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DIY Guide - GNU/Linux and Free Open Source Software. Updated: 22nd April 2010

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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 measures.

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.

What Is GNU/Linux?

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 - GNU 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 be shared.

What 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 graphical interface.

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. This project 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 good.

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 Mozilla Firefox.

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.

Where Do I Start?

Which 'Distro'?
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 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 or Gnome?
There are two major 'desktop' displays for GNU/Linux, both with slightly different layout and look'n'feel, but with the same underpinnings: KDE and Gnome. 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 Lubuntu, which uses the LXDE graphical interface more suited to slower machines, but yet it runs all the same programs as Ubuntu.

Trying It Out For The First Time
Live CD: 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 or Kubuntu (with KDE) click here

Installing 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. 

[Caution - 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!] 

Installing New Programmes
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 cracked software
* 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 corporations.
* 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 Mac PCs.
* 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 suggestions
* 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 write drivers.
* 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.

Free/Open 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

  Commercial Free Open Source Download Version for Win/Mac
Operating System: Windows/Mac Ubuntu  
Web Browser: MS Internet Explorer Firefox
Office: MS Office Open Office
Email: MS Outlook Thunderbird
Image Editor: Photoshop The Gimp
Website builder: Dreamweaver/Frontpage KompoZer
Page Layout: Quark/Indesign Scribus
Media Player: Windows Media Player, Winamp, i-Tunes

VLC/Videolan Media Player
CD Burner: Nero K3B InfraRecorder

Other links

Handy One-Stop Ubuntu Help -
Help and info about Ubuntu -
Help and info about Kubuntu -
Richard Stallman -
What is 'Copyleft' -
What is the 'GNU General Public License' -

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