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Jim's Rambling and Ambling Thoughts

Obtaining and Installing Linux Distros
This is the final installation of a 3 part series of emails I wrote over a year ago that I am posting here in hopes that some people will find them useful.  You can read  part 1 and part 2 by clicking on the respective links or (probably) by just scrolling down the page.  These emails have been reworked for public viewing and updated some, but are still in the form of the original emails.

As I noted in my last post, since writing these emails I have become quite disgusted with things in the Ubuntu world.  I spelled out some of the reasons in that post.  Despite that, this email will tend to focus on Ubuntu because that is the way the email was originally written and replacing the text with another example would probably take me some hours of work.  (Signifcant effort went into the original emails.)  A lot of what is said can probably be applied to other distros.  Most of what doesn't directly apply to other distros will probably still give you a general idea of what to expect.

There are several places in this post where I've added some updated information in square brackets.  I've used a different color for those additions to emphasize that those are not part of the original email.

The recipient of these emails had broadband.  (She had DSL, but when I wrote the emails I thought she was still using a satellite connection.)  For those, like me, who are on dial-up, BitTorrent is not an option.  And except for certain compact distros, a regular download would take over 30 hours on dial-up, so you probably don't want to do that either.

I hope these posts have been informative and maybe even useful to you.  Feel free to ask questions or post comments (logged on Copper subscribers only).  Once again, grab your favorite beverage, sit back, and enjoy!


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As we've already briefly discussed, you can download most distros w/o cost (free, as in gratis) or you can buy from one of several websites that burn them for you.  If you wish to purchase a CD/DVD, I would recommend you do so from on-disk.com.  One of the reasons for recommending them is that a portion of the purchase price goes to support the distribution you are getting.  Whoever you buy from, make sure they are reputable.  (I have no qualms about on-disk.)  The last thing you want is to get a disk where somebody has maliciously tampered with the contents.  Another option for getting Ubuntu (but no other distro that I know of) is they will send you a CD for free.  (This is the same CD you can download or buy from on-disk.com.  It is not some gimmick.  Nor does it have reduced functionality.)  (No longer available.)  To avoid breaking up the flow of text, I'll include this and all links at the end of this email.  To get the disk, you will have to sign up with Launchpad.  And they indicate it will take about 10 weeks for delivery.

Alternatively, you can download most distros.  Except for specialty distros which aim to be small (such as Damn Small Linux), typically the download will be one or more full CDs (aprox 700 MB each) or DVDs (much larger).  Some distros allow you to download something much smaller and then do a "network install" where most of the packages are downloaded directly from the Internet.  I suggest you avoid this until you get some experience with Linux.  In addition to a "normal" download, most distros can be downloaded via BitTorrent.  (BitTorrent has now acquired a bit of a reputation of being used for illicit downloads, but what I am talking about is strictly legit.)  BitTorrent is actually the preferred method of downloading distros because it largely removes the load from the servers.  (These people are kind enough to provide all of this software freely.  IMHO, the least we can do is to try to reduce their expenses.)   I have no experience with BitTorrent because I am on dial-up.

Unless you have a limitation on the number of bytes you can download/upload each month, I would think you could get BitTorrent to work for you.  You would probably have to set up port forwarding for your router.  (I think there are some BitTorrent clients that will automatically do this for you through uPNP.  But I hope you are aware that uPNP is rather dangerous from a security perspective.  I have it disabled on my wireless router.)   You indicated that your satellite connection is not terribly reliable.  I would think BitTorrent would be particularly good at that since it works by downloading  the  file in "chunks," not necessarily in order, and assembling them on your computer.  To make sure BitTorrent could gracefully handle the disruptions, I posed the question on Linux Questions.  The response was that BitTorrent will work with an unreliable connection just fine.

After you download one or more CDs/DVDs, whether by a direct download or via BitTorrent, you should verify the ISO image(s).  (The files are the actual images of the eventual CDs/DVDs and generally have the extension .iso -- a reference to the ISO 9660 standard that is used for CDs and DVDs.  Hence they are referred to as ISO images.)  In Ubuntu this is done by checking the image's MD5 checksum[Note:  This was correct when I wrote it in 2009.  Ubuntu may now be using one of the more secure methods I am about to mention.]  (Other distro's may instead use SHA1, SHA256, a digital signature or other means for verification.)  I have provided a link below for verifying Ubuntu's MD5.  But that page also has information that may be useful for other distros as well.

