used was XP, and it is still on my laptop computer. I will not be updating it. The internet has a number of sites where the writers are decrying the problems associated with Vista. In particular, they seem to object to the need to continually verify who you are, and whether or not your copy of Vista is legitimate. If this stuff bothers you, then Windows is a problem and you should chose Linux. Linux does not care who you are. And of course, it does not demand payment, because with free software, there is no such thing as software piracy. As you probably know, laptop computers usually come with a version of windows specially adapted to the hardware. You read it on the outside of the case: "This computer is designed for Microsoft XP" for example. This means that an update to MS Vista might cause problems for you since all of the required drivers are not necessarily optimized for your hardware.


Linux used to be considered a hobby for programmers and other OS experts. This is no longer the case. Of course you can still download all the source files and compile your own version of Linux. That is why you find so many different distributions of the OS. Lots of people are devising new ideas and passing them on. This need not concern the average home computer user however.

With most distributions these days, you will be reminded when updates are available. You have then merely to select the update icon to get the latest version of your software. This is also true of the applications which come with the distribution. Updates are important since security from viruses and crackers is vital to the continued health of your computer system. Many of the updates will be security oriented so you will not want to miss them. Others contain updates or improvements to the software, or the removal of bugs.

Linux and all its applications, unlike windows is written by a community of users. Bugs and improvements are constantly being discovered and evaluated, and when valid, are quickly incorporated into the system. There is no delay in fixing a bug in your computer while you wait for the next update to be distributed.

When the newest version of the Linux kernel is distributed, it does not cause existing programs to become obsolete. In the rare case where an application that has been running, ceases to run correctly under a new kernel, Linux always provides the option of simply selecting the old kernel from the boot menu. The old kernel is never overwritten or deleted until you decide to remove it yourself.

Also with Linux, when the Operating System is updated, you do not have to spend money to get the latest compatable version of the applications. In the unlikely event that an application will no longer run under a new Linux kernel, the update for the app is a free download.

Many distributions of Linux will remind you when there is a new version of the OS ready. I recently upgraded Ubuntu to the next version by simply clicking OK to the question "Do you wish to upgrade now?" The process consumed about two hours; checking what was present, downloading new versions, installing new versions and cleaning up afterwards by deleting old stuff. There were several times where I was asked if I wished to transfer my setup to the new version. The machine waited for one answer while I had supper. The answer was a simple Y or N. When I answered N, the process continued to the end. This is better than buying a new version of Windows any time.

Bug Reporting

Have you ever heard of anyone who successfully reported a software bug to MicroSoft, and had it corrected? I have heard of folks who have tried, but I know of none who have achieved anything by it. On the other hand, most Linux applications provide a built-in method for bug reporting. OpenOffice.org has the "Report a Bug" entry under the "Help" menu. I have used this, and received a reply from the programming team. On one occasion I reported a feature as a bug which was not a bug. I got a nice reply pointing out my error, and directing me to the appropriate place in the documentation.

One user reported that a driver she required was not included in the distribution she was installing. She sent an e-mail to the developer, and received the correct driver by return of e-mail.

Graphics vs Command Line

In the past, Linux was run almost exclusively from the command line. Old timers will possibly remember DOS, where a user had to know what the commands were in order to get a list of files or start running an application. Modern Linux uses the Graphical User Interface (GUI) as extensively as Windows, while retaining the command line as a backup. As a matter of fact, many veteran Linux users still use the command line because in some ways it is faster, provided you know the right instructions to type.

A typical application might be K3B, for burning CDs or DVDs. This can be run from the command line or from the GUI with equal efficiency. I use the GUI, but one of the experts on the ATL forum claims that he always uses the command line for K3B, and he has not yet created a bad CD.

All the setting up in Linux is controlled by text files. Thus everything can be changed to accomodate a demanding user. The Super User who knows what to do can use a simple editor to make changes. Windows, which uses only the GUI keeps setup data in the Registry and in binary files, neither of which can be read by humans. The Linux advantage may not be important to the average home user, but it means that in cases where drastic help might be required, the command line offers a way out that only a reboot, with consequent loss of data, will be required to accomplish in Windows.

Why You Might Hesitate to Change

Many computer users have become used to the applications they like: MS Word, Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Internet Explorer or something else. Each of these had its own learning curve which you had to climb. Now, I suggest you should try Linux. Many of you will be reluctant to do this because the corresponding Linux application to your favourites will slow your work or require new skills to master.

Some users use WordPerfect in Windows, and all their files are saved in WP file formats. OpenOffice.org is able to read some WordPerfect documents, but not all. There is no WordPerfect for Linux, so such users face a daunting task if they decide to move to Linux. OpenOffice.org can read and write to all MS Word file formats, but there will be cases where formatting is affected, and page numbering of documents can get out of sync. On the other hand, I have never used MS Word, even when I was using windows, and I have never been unable to read an MS Word document by using OpenOffice.org. If I send a document to someone whom I know does not use OpenOffice, I save it as MS Word. I have not had a complaint yet.

There are some applications which are specialized, and for which the only versions available are for windows. You will need Windows for these. Interesting though, is the fact that the makers of the last one of these specialized apps that I used, has announced that it will not work in Vista, so XP is still mandatory.

Why You Shouldn't Hesitate to Change Now

When something good comes along, it is really quite reactionary for a person not to take advantage of it. To make things easy for those who are tempted, but reluctant to change, many of the applications listed in the APPLICATIONS paragraph above are also available for use in Windows. OpenOffice.org, Gimp, Thunderbird and Firefox are available as .exe files for Windows. You can modify your learning experience by starting to use these applications now in Windows, then when you are used to them, change to the Linux OS. DO IT.

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