Getting Started with Open Source

You may have heard this before, but Open Source Software is great. OK, we don't really need a repeat of "Technology and Learning for the Rest of Us", but hopefully somebody got hold of the idea. The honest difficulty can be that OSS is a much bigger world than a lot of us imagine, and getting from a sentience of it to practical usage can involve digesting some complexity. So where is a good place to begin?

There are lots of ways that you can use Open Source Software in bits and pieces, like running the Firefox browser. There are a lot of similar individual Open Source programs that run on Windows and Mac OS. Many of you may already do that. But the most cohesive way to really access and understand the Open Source context with all the tools available is to start running an Open Source operating system.

If you happen to have an Android device, it could be a ready example because Android was developed from Linux and is able to run most of the software they have in common. One thing to note about it, however, is that many device manufacturers enhance the operating system, so it may turn out fairly different in the end. And a lot of Android versions come upon the obsolescence problem discussed in TLRU fairly quickly. Further, apps available in the android App Store may not be quite what you would have available on a standard issue version of Linux.

Then again, you may want a desktop computer or want to get the full-blown experience instead. Since that sounds as if it could involve invasive things like replacing an operating system or needing a spare computer, it might sound intimidating. But it is not actually that difficult. Many types of Linux can operate off of what is called a live CD (or DVD). This is a disk of the operating system you can start your computer off of and run with all of its software just as if it were on your hard disk (keep in mind that CD's and DVD's work a lot slower than a hard disk). So you can get a feel for what it is all like and whether it works on your machine without changing anything on the computer. Outside of some special situations, this is