After you have verified the ISO image, you need to burn it to a CD as an image.  VERY IMPORTANT:  this is NOT the same as writing it to the CD as a file.  The CD burning software included with winXP is not capable of doing this.  You may already have some 3rd party software that is capable of doing this that you would like to use.  If so, just make sure you burn it as an image.  If you do not already have a preferred method of doing this, I have included a link below about doing it using free software that runs on MS Windows.  The link is to the Ubuntu site, but the information will work for any distro.  [NOTE: while Windows XP did not come with software to burn an ISO image, I believe I have read that Windows Vista and later does.  Perhaps somebody who uses such systems would leave a comment ...]

Well, there you have it.  Now all you need to do is put the CD in the tray and boot the computer.   You may need to fiddle with the BIOS settings to get the computer to boot from the CD.  Once booted, Ubuntu, and at least some other distros will give you an option to check the MD5 sums of the files on the disk.  I suggest you do this before proceeding, to verify that the CD burned correctly.  You can then boot to the live CD.  Look around as much as you want.  Check out the graphics display, wifi if the computer has it, the Ethernet connection and any other hardware and make sure it is all working properly.  If/when you are ready to install, double click the appropriate icon on the desktop.  The installation for Ubuntu is pretty straight forward.  It will ask you a few questions that I think you can figure out.  Using the "normal" installation disk, Ubuntu doesn't give you any choices about which software is installed.  (I have never used the "alternate disk.")  On a reasonably recent computer, the installation will probably take about 15 to 20 minutes.  Very old hardware may take longer.  As mentioned earlier, I believe you can play games, or whatever, during this time.  Or just wait.  (I will outline below a little more detail of what that installation involved based on a recent installation I did of Ubuntu 8.04.)

Some distros may ask for additional information on "first boot" (following the installation) if that information was not requested at the installation step.  Here you provide information like a username/password, your time zone, etc.  Pretty straight forward.

Now that I know you have ordered a book to guide you, I realize some of this will probably be duplicative.  But I will go ahead and sketch out a few comments about security and (post-install) software installation anyway.

In the Unix world, the all-powerful account, which can do anything, is called "root."  You must use this account to do most administrative tasks on the computer.  But the Unix world (appropriately) has a strong tradition of "separation of privilege."  This means that most of your everyday work is (should be) done as a regular user, w/o root privilege.  (My understanding is that for home users, it is common in the Microsoft world for people to routinely run with admin privilege.  This is one of the contributing factors to Microsoft Windows being such a mess from a security standpoint.)  Ubuntu (and perhaps some other distros), by default, don't give the root account a password (not to be confused with an empty or blank password), so it is not possible to log into the root account or to switch to it using the "su" utility.  Rather, in Ubuntu all administrative tasks are done with "sudo" or an equivalent command for GUI applications.  When users that have been granted the right to "administer the system" need to do privileged work, they are prompted for *they're own* password, and then given root privilege for the command they need to use.

In the Microsoft world, for installing software people are used to downloading  "setup .exe's" (or buying them on a CD), double clicking, and clicking "next" a bunch of times.   (It always seemed to me it was appropriate to hold my hand over my eyes when I double clicked the setup icon since I never could be sure what might happen.  It takes a lot of trust to click!)  In Linux, software is generally installed (and updated) with a "package manger."  While the details vary some from distro to distro, most distros will have both command line and GUI package managers.  Using these, most software you might be interested in can be downloaded from the distro's respositories.  While you are still learning Linux, I suggest you restrict yourself to obtaining software this way.  (Most repositories have thousands of packages available.  You can probably find what you want.)  This way you can be sure the software will work on your system and you can be highly confident it is not malicious.  Software obtained this way will (can) be updated with the rest of your system either through automatic updates or manual updates following (possibly automatic) notices.  After you've gotten familiar with Linux, there may be times when you wish to download software from a website, and possibly the software will need to be compiled.  Of course, if/when you do so you need to be very careful that you are getting something legitimate rather than a trojan.  [NOTE: the wisdom of this advice has been clearly demonstrated recently.  As I started to work with the Linux newbiew I wrote this email to, one of the hardest things was changing her thought pattern so that she tried her distro's repository *before* looking to download something from a random site on the Internet.  The thought pattern she had learned in the Microsoft world was indeed hard to break!]

