Text by Tim Hall
Screenshots by Guillermo Garronn, www.go2linux.org
A lot of people believe that installing and using GNU/Linux is a scary prospect, a system only usable by hardcore geeks. Considering the history of Free Software and the tone with which its use is sometimes advocated, often using complex and obscure jargon, it is not entirely surprising that many ordinary computer users are still wary of trying it out. With the advances in Linux's user-friendliness in recent years and helpful guides like this one, this is no longer the case.
GNU/Linux is something of a DIY system and does demand a little more of its users than proprietary operating systems. However, the rewards are a deeper understanding of the processes involved in computing, with a much greater scope for customisation and creativity. GNU/Linux has developed into an operating system for business, education, and personal productivity. It is no longer the sole preserve of UNIX wizards hacking at their glowing consoles into the night. Free operating systems provide much more control over your working environment and a far wider choice of approaches. For some, that can seem an overwhelming embarrassment of riches; for others, it is simply nirvana.
Part of GNU/Linux's uniqueness is that it is a free implementation of UNIX. It was and still is developed cooperatively by a group of volunteers, primarily on the Internet, who exchange code, report bugs, and fix problems in an open-ended environment. Anyone is welcome to join the Linux development effort. This method of development makes it much easier for ordinary users to suggest changes or improvements and become involved in the development process. This is quite different from the paradigm of proprietary software, where you often don't know who wrote the program you're running, and would have no idea how to go about requesting changes.
This guide is aimed at creative desktop users, people who want to make art and freely express themselves using all the available media of the 21st century. Free Software has taken its time to come up with stable multimedia applications but now boasts an incredible range of software, which covers 2D and 3D graphics including animation and scanning, Desktop Publishing, web design, audio and video editing - along with more standard office productivity tools such as word processing and spreadsheets, web browser, e-mail, IM and FTP, along with a powerful command-line interface. Forget DOS, this BASH comes with colour highlighting and auto-completion; it works so well that some people use it as their primary means of getting work done.
This all comes as standard when you install 64 Studio, but further software packages can be installed and existing ones easily upgraded using the built-in Advanced Package Tool system, or APT. Using a friendly interface such as Synaptic, it is possible to upgrade the entire system to the latest versions directly from the Internet in only three clicks!
The unique cornerstone of a GNU/Linux operating system is Free Software. Free software is licensed in such a way as to allow users the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, the term refers to four kinds of freedom for the users:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour (freedom 2).
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
"Free" in this context generally refers to liberty, rather than price. Users are urged to think of "free" as in "free speech", not as in "free beer". We also think of Free as being this awesome human being who leads 64 Studio development and maintains our software repositories.
A program is free software if users have all of these freedoms. These freedoms are enshrined and protected in the various forms of the GNU GPL or GNU General Public License, the most popular of the many Free Software licenses available.
Although these freedoms may not appear to have such a great impact on the casual user, as soon as you start creating products, materials or new software the benefits of the free flow of information and the ability to interact with the development process start to make a significant difference.
What is the GNU project?
The GNU Project was launched in 1984 to develop a complete UNIX-like operating system which is free software: the GNU system. Variants of the GNU operating system, which use the kernel called Linux, are now widely used; though these systems are often referred to as "Linux", they are more accurately called GNU/Linux systems.
GNU is a recursive acronym for "GNU's Not UNIX"; it is pronounced guh-noo, like canoe. Geeks love recursive acronyms, they make them feel special.