Page last updated at 09:48 GMT, Wednesday, 3 September 2008 10:48 UK

Getting to grips with Linux

Gary Parkinson
Editor, Wake Up To Money

Linux penguin
Linux is not as cuddly as its original image suggests

Gary Parkinson had a torrid time when he converted to Linux. Here he shares his experiences with one of the alternatives to Microsoft's ubiquitous operating system.

It's Saturday afternoon and I should be lying on the sofa sipping sweet tea and watching Football Focus.

Instead, I'm stamping loudly round the living room swearing like a sailor, looking for a cat to kick and cursing a Finnish computer programmer whose name meant nothing to me only days before.

The source of all this disquiet sits on the coffee table looking defiant yet lovely.

It's 370 worth of brand spanking new laptop, sleek glossy black, 10 inches wide, give or take, and weighs about the same as a chunky hardback novel.

Hippy ideals

It's not the machine itself that's driving me to violence, but the operating system that controls its programs and hardware: Linux.

Linux is an alternative to operating systems such as Microsoft Windows or Mac's OS X and has been around since the early 1990s.

Its creator Linus Torvalds - then a 21-year-old University of Helsinki student - made the heart of his operating system absolutely free and open source, which means anyone can still download the code and tweak it as they see fit.

This kind of hippy philosophy behind Linux - that free access to software inspires development driven by need, not the need for cash - was the main attraction to me of choosing a Linux-fuelled machine over the Windows or Mac OS.

It's a muscular system too. The likes of Amazon and Google, and plenty of other household-name companies, are increasingly turning to Linux to run important parts of their businesses.

Look and feel

Windows logo
More people are turning to Linux as alternative to Windows

My requirements are more modest. It needs to let me surf the web, word process and manage the music that I listen to on an iPod.

First impressions of Linux were positive. The new machine, an Asus Eee, came pre-installed with a distribution, or flavour, of Linux called Xandros.

Because Linux is open source, different programmers have taken its kernel, or core, and written variations on the theme. They may use the same base code, but the desktops look and feel very different.

Some will seem much more familiar to those used to Windows or OS X than others.

There's half a dozen or so popular "distros", including the likes of Fedora, Mandriva and the one I prefer, Ubuntu.

Xandros worked right out of the box. Like most distros it includes Open Office, an open source copycat of Microsoft Office. Word processing, spreadsheets and presentations are no problem.

Linux-based computers won't run the software that you may be used to on Windows or a Mac - but there are free, Linux-compatible versions of pretty much any program you may want that can be downloaded from the internet.

Xandros connected to the net through my home wireless network at the first time of asking. And surfing was fast and easy.

Freedom to fiddle

There were a couple of things about Xandros which I didn't like.

The music management program - its "iTunes", if you like - let me listen to music and podcasts on my new laptop but wouldn't sync anything I loaded on to my iPod. Big problem for a music and podcast junkie.

Plus the desktop - the way the screen looks, the icons it uses to open programs - looks like it's been designed by a four-year-old with a fat crayon. It's may be down to personal taste, but I just don't like the way Xandros looks.

One of the (many) great things about Linux is that if you don't like a particular distro you can just change it for one you do by downloading it from the internet and installing it on the machine.

If you don't like that one either, just keep trying distros until you find one to your taste.

A quick trip to the local newsagent yielded a Linux magazine that included instructions on how to change distros and free CD with Mandriva and Ubuntu on it.

CD into disk drive, hit the escape key right after power up, boot up from the disk not the hard drive as usual, follow the simple instructions to install and 10 minutes later my computer screen looks completely different and much more like what I'm used to. A doddle.

Except now the internet wireless connection doesn't work and the music management software still won't let me sync with my iPod. Mmmmmm......

Like most journalists, I've the attention span and patience of a gnat. The air turns blue and I inform my wife loudly that Linus Torvalds has much to answer for (I paraphrase slightly).

Another great thing about Linux is the plethora of internet forums that you can sign up to where users can share tips and experience. My new machine may not be connected but luckily my wife's computer is. Couple of quick registrations later and I'm picking through the discussion boards for answers.


As someone used solely to double-clicking on pretty pictures to do most anything on a computer this is pretty hairy stuff.
Gary Parkinson

Trouble is, the people populating these forums seem much cleverer than I am. On another planet, in fact. I may not be a good bet to be one to discover the cure for cancer, but I pride myself that not a (complete) fool either.

But I'm completely stumped by the instructions posted on these sites. The level of assumed knowledge is way above my head. I follow a couple of suggestions, try to connect to my router using an ethernet cable, download code that promises to set things right. And fail.

Ubuntu's own website isn't much help either. It suggests that with this particular machine it can sometimes help to whip out the battery, give it a couple of minutes, whack it back in, plug in an ethernet cable and get on line first that way. Nada.

Perhaps I am a complete fool after all.

It's probably worth mentioning one other important point about Linux here. It's a text-based operating system, which means that a fair few of the things you may want to tell your computer to do - installing certain new software, for example - requires you to open up a "terminal window" and actually type text into the little window.

It's a bit like the way all hackers in Hollywood movies furiously crash out lines of incomprehensible text on their laptops when they're trying to bust into the Pentagon's defence network.

As someone used solely to double-clicking on pretty pictures to do most anything on a computer this is pretty hairy stuff.

Tech support

True to form when I'm too stupid to figure out how to do something in five minutes, I phone an expert.

Geek Squad, a tech support service partnered with the Carphone Warehouse, is more used to dealing with problems with broadband and e-mail but later that night, Agent Jamie Pedder walks me through it over the phone.

Download a couple of bits of code from one of the Linux help sites on to a memory stick. Whack the memory stick into the offending laptop.

Bang a couple of lines of code into the terminal window to tell the machine to install what we've downloaded. Bingo, we're cooking on gas.

Ubuntu's running my wireless network and I'm back on-line. Easy when you know how.

The fly in the ointment remains the music management software. I still can't sync an iPod and Agent Pedder reckons that I probably won't be able to - for now at least.

While Linux is founded on the philosophy of free and easy access to its code for anyone who's interested, Apple is not. That means no iTunes for Linux, and nor is Apple likely to release such a version.

The iPod out of action is a major irritation, but I've not given up hope. There's software out there - free for Linux users as always - that promises to do what I want. I just haven't got round to downloading and playing with it yet.

For the time being, it's back to the trusty CD player. All this talk of hippy ideals has put me right in the mood for a bit of Sgt Pepper's.

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