Well, this three part series started as a single email.  When I started, I had no idea it was going to be this long!  I've since learned you have ordered a book, so perhaps some of this is reduntant.  But I hope it has been useful.  Or perhaps contains some info that will be useful as you progress.  Below I've sketched what happens on a default Ubuntu 8.04 install followed by the links I mentioned in the above text.

Good luck!  I'll be happy to (try to) answer any questions as they arise.  There are also various on-line forums where you can ask questions.  Be aware that you are expected to have tried to find the answer on your own before you ask on a forum.  (I.e., "Google" for the answer first. :-)  While you can find reports on the Internet of forums being unfriendly, I think that has largely changed (to the extent it was ever true).  Certainly, I know that both Linux Questions and Ubuntu Forums don't tolerate rude behavior.  And I have read reports of some other forums being friendly although I don't have experience with them.

Later,
Jim


Here is my experience with installing Ubunut 8.04 a couple nights ago:

The disk boots and shows you a bunch of languages to choose from, with English highlighted.  If you do nothing for 30 seconds, it will automatically select English and start booting to a live CD.  If you hit "enter" (recomended) it will select English and present you with the following choices (text displayed on computer screen is in bold; my comments are in parentheses; bullets added for presentation):

  • Try Ubuntu without any changes to your computer
    (This option will boot to a live CD.  In addition to trying out everything, you can start an installation from here.  While installing, you can still run applications/games if you wish.)

  • Install Ubuntu
    (This will *partially* launch the live CD desktop and automatically launch the installer.  You aren't given any desktop menus so you can't do anything but install.)

  • Check CD for Defects
    (This checks the MD5 sums for the files on the CD.  I highly recommend doing this first thing.  After finishing, it presents the results and prompts you to press "enter" to reboot the machine.)

  • Test Memory
    (This runs a memory test until you manually stop it.)

  • Boot from first hard disk
    (If you wanted to do this, why did you boot the CD in the first place? ;-)

When you launch the installer, it will ask you for things like time zone, a username/password pair, etc.  While you can use the installer to partition the disk as you like, while you are just starting out you probably want to tell the installer to use the whole disk and let it make the decisions about partitioning.  [NOTE:  I already knew the recipient of this email was not planning on dual booting.  Most distros these days will provide options for dual booting without requiring you to make partitioning decisions.]  Be aware that in the Linux world it is common to have the hardware clock set to UTC rather than local time.  (This is good for some of us because then there is no need to worry about daylight saving time changes.  Linux can be set to use local time for the hardware clock, but I suggest you not do that unless the machine also runs Microsoft Windows. I.e. a dual/multi boot machine.  Even when the hardware clock runs UTC, Linux will display the time in local time.)  So unless the installer succeeds in getting the correct time from the Internet, your clock may be wrong after the installation.  You can correct this when you boot into your new system.  My Ubuntu 8.04 installation took about 20 minutes.  At the next reboot you should get a login screen for your new installation of Linux!



Links:

On-disk:
http://www.on-disk.com

Get a Ubuntu CD mailed to you free of charge:
https://shipit.ubuntu.com/
  (Edit 7/1/2011:  This is no longer available
Click here for more information.)


Resource for links for both Bit Torrent and regular downloads (most distros):
http://iso.linuxquestions.org

How to verify MD5 checksums for Ubuntu; this page also contains some general info that will be applicable to other distros:
https://help.ubuntu.com/community/HowToMD5SUM

How to burn ISO images to CD on a Microsoft system:
https://help.ubuntu.com/community/BurningIsoHowto

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UPDATE 6/29/2010

The United States Supreme Court has issued its long awaited opinion in Bilski v. Kappos.  A detailed blog about this decision can be found at Groklaw:

http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20100628100422167

In my first blog post I talked about the problems software patents pose and mentioned that this case could have important consequences on software patents in this country.  Because of the possible ramifications, a lot of people have been following this case.  If I recall correctly, an abnormally large number of amicus briefs were filed.  Certainly this decision did not deliver everything many of us who care about free(dom) software wanted.  But as PJ, author of the Groklaw blog, noted, this does seem to represent some steps forward.

The patent that was actually before the court was invalidated.  In connection with that, the court reaffirmed that abstract ideas are not patentable.  The court was mindful that we are moving from the industrial age into what is commonly called the information age.  The court showed concern that what it pronounced in this case would not be found to be too restrictive as this transition becomes more fleshed out.  But it also seemed to understand that things have gone too far and that restrictions need to be imposed on what is patentable.  While the court declined to specifically rule on "software patents" as such, it does seem to me that as a result of this ruling it will not be as easy to get a software patent as it has been in the last 10 years or so.

