Getting Started With Linux In Your Personal Life
(don't panic)

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This is not intended to be exhaustive, but to give you an idea of what to expect.  The biggest thing to remember is not to expect Linux to be like the operating system you're probably using now, which we'll just call "W". They are very different and probably always will be.  Not better or worse, just different depending on what factors are most important to you.  Each will have features you like, some you like less and a few that you may not appreciate.  This is not a popularity contest, it's an operating system.  Don't get emotional and don't panic.  Trust me when I say you WILL get frustrated at some point.


Another point to keep in mind that Linux is not an all or nothing proposition.  You can install Linux on its own partition on the hard drive and choose at boot-up which operating system you prefer to use.  If W is already on your computer, Linux will leave it there unless you tell it otherwise.  I've seen so many people fail because they decided to simply pitch W and go strictly Linux.  Many of them end up going back in frustration.  Give yourself some time to adapt to the different operating environment.  You will go through a period, maybe a couple of them, when you'll be tempted to scrap the whole deal.  I tell people it's like quitting smoking.  Sometimes it takes two or three attempts before it finally sticks. 


Probably one of the more interesting concepts with Linux are all the different versions available.  Linux is controlled by a community of developers, not a single big company...a very big, greedy company that seems to think its customers are criminals with access to a bottomless ATM machine, but I digress. Because of this lack of corporate Linux ownership, there are many versions of Linux available to you.  The different versions are sometimes called "distros," short for distribution. 


It's a head-scratcher for most people that there are for profit companies giving away their version of Linux for free, but that's exactly the way it works.  They make money by selling you service, support and sometimes add-on software. You can also be nice and buy the boxed CD set of your favorite distro, which helps support their costs for continued development. Not all distros are completely free. Some of the newer ones contain proprietary software for which the distributor must pass along a fee.


If Linux has a downside it's not that it limits your choices, like the monopolistic software company we all know and hate, but that new users have too many choices. Too many distros to pick from, too many ways to configure your PC, five different ways to do the same thing in any operating environment and almost none of those new ways of doing things are like W. My experience has been that most users don't deal well with the new paradigm for exactly that reason. Ironically, having too many choices frequently leads to decision paralysis and frustration. With OSS you'll be able to do something most PC users have never done: Compile a working program from the source code. Even then you are sometimes confronted with a myriad of confusing choices about how you want the complied program to work! Understand that an expanded universe can be as confusing and frustrating as a limited one and you'll help yourself avoid another bump in the transition highway.


Here are my suggestions for the top three things you can do to learn to deal with the expanded OS universe you're about to enter: Read, read, read. Anyone who thinks they're going to be able to blow a copy of Linux on their PC and become a street savvy techno geek in a couple weeks is in for a rude surprise. Be prepared for a long and sometimes steep learning curve.


For simplicity I'm going to suggest you stick with what are generally considered the newbie distros:  Lindows, Lycoris, Xandros, Libranet, Mandrake, and SuSe.   Before the tomato-throwers get wound up, let me quickly add there are many other really good operating systems and distributions out there with names like Debian, Yellow Dog, Knoppix, Slackware and many more.  I'm sticking with these because they are generally considered the most approachable for new users.  I'm not going to go into the directions for installing each of the distributions, the instructions that come with them are fairly good and should get you started.  A quick word about each of these and who I would suggest might want to consider them:


Lindows: Formerly suffered from treating all users as root, one of the reasons W is a such a security nightmare. They have since corrected that and Lindows provides a very usable introduction to Linux on the desktop for those coming out of the W environment and feel they need a stepping-stone before plunging in to the deeper waters of the penguinista.


Lycoris: Formerly called Redmond Linux. Also a very usable distro for new users, with one minor draw-back. Lycoris has its roots in SCO's Caldera Open Linux, which means they paid SCO a fee to use that code in their distro. At the moment SCO is about as popular in the Linux world as a turd in a punch bowl and some people don't like the idea of supporting any company that does any kind of business with SCO.


Xandros (editor's pick): Xandros 2.0 is a very nice desktop Linux distro with an excellent installation procedure. Xandros is one of those distros that includes some proprietary software that require license fees. So if you're looking for a totally free Linux distro, this isn't it. But for 90 dollars you get one of the best hardware detection and smoothest installs in the Linux market right now. It comes bundled with CodeWeaver's CrossOver which allows you to run MS Office products and some other W applications, including Photoshop, right out of the box. In addition Xandros boxed purchase comes with a really nice manual. This is the distro I run at home. Not because I can't handle one of the others, it's just so easy to install and configure on a home network and I honestly don't want to bother with configuration issues outside the office. My wife can work on her office documents and Photoshop at home with no problems. Transitional training for a lifetime W user was almost nonexistent. I showed her how to login, that's it. Since then she hasn't needed to ask me how to do anything. The downsides to Xandros are that their tech support is short of what it should be for a distro with this price tag and their EULA gives me Redmond flashbacks. I'm staying with Xandros for the moment, but if their company attitude doesn't change I'll abandon them for the next selection on my list.


Libranet (editor's pick): Is a totally usable distro based on Debian that comes with what I consider a very positive attitude. Also has excellent hardware detection and installation. A very solid performer that's also very likable. The only reason I still recommend Xandros in favor of Libranet is that Xandros is a slightly better transitional product for W users. But if you don't need Office products, then I might suggest trying Libranet first. Ugly web site, but don't let that put you off from what's otherwise a very nice distro with excellent support.


Mandrake: A very mature distro with an easy installation that has a reputation for being user friendly. My only criticism of Mandrake is that their web site and membership support totally bites. Hopefully they've improved their service, but I got so frustrated with Mandrake Club that's when I started looking around for a new distro. In fairness at the time Mandrake was clawing their way out of bankruptcy. Now that's behind them so it's possible they have addressed these issues.


