DIY Guide - GNU/Linux
and Free Open Source Software. Updated: 22nd April 2010
GNU/Linux - An Introduction
More and more of peoples' work and personal data exists on computers
and on the internet. There is no turning back. But is it ok that
staple activities in your life - like writing, email and other
computer work is only possible because of nasty corporations like
Microsoft or Apple? Is it ok that your computer - running these
systems - has 'backdoors' - ways for these corporations and other
interests to access your computer? Or that you have no idea what
information your computer is sending back to these corporations?
Sick of having to upgrade your computer just to keep up with the
latest software? Using cracked or unlicensed software is getting
harder as they ramp up the anti-piracy
You can avoid these traps by moving to GNU/Linux and Free Software.
No longer the preserve of the computer savvy, this operating system
is becoming more popular and user-friendly.
GNU/Linux is a free
operating system and set of programs, replacing M$ Windows or
Mac OsX, and the commonly used software used on them such as Office
or Internet Explorer etc. This is not just software which
is being given away, like freeware, but remains free through a
specific copyright license geared towards co-operative development
GPL - aka copyleft
- and in this respect is an important example of technology and
information in which is being developed for reasons other than
market forces, and is resistant to being sold-off and commodified.
GNU/Linux is developed under an ethic that information should
Can It Do?
All things you already do on your computer. For the average user,
it's a desktop with
all the commonly needed apps like a web browser, word processor,
CD burner, media player, email, image editors, games etc.
Without knowing it, you already use GNU/Linux every day:
over 70% of the Internet is run on the free/open source 'file
server' program called 'Apache', mostly running on GNU/Linux,
or UNIX. Lots of phones and other digital devices run versions
of GNU/Linux. Due to rapid improvements in recent years, it's
becoming much more user-friendly and idiot proof as a desktop
For those who really
can't abandon Windows or Mac, most of the key free/open source
applications are also available on those platforms. In fact they
are often preferrable to the corporate software -
eg Firefox and Open Office, which replace M$ Internet Explorer
and M$ Office respectively - see links below.
What can't it do? It
has to be said that most of the corporate computer industry is
hostile to free software - it's a direct competitor to their monopolies.
This is a clash of cultures - they are guarding their technologies,
not providing the technical information programmers need to write
'drivers' for hardware like video or wireless cards, or proprietary
file formats. Free software is all about sharing information and
developing technologies cooperatively. So - you may find that
newer, specialised hardware comes with Windows and Mac drivers,
but not GNU/Linux - but this situation is improving all the time.
Also - while the GNU/Linux
operating system itself is fully developed and solid, you may
find that the free equivalents of your favourite applications
are not yet as good as the commercial software. This is perhaps
the main factor which holds people back from moving over, but
again this is getting less of a problem. As a transition, it is
possible to run a lot of Windows software on GNU/Linux using Wine,
but this is not always totally solid. Another transition option
is to run Windows as a 'virtual machine' under GNU/Linux, which
effectively means the two OS's are running simultaneously.
You might be wondering
- how come it's free? It's in fact part of a project which began
in 1983 by a hacker and programmer called Richard
Stallman, who initiated the 'Free
Software Movement', with the intention of creating a 'free',
UNIX-like operating system, and range of programs to go with it,
which he called GNU.
was a reaction to the trend during the time (and since) towards
'proprietary' software, forcing users to pay a licence for software,
which hadn't always been the case during the early days of the
computer industry. Stallman envisaged that if software is free
to use, and modify, then the community of programmers using it
will make improvements - which will benefit all for the common
To legally structure
this model of 'co-operative' programming, a new copyright license
called the GNU
General Public License (GPL) was initiated, meaning that anybody
could contribute to GNU software, but the resulting work had to
also remain free, and commonly owned - eg - no party could take
this software and gain ownership of it. Another word for this
type of copyright status is copyleft,
and it has gone on to have many other uses in the fight to create
information and techology which is resistant to the onslaught
of privatisation and commodification (Wikipedia
is another great example). A lot of GNU/Linux has been the
work of individual programmers working for nothing, while other
chunks have been funded by institutions and corporations.
Another term which
this software is known by is 'Open Source' - so called because
under the GPL, the original code for a program - before it's compiled
and turned into machine code which the computer can use - must
be openly available, so it can be viewed, modified or improved.