My takeaway from this ruling at this early point is that software patents will be judged more harshly than they have been in the recent past but they will not automatically be invalidated.  Apparently much more needs to be fleshed out in future court cases.  So let me conclude this brief update with Eben Moglen's reaction to this ruling.  Eben Moglen is a lawyer who helped found the Software Freedom Law Center.  I have great respect for him.

As reported by the American Chronicle:
Attributable to Eben Moglen: "The landscape of patent law has been a cluttered, dangerous mess for almost two decades," said Eben Moglen, Chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center. "The confusion and uncertainty behind today's ruling guarantees that the issues involved in Bilski v. Kappos will have to return to the Supreme Court after much money has been wasted and much innovation obstructed."
NOTE:  The above summary of Bilski v. Kappos reflects my understanding based on reading the cited Groklaw article.  I have no expertise in legal matters.  Please consult the Groklaw article or other articles on the 'net for more informed opinions about this ruling.

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UPDATE 6/30/2010

Here is another, and I believe somewhat more pessimistic, outlook on the Supreme Court's Bilski decision.  To my knowledge, this author has no legal background (Pamela Jones, who wrote the Groklaw article referenced above, is trained as a paralegal) but this article does contain some solid background information you may find useful.  And it is considerably shorter, and I think easier to read, than the Groklaw article.  (The Groklaw article strained my brain! ;-)


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UPDATE 7/2/2010 — Burning an ISO file to CD/DVD in Windows 7

Apparently the ability to burn an ISO file to CD/DVD in Microsoft Windows w/o 3rd party software didn't happen until Windows 7.  For Windows Vista and before you can use the instructions linked above.  But if you have Windows 7, here are the instructions for using the software that comes with it to burn ISO images:

Overview of Linux Distributions ("distros")
This is the second in a 3 part series of emails I wrote over a year ago that I am posting here in hopes that some people will find them useful.  If you have not read  part 1, you may wish to do that first.  These have been reworked for public viewing and updated some, but are still in the form of the original emails.

As you will see, this email starts to get a little more political as I discourage use of distros from companies that have done patent deals with Microsoft in violation of the spirit of (and possibly the letter of) the GNU General Public License (GPL) which governs much of the software distributed with a Linux distro.  (Of course, it can be argued that the promotion of freedom -- as GNU/Linux does -- is itself inherently political.)

Ubuntu was (and is) not one of those distros.  But for other reasons, I was already becoming uneasy with it.  Since then, Ubuntu and Canonical (the company behind Ubunutu) have continued to do things which, taken together, have convinced me to oppose them also.  Which puts me in a bit of a sticky situation with these posts since, because of its (arguable) popularity, I had used Ubuntu as the example in these emails.   So in addition to the minor changes I have been making in these emails,  I have largely rewritten one paragraph in this email to reflect my current  disgust with Ubuntu.  I have  highlighted that portion in a different color.

So grab your favorite beverage, sit back, and enjoy!

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In my Linux background email I mentioned distributions, commonly called distros (singular:  distro).  In the very early days, using Linux was not for the faint hearted.  One had to collect all the pieces together, probably do some compiling, and then do a lot of configuration and try to get it to all work together.  So fairly early on the idea of a distribution was born.  This is where somebody else, or a team, has already done a lot of the grunt work for you.  A typical distro will include a kernel, the needed GNU utilities and libraries, and these days, usually a "window manager" or "desktop environment."  The latter is what gives you a convenient GUI (graphical user interface) to use.  (No Virginia, while there may be a Santa Clause, Bill Gates did not invent computers and it *is* possible to use a computer w/o a GUI.  Even in the 21st century.)  A distro will also typically include applications like a web browser, email client, office suite, etc. In some distros it is common to find more than one application for certain tasks; other distros frown on that.  The applications/utilities/libraries/etc. that are not in the initial install (or that you opted not to install at that time) can usually be downloaded from repositories that the distro maintains, using a package manager.  (I'll cover software installation in a later email.  It is one of the areas that is rather different from the Microsoft world.)

