BOOT CAMP 318 (23/03/04)


Linux – what’s it all about? Part 1


The vast majority of desktop and laptop PCs – more than 95 percent at the last count – use the Microsoft Windows operating system (OS), and very good it is too for despite its shortcomings it has helped to make the fantastically complicated technology that is the modern computer cheap, accessible and easy to use. Most of the remaining PCs use the Mac OS devised by Apple, and this is wonderful too, some say even better than Windows, but there is a third option. It’s called Linux and not only is it also very good, it is essentially free, growing in popularity at an unprecedented rate and starting to get the big boys worried!


Linux’s reputation for stability, security and immunity to viruses prompts a lot of people to ask if it is an alternative to Windows for the average PC user. I reluctantly have to say no, not just yet. Linux remains outside of the mainstream, it is not for absolute novices and those who need to stay in step with other computer users or share files can find it hard going. You may also be disappointed if you want to play the latest games or use the most up to date hardware and peripherals but things are changing fast and Linux is now very close to being tamed.


Nevertheless I do think the time is right to give it a try and I suspect you will be very pleasantly surprised. Next week we’ll show you how to install Linux on your PC without disrupting or endangering your existing Windows setup but first a few words of introduction are in order.


We needn’t dwell on the history. There’s no shortage of informative articles on the web if you want to learn more, suffice it to say the first version of Linux was released in 1991, created by Linus Torvalds a (then) 21 year-old, computer student and self-confessed hacker studying in Helsinki.


The secret of its success is that unlike the Windows and Mac OS’s, which are developed in great secrecy and fiercely protected by copyright and a multitude of patents, Linux and its source code – the software that makes it tick -- is freely available under the terms of what’s known as a General Public Licence. It is known as ‘open source’ software, which basically means users are encouraged to contribute to its development so it is constantly evolving, and improving thanks to a worldwide community of individuals and commercial users.


For newcomers to Linux, especially those accustomed to the cuddly and soft-edged world of Windows and Mac PCs there can be a lot of unfamiliar jargon to learn. To some extent Linux suffers from the fact that so many different people and organisations have had a hand in its development but once you get started you will find that most of it is fairly straightforward. However, there is a nagging feeling that some jargon is deliberately contrived simply to make it appear different to Windows, which many hard-core Linux developers openly despise.


Fortunately you only need to master a few terms to begin with, the rest you’ll pick up along the way, so let’s start with the basics. Linux, like Windows (pre XP) is made up of several layers of programs interacting with one another. At its heart is the Linux core or ‘kernel’ and like DOS in Windows, it controls the computer’s hardware (CPU, memory disc drives etc.) as well as the flow of data inside a PC and communications with the outside world. Surrounding the kernel is the ‘shell’. This is the part of Linux that the user interacts with. In the early days this meant typing in text commands to make things happen (again like DOS) but the most recent releases or ‘Distributions’ have a Graphic User Interface (GUI)  – and there are several to choose from – which look and feel pretty much like the mouse-driven, icon-based desktop world of Mac and Windows. 


The trick to getting started with Linux is to choose the right distribution. It’s a little like Windows in that different versions are available to suit particular tasks, from general-purpose home or small office use to network servers. Whilst many different versions of Linux can be freely downloaded from the Internet I strongly recommend buying a ‘commercial’ distribution, if only to avoid the messy and time-consuming business of compiling files and burning up to 5 CDs. The most suitable distributions for first-timers are the ‘personal’ versions of Fedora Red Hat, Mandrake and SuSe. These normally include a couple of switchable desktops, a very decent suite of office type applications (word processor, spreadsheet, organiser, AV presenter etc.), plus a web browser, email program a selection of utilities and not forgetting a few games.


Commercial distributions like those mentioned are widely available in computer stores; on the web (Amazon, ebay etc.) and at computer fairs; you can expect to pay between £10 and £25 for a set of discs.


Next week – Getting started with Linux, part 2





Central Processor Unit - the main microprocessor chip in a PC



Disc Operating System, a program that responsible for controlling disc drives, organising data and memory resources.



End user licences issued by organisations including the Free Software Foundation and GNU Project, designed to promote the creation and distribution of free software 




The Linux logo, a cute little penguin called ‘Tux’, has spawned an entire sub-culture with everything from games, screensavers and devoted fan sites with galleries of images. If you would like to see the amiable avian on your Windows desktop there’s some witty backgrounds and graphics at:  (look out for the one with the penguin sucking the Windows branded carton of drink…), and there’s more at:


Everything you ever wanted to know about Tux can be found at



And if you’ve got a broadband connection there’s a Windows demo (21Mb) of a game, called Tux Racer at:

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