Commercial software companies like M$ never release the 'source
code', to protect their technology. This is anathema to Free Software/Open
Source people, who say this approach holds back development. Having
said that it can and does happen that companies 'copyleft' commercial
software, opening it up to community participation - examples
include SunOffice which became OpenOffice and Netscape which became
While it is commonly
known as Linux, Richard Stallman personally emailed SchNEWS in
April 2007 to correct us on what he considers its proper title:
GNU/Linux (to see his reasoning click
here). This is because GNU was going a decade before the Finnish
wiz-kid Linus Torvalds offered his UNIX-like operating system
kernel - called Linux - under the GPL in 1992, which became one
of the big pieces in the jigsaw for a complete operating system.
Stallman and others are quite rightly pissed off that Torvalds
gets a lot of the credit for something which was started long
before he arrived, and that in fact the whole GNU project is much
wider than just the operating system kernel and encompasses the
total range of software. Also there's a philosophy behind GNU
about freedom of information and community spirit, and Torvalds,
like many other uber-geeks, isn't that political. Then there are
those in the 'open source' camp who support the GNU model for
pragmatic reasons, but not its idealism (for more see
here). It's probably the case that the word 'Linux' just fits
the bill and sounds right, so people just lazilly call it that.
These debates all reflect the political tension within free software,
where some like Stallman are holding tightly to ethical principles,
while others involved are quite apolitical, and just want something
that's practical, or they just want to make money from it.
Do I Start?
Because anyone can legally make and release their own 'distro'
of GNU/Linux, many do: ranging from hacker communities to slick
corporate versions (for more see http://distrowatch.com).
Some have a strong commitment to the ethos of 'free software',
others are blatantly just using it as a money-making opportunity.
For the time being SchNEWS recommends Ubuntu, which is
based on 'Debian'
- a highly respected GNU/Linux distro. Ubuntu is fast becoming
the most popular GNU/Linux worldwide and is funded by South African
millionaire Mark Shuttleworth. At the moment it appears to be
the easiest, most user-friendly distro - but don't worry folks
- we're watching Shuttleworth and Canonical - one step out of
line and we'll slag him off! It also has to be noted that Ubuntu
is not completely 'free' - it uses some non-GPLed components and
is embracing this more and more.
Which Desktop: KDE
There are two major 'desktop' displays for GNU/Linux, both with
slightly different layout and look'n'feel, but with the same underpinnings:
It is a matter of personal preference - KDE has a button bottom-left
a bit like Windows, and Gnome is superficially a bit more like
Mac, both basically share the same functionings. It is possible
to have both installed at the same time and swap from one to the
other. Some 'applications' are based on one or the other, and
this may influence which one you decide to use. Ubuntu is Gnome
and Kubuntu is the KDE version of Ubuntu.
If you have an older
system with less memory and slower processor, there are other,
less graphics-heavy and system-hungry versions - this is due to
the modular design of the operating system. One option here is
which uses the LXDE
graphical interface more suited to slower machines, but yet it
runs all the same programs as Ubuntu.
It Out For The First Time
If you want to see GNU/Linux in action on a trial basis,
it comes in the form of 'live CD's' - which when booted bring
up a working desktop and major applications from scratch (and
doesn't affect whatever operating system you currently have -
pull the disk out and it will re-boot as per usual). Note - it
will be slower because it's coming off a CD. To download the 'image'
of a 'live CD' for Ubuntu (with Gnome) click here www.ubuntu.com
or Kubuntu (with KDE) click here www.kubuntu.org
It Onto A PC: If you've got a spare computer you could
install GNU/Linux onto it to get used to it - but top tip make
sure the computer isn't too slow or low spec because a graphical
interface like Gnome may be sluggish (pref. at least 1GHz
cpu, 400meg ram) - or else try Lubuntu but you won't be getting
all the bells and whistles. Or else it is possible to make a single
computer 'dual boot' -
that is both Windows and GNU/Linux are installed, and you have
a choice at start-up. To do this, have Windows installed first,
and boot it from a 'live' GNU/Linux CD, and follow the installation
process where it will search for blank space to install onto,
and it will automatically create a 'boot' menu at start-up. The
safest way to do this is to put a wiped (eg all partitions deleted)
hard drive into the computer, and as you install Ubuntu (and most
distros), it will detect the blank hard disk and the other 'operating
system' (eg Win), ask to install itself on the blank disk.