I do not remember what the first distro was.  I believe Slackware is the oldest distro still in existence.  Common distros you may have heard of include Red Hat (now split into Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux), Debian, and Ubuntu.  Because of the freedom granted, anybody with the knowledge, time, and energy can create a distro.  So it turns out there are (I think) something like 300 distros available.  Many of these are specialty distros.  Don't let the number of different distros scare you.  Initially, choose one and ignore the others.

I've mentioned window managers and desktop environments.  To be truthful, I still don't have a *full* grasp of the distinction, but in a practical (high level) discussion of these it doesn't matter.  Here, I'll just use the term desktop environment (DE) for both and be done with it.

A DE is what gives you a graphical "desktop" to work with.  X (or X11) provides the low level capability to draw a graphical screen.  The DE uses this to paint the pretty pictures you are used to working with.  Because of freedom (that concept just keeps coming up :-) there are a number of DEs to choose from.  (With MS Windows and Macs, in each case you have a choice of ... one.)  The two most common DEs for Linux are KDE and Gnome.  There are a number of others, including some that are specifically designed to be "light weight."  Again, I suggest you not worry about all of the choices at this time.  There are detractors of both Gnome and KDE.  Since version 2.x, probably the most common criticism of Gnome is that it is "too dumbed down."  There has also been quite vocal criticism of KDE since they released KDE 4.  (Some of this may be from growing pains, other, not so much.)  This criticism is quite easy to find with an Internet search.  There are also many ardent supporters of KDE 4 and Gnome has its supporters as well.  Most (I think) distributions by default will install one or the other of these DEs.  Some will give you a choice, or even allow you to install both.  (In that case, you have a choice of which to use when you do a graphical login.

So what do you do with all of these choices?  (Hint:  the WRONG answer is to run scared!)  I think sound advice for a new user is to pick one of the "mainstream" distros and stick with it until you feel somewhat comfortable with it.  At that time, if you feel so inclined, start checking out any or all of the other distros.   What I am arguing against , as you start to explore the Linux world, is changing distros the first time you encounter something that seems strange to you or is a little uncomfortable.  You *will* find things that are different from what you are used to.  Aside from your own personality traits, your reaction to that will depend (IMHO) on how many different operating systems you have used and how firmly entrenched you are with your existing OS.

But before you install a distro and hunker down to explore it, you might want to briefly try out several distros using "live CDs" (or their USB flash drive counterparts).  This will give you a first impression and help you decide which one you want to spend some time getting to know.  One of the things freedom has allowed is the creation of "live CDs."  These are CDs (now also DVDs ... maybe) that you run Linux from w/o using or altering the hard drive.  They will run somewhat slower than when installed to a hard drive, but they allow you to try out the distro, see what it looks like, and, perhaps most importantly, see if it works with all of your hardware.  (Linux has made great strides in the last few years with the hardware it will work with, but there are still sometimes some problems.  Particularly with wifi, but there may still be some other rough areas.  Another area where Linux is different from Microsoft is that with Linux, the  drivers normally come with the distro rather than being downloaded separately.   Possible exceptions are proprietary drivers, sometimes referred to sarcastically as "binary blobs.")  In addition to live CDs running slower, they do not provide an obviously easy way to save changes or to save your work.  (There are ways to do so, but some other time ...)  More recently there has been the creation of live USB flash drives -- like live CDs except they reside on a flash drive.  On those you can save your work and changes.  I have used live CDs; I have no experience with their USB counterparts.  Before I close out this discussion of live CDs, I will note that several distros now use a live CD as (one of) their methods of installation.  In other words, you boot to a live CD.  You may at this point, if you choose, run any of the provided applications.  If/when you wish to install, there is an icon on the desktop to click.  And while the installation is proceeding, you can play a game, browse the web, or something.  Or twiddle your thumbs or go for a walk.  ;-)  (Last night I installed Ubuntu 8.04 just to remind myself what the steps are.  I will give some details of that in my next email.)

So I think the only thing remaining is choosing a distro and getting a CD/DVD (or set).  First there are several distros I *cannot* recommend, not because of any technical reasons, but because of patent deals signed with Microsoft.  (See footnote.)  These are SuSE, OpenSuSE, Xandros and Linspire (if Linspire still exists).  Feel free to investigate the distros you want.  But right now, for concreteness, I will focus on Ubuntu in this and the following email.  If there are other distros you would like me to (try to) answer questions about, just ask.