SUSE: A powerhouse distro that may be better suited for corporate users. Recently purchased by Novell, SUSE is a monster in the server room and a very workable desktop option, though maybe a bit less friendly to recent W converts.

Some Basics

User accounts:  Linux is not like Windows in that there are different user accounts.  The highest level account is root, also known as su for Super User.  Avoid the temptation to try and make Linux act like W by staying logged in as root all the time.  That's one of the many things that makes W such a security freak show.  Learn how Linux accounts work. 


Installing software: RPM's and company-supplied packages are okay to get started with, but don't stay in RPM hell.  Learn how to install tar balls, seek to understand dependencies.  You'll understand what that means after you've worked with Linux a little while.  It takes time, be patient. To do this you'll have to understand how to switch back and forth between your user account and root, hence the advice above.


While we're on the subject, let me expand on dependencies for just a minute because this is one of those teeth grinding subjects for new users. A lot of OSS is produced by people with day jobs who just don't know when to quit. They code all day at the office, then run home to work all night on their pet projects. Which leads to two major problems: Lower standards of personal hygeine among programmers and, more importantly for this discussion, a lot of duplication of code by other people working on their pet projects. So, over time, many of these people working for the betterment of mankind in a non-profit atmosphere have been nice enough to share code libraries with names like libh32-x, or something equally obscure, that perform specific tasks so that other programmers don't have to rewrite the same code over and over. Somewhere in the documentation (or man) will be a list of of these libraries and where the program expects those libraries to be found (the file path). Sometimes those libraries will be fairly commonly used and are already present, sometimes not. Sometimes you have to make your way across the big bad Internet looking for them. Most times they're fairly easily located, other times you have to meet a guy on corner somewhere (no names, make sure you weren't followed) greet him with a secret handshake and he'll send you to another guy (who doesn't speak English) who will hook you up. Okay, it's not that bad, but it sure can be frustrating sometimes. The clue you have a dependency problem to resolve is when you attempt to compile the program and get this really criptic error message that says something like failed on lib32xyz something really technical blah, blah, blah aborted. I know it sounds like huge pain the rear - and to be honest sometimes it is - but after you go through the process a couple times it becomes second nature.


Another frustrating issue for new users is hardware. Not all hardware is supported, but it's way better than it used to be.  Just understand that Linux may not support everything on your PC right out of the box.  You might want to check to see that your hardware is supported before you start the installation, particularly your graphics card and modem.  Each of the big distros will have a hardware compatibility guide. One bit of good news: If it's cool, you can bet there's someone out there working on Linux drivers.


Chin up, take your time, don't get frustrated...or try not to.  If you do please don't go on and flame the entire Linux development community. Just because you don't get it doesn't mean it's crap. Put it aside for a day or two, then come back. Each time you come back it will make a little more sense.  Once you reach the "break through" level of understanding, which comes at different times for everyone, it will start to make sense.  After a while it will not only make sense, but you won't be able to imagine computing any other way.  My wife's transition was completely painless and she's as non-technical of a W user as you'll ever run across.  You can shop online for insanely expensive Italian shoes every bit as well on Linux as W, and you can take my word on that. 


Separating Application Stress From Environment Stress


If you want to give yourself a leg up with Linux, one thing you can do is start transitioning to open source software that runs on W. This will give you an opportunity to get familiar with the new application environment before transitioning to the new operating environment. So at least some of it will be familiar and not one vast, confusing techno-jungle.


Start with either Mozilla or Firebird for your new browser. You can download a copy of either of them at They're free and both are super browsers. Mozilla has an Email client bundled with it, Firebird has a separate Email client. Both of them run on W and Linux and are nearly identical between the OS environments. Being able to do basic operations like web browsing and Email will take a huge amount of sting out of the frustration of changing. And there will be frustration, trust me.


Next download a copy of OpenOffice, install it and start playing around with those tools. Don't expect them to be as slick and well-packaged as MS Office, but they will do the job. It takes a bit of getting used to, but my experience has been there isn't anything I do regularly that OpenOffice doesn't do as well, though in its own way. It took me a week to figure out how to print envelopes, but now I like the OO process better than Office. OO also comes bundled with presentation and spreadsheet software but you won't find a replacement for Access, which for me is a blessing. If I had a nickel for every half-ass Access app I had to port to SQL Server...ah, never mind, but let's just say I'd be out by the pool covered in suntan lotion wondering how the little people are getting along. For that you'll need to look toward MySQL, PostgreSQL or a database app called Firebird (not to be confused with the browser with the same name).


Just start with those. Then your Linux box will have a familiar web browser, Email client and office productivity package.


Don't Avoid The Command Line


A long, long time ago there were no fancy monitors and screen colors were either black and white or black and green. Those were your choices. Those were computers. It took me a long time to get used to using the first graphical environments. With Linux it will be much clearer that the GUI is nothing more than a visual front end bolted on the console command prompt. That's how W started out, as a graphical interface on the DOS prompt, but that's changed over the years.


If you really want to connect with Linux and understand how it works and what's going on, you'll need to pop the hood and learn to work through the command line, which is amazingly powerful. And fast once you learn what you're doing. Don't try to figure out cat, grep and all the other Linux command line text you'll use routinely. Get yourself a good book on the subject, one that walks you through examples. Pay attention to the alias command, learn that and you'll start amazing yourself with how sweet it is to customize an operating system to work the way YOU want it to work.


Where to go for help:


Linux Questions


Linux Newbie Guide


Mandrake Expert

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Copyright 2003, Chris Poindexter

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