- If you are setting up a dual boot PC - take precautions to make
sure nothing gets accidently wiped!! Better to make sure that
the spare hard drive has definitely got no partitions (put the disk
into the computer, boot into Windows and use 'Disk Management'
in Control Panel > Administrative Tools > Computer Management
to wipe its partitions) - so that way when you've booted into
GNU/Linux off the CD, and it's about to install, you can point
it to the empty disk space, and if it starts threatening to wipe
any existing partitions... don't let it!]
Once you install GNU/Linux, you'll see that it's pre-loaded
a range of essential desktop programs (which is easier than setting
up a Windows PC where you have to load all the apps on separately).
From this point thousands of programs are now available, as are
updates and new versions of what's installed. If you don't have
broadband, you use the 'package manager' system tool to install
new programmes off the install CD, or if you have broadband, the
'package manager' will make a connection to a range of online
'program repositories', which opens the door to all the rest.
You also use this method to download security updates, new versions
of apps, etc - but note that unlike in Windows where you install
software typically off an 'install.exe' file, in GNU/Linux things
are different, and it's easiest to let the 'package manager' install
progs off the web (or CD-ROM), rather than manually install them.
If you know what you're doing you can download the 'source code'
for a program, and 'compile' it for your system, but this is not
something which you have to learn.
* It is free and you don't have to worry about downloading virus-ridden
* GNU/Linux is part of creating a world free from capitalist vultures.
* Computers on it are more secure - they are far less easily hacked
into and never get virus's.
* Your computer is not open to the unknown 'backdoors' which Windows
and Mac OsX have.
* Your computer is not reporting your activities and use to software
* GNU/Linux breaks the cycle of obsolescence/forced upgrades inherent
in Windows and Mac.
* There are versions of GNU/Linux for all uses from server to
multimedia to minimalist low-spec installs.
* You can participate in the creation of free software by running
the programs, and sending in suggestions and bug reports - this
feedback helps the programmers, and problems can often be corrected
for the next 'release'.
* GNU/Linux PC's can be easily networked with other Windows or
* There are thousands of programs available
* Older computers can be kept useable by versions of GNU/Linux
especially designed for slower machines.
* Many of the 'free' replacements for the big commercial graphics
and multimedia programmes are still in development - though the
whole process relies on people using them and reporting bugs or
* Despite the best effort to write 'drivers' for computer hardware
so it's 'plug'n'play', using GNU/Linux limits your choice of hardware
somewhat. To work around this use video cards, sound cards, printers,
scanners and other hardware you know is supported - check online
- but this situation has improved a lot. Some hardware companies
are now providing their own GNU/Linux drivers (which aren't 'open
source'), but because companies won't publish the necessary technical
data on their hardware, the GNU community often can't easilly
* The same problem applies to certain 'proprietary' file formats
- it is difficult for free/open source programmers to write software
to use some commercial file formats where they haven't got all
the relevant technical data, or there's a patent preventing them
from legally doing so. Blame the cartel of corporations running
the computer industry freezing out competitors. Again - these
are obstacles which are slowly being overcome.
Source software under Windows or Mac
Here's a list of the
most common commercial software used in Windows with examples
of main 'free' alternatives (though there are many more). If you
have a GNU/Linux distro installed, use its 'package manager' to
download these automatically, but if you're on Win or Mac, see
the links below to download installable versions. For more info
and news on open source software see www.sourceforge.org
Handy One-Stop Ubuntu
Help - http://ubuntuguide.org
Help and info about Ubuntu - http://ubuntuforums.org
Help and info about Kubuntu - http://kubuntuforums.com
Richard Stallman - www.stallman.org
What is 'Copyleft' - http://www.gnu.org/copyleft
What is the 'GNU General Public License' - http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html
Like Free Open Source
Software, SchNEWS is 'copyleft' - so feel free to use this
text for your own non-profit use, and even change it. If you have
suggestions or improvements email SchNEWS at email@example.com