Ubuntu (oo-boon-too) is a popular distro created by (billionaire and one time space tourist) Mark Shuttleworth and supported by Shuttleworth's company, Canonical.  Ubuntu is an African word (in several languages, I believe) which I have seen translated into English with such phrases as "humanity to others" and "I am because we are."  This distro strives to make Linux accessible to the masses.  Depending on who you believe, it is either quite popular or very over-hyped.   However ... I started having serious concerns about Ubunutu when applications using Mono were included by default and my concerns increased when it started including Moonlight by default.  Both of these are Microsoft technologies and I can see no good, and possibly much harm, from them effectively being pushed (promoted) in a Linux distro.  Since that time Ubuntu has continued to do a number of things that increasingly alarmed me until at some point a threshold was crossed and I realized that my reaction to Ubuntu was closer to my reaction to Microsoft than to most other Linux distros.  (And I have detested Microsoft for a quarter of a century!)  These changes have included switching the default search engine for their browser to Yahoo (which essentially meant the search engine was Microsoft's Bing), excessively (IMHO) promoting their "cloud" service, Ubuntu One, and switching from the Synaptic graphical package manager to what they call their "software center".  All of these and other things have caused me to question Ubuntu's and Shuttleworth's commitment to free (as in freedom) software, and in my darker moments I have even wondered if they had crawled into bed with Microsoft.  (My belief is Microsoft would still like to kill Linux given the chance.  Barring that, they wish to cripple Linux as badly as possible and force Linux users to pay tribute to them.  I do not believe in the "kinder, gentler Microsoft" some people apparently believe Microsoft has become.)  It is true that Ubuntu has since switched its default search engine back to Google and more recently have eliminated one or two Mono based apps in the default installation and replaced them with ones that don't use Mono.  But having, in effect, put them on my "enemies" list, I am not inclined to remove them lightly.  Perhaps in time it will become clear to me that my fears were unfounded and/or that they have mended their ways.  But for now, I remain opposed to them. [Note: I am wondering if I should expound on this in a future post after I have finished posting these reworked emails.]

As I've indicated, because of length, I will continue this in another email.  That email will (finally) get down to the nitty and gritty of obtaining and installing a distro, focusing on, for concreteness, Ubuntu.  (Because that is how the original emails were written and I am too lazy to repeat the steps now using another distro. :-( )

Take care,
Jim


Footnote:  In the first email, I discussed the problem with software patents.  Much of the software in a Linux distro, including the kernel and the GNU software, is licensed with some version of the GNU General Public License (GPL) or the lesser GPL (LGPL).  The GPL, at least since version 2 (GPLv2) has sought to prevent the prevention of free distribution of the licensed software due to software patents.  (Sorry about the double negative -- I can't come up with a better way to say it.)  This intent is spelled out in GPLv2's preamble.  The details are spelled out in section 7 of GPLv2.  (If interested, you can easily find a copy on the Internet -- just search for GPL and make sure you get the right version.  Beware -- it *is* legal language.  But not nearly as bad as MS's EULAs.)

On Nov. 2, 2006, Microsoft and Novell (who had previously bought the SuSE Linux distribution) announced they had found a loophole (although they didn't use that term) in GPLv2 and announced a patent agreement of the type the GPL sought to prohibit.   Because of this callous and cynical disrespect for those who have worked hard to create free software, I cannot recommend SuSE or OpenSuSE.  Later, Xandros signed a similar patent agreement with Microsoft and so I can't recommend them either.  There is one other company, which I can't think of right now, that falls into this same category.  But it is not one of the distros you are likely to come across.  At least not initially.  (Linspire also signed a deal, but they were bought by Xandros and are no more.  Maybe.  If they still exist I would avoid them also.)

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UPDATE 6/24/2010

There has been some discussion in the comments about the distinction among the terms windowing system,  window manager, and desktop environment.  So I thought I might try to flesh it out a little more here.  PLEASE NOTE:  I think the discussion above is adequate as an introduction for the user new to Linux.   What follows is for those "who want to know more."  It could get a little geeky!  :-)

First, as a public service, let me reproduce as "clickies" the links that Jeff gave.  It does not appear to be possible to put clickable links in comments.

http://www.redhat.com/.../s1-x-clients.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X_window_manager
http://en.wikipedia.org/...#X_Window_System

And here are a couple more links that might help explain the situation.  This one gives you a nice simple diagram of how these three components can be thought of as layers:

http://www.zimbio.com/...Environment+vs+Window

And this one gives some clarifying description to the difference between window managers and desktop environments.  This one is a little old (as is the Red Hat article linked above) but the basic ideas are still the same:

http://everything2.com/title/Desktop+environment

Be aware that sometimes what are called window managers have enough functionality added into them that the distinction from desktop environments might seem to blur.  One example is Enlightenment which you can read about here:

http://articles.techrepublic.com.com/...457.html

Note that in some of the older articles, reference is made to XFree86.  Most distros today use X.org instead.  This is another case of what can happen with free(dom) software when people don't like the direction a project is going.  In this case the project forked because the XFree86 people sought to tighten down the screws on the licensing conditions.  Google for the details if you are interestested.


Mini-rant:  Many people (including some of the authors of the above linked articles) make the mistake of referring to the X windowing system as "X Windows".  Every time I read that I shudder, as it reminds me of Microsoft, to which I am violently allergic.  There is no "s" on the end of "X window!"  There.  I'll try to sit down and be quiet now! ;-)

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UPDATE 6/26/2010

Here's Gemini's link as a "clicky".  (A real pity the comment system doesn't turn these into clickable links automatically like the forum software does.):

Some Background on GNU/Linux
A while back a relative wanted some ongoing support installing and using Linux.  To smooth the transition, I decided to send her some background information about Linux and  also tell her my my attitude toward Linux and free software in general.  This became longer than I originally expected, so I broke it into three emails.  I think what I wrote might be useful to other people so I have decided to post those emails here, after reworking them for public view.  I am keeping these posts in the style of the original emails.   Roughly speaking, the posts will be as follows:

  • Part 1:  General information and history of GNU and Linux with emphasis on freedom
  • Part 2:  Overview of Linux distributions ("distros")
  • Part 3:  Obtaining and installing distros

These are somewhat long but I hope not tedious.  For the most part they give more of a bird's-eye view rather than being technical "howtos".  So get comfortable, grab your beverage of choice, and sit back and enjoy.  I have comments enabled for Copper subscribers who are logged on, so feel free to ask any questions or make relevant comments.  I will attempt to answer any questions.  Comments are moderated, so I will have to approve them before they appear.

The original emails were plain text.  Here, I will try to add some links for terms and names which some people may not be familiar with.


Here is part 1.  I hope to follow up with parts 2 and 3 within the next couple of weeks.  Enjoy!

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Before getting into the technical details of Linux installation, I thought I should give you some background.  I find myself in the same situation I sometimes find myself when posting on Linux Questions in that I have to take a stab at how much somebody knows to try to target my response at an appropriate level.  Of course, I sometimes get it wrong.  Based on the very little you have told me, while you obviously have heard of Linux and have some idea what it is, I am guessing that you don't know much beyond that.  If I am wrong and you already know much of what I am about to say, I apologize.

In giving you this background, I also think it is important to let you know where I am coming from.  Of course, you don't have to agree with me.  In fact, even if you do end up with views similar to mine, I suspect it is a position you will have to grow into.  I certainly grew into my views over maybe a couple year period of using and reading about Linux.  To illustrate, recall that in your first email you asked something along the lines of whether Linux was still free.  You probably saw this as a very simple, straight-forward question about cost.  For me, the word "free" immediately brought up the dichotomy between "at no cost" and "freedom" (as in the phrase "free speech").  With that in mind, let me start with a little history.

Back in 1984, Richard Stallman set out to create a Unix like system that granted freedom to its users.  Stallman worked at MIT and was used to source code being readily available for the software he used.  He was horrified at the encroaching proprietary "shrink wrapped" software where source code was withheld and freedom was denied.  He called this project for a free (as in freedom) Unix like system GNU (one word, pronounced with a hard "g": "guh-new"), which is a recursive acronym for "GNU's not Unix."

By sometime around 1990 GNU was pretty much complete except for the kernel (called HURD).  To this day HURD still isn't production ready and has become, for many, somewhat of a joke.  Which is where Linus Torvalds comes in.  In 1991 he was a computer science student in Finland.  He wanted to be able to run real software on his 80386 IBM PC clone rather than use the toy-like MS-DOS ("toy-like" is my term, not Torvalds's).  So he started his "hobby project."  He posted it on Usenet and invited others to help him expand and modify it.  In his initial Usenet posting he wrote that it was "not going to be big and professional like GNU."  Well, this "hobby project" became what we now know as the Linux kernel.  (Which has ended up very much "big and professional.")  Combined with GNU (minus HURD) the result was a functioning free(dom) OS like Stallman had dreamed of.  There was already a free(dom) graphical system called "X" or "X11" that had been created at MIT.  These components, combined with one or more "window managers" or "desktop environments," is what is frequently called "Linux," or, as Stallman insists it should be called, "GNU/Linux."  (If you read comments on Linux related sites, it is quite common to see somebody declare that "Linux is just a kernel.")

So GNU is all about freedom.  I would say Linux (or GNU/Linux) is all about freedom, although Torvalds does not seem particularly committed to freedom in the sense Stallman talks about it.  (There is considerable animosity between the two.  But the software works together nicely.)  The GNU home page (http://www.gnu.org) is quite accessible and, among other info, lists what Stallman calls the "four freedoms" that are granted with free software.  You might want to take a look.

I have realized for some time that I do not make a good Linux "advocate."  This is in part because my views align fairly closely with Stallman's.  (Stallman views proprietary software as unethical and I can't go quite that far.  But I do think that free(dom) software is to be strongly preferred.  And I don't like the idea of software running on my computer that can't be reviewed to see what it actually does;  even if I don't personally inspect the source code, the fact that it is available means if something horrible is present, *somebody* will probably find it and report it.  Nonetheless, I do have several pieces of proprietary software/firmware on my Linux systems.)  TMK, the typical MS Windows user (or Mac user) cares little or nothing about software freedom.  They have probably never even thought about it.  They just want something that closely mimics the experience they are used to.  Among other things, this involves the use of proprietary plugins and codecs.  And that's where principles become more important to me than getting people to use Linux.  And that might be where my ability to help you is limited.  But I certainly expect to be able to help you with general stuff.  I just might not, for example, be able to help you install the Adobe Flash plugin.  But such help is readily available on the Web.

Speaking of codecs, that brings up another issue:  software patents.  (Technically there is no such thing as a software patent, but that is splitting hairs.  I will use the term here because it is more convenient and succinct than the proper way to phrase what I am talking about.)  In the U.S. and perhaps some other places, software patents are enforced.  This is not uniform throughout the world and represents an ongoing political and legal struggle.  Even in the U.S., the situation around software patents is in flux.  A couple of recent Supreme Court decisions would seem to strongly curtail what has, for a decade or so, been assumed to be patentable in the U.S.  More cases will have to flesh this out, however.  And there are people who, as opportunity arises, are trying to get software patents abolished completely in this country.  The upshot, as it pertains to Linux, is that certain codecs and other software cannot legally be distributed in this country without a license.  (It may also be illegal to use them w/o a license.)  That is frequently the reason that certain things which people who are used to proprietary software expect to come with Linux are not included in certain distros (I'll explain "distros" in a later post).  Usually these can be added after installing the distro even though it may not be legal for you to do so.  This is another area I may not be able to help you with.

To keep this email from becoming too long (too late?) I think I'll end it here.  Give you a little time to digest what I've already said.  In a future email I'll talk about Linux distributions ("distros") and talk about getting and installing them.

Later,
Jim

P.S.  As I mentioned, the history of GNU/Linux dates back to 1984.  Unix itself dates back to 1969.  Some of the Linux detractors (very possibly paid by Microsoft) like to claim that Linux is ancient technology and people should use something newer.  What they conveniently forget is that the Linux ecosystem is constantly evolving and some is quite new.  Some is, in fact, leading the way, with Microsoft and Apple following.  Microsoft has a long and documented history of "playing dirty" and Linux scares them to death.  Rightfully so, IMNSHO.

P.P.S  In my discussion of software patents I was a little unclear about the different roles that copyright and patents play.  Copyright allows people/companies to prevent/restrict copying and distribution of their software.  It does not prevent writing software that does the same thing.  Patents cover the *ideas* embodied in the software such that you may not, without permission, do even a "clean room rewrite" of the software.  (Update June 13, 2010:  a U.S. Supreme court decision is expected to be announced "any day now" in re: Bilski, which may have major consequences for software patents in the U.S.)

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UPDATE 7/2/2010 — More history of GNU and HURD

If you would like more information about the history of GNU and HURD, here is an article I just ran across.  Some of this was new information for me.  I think the article is quite informative  but it  may be a little too heavy on the technical side for some people's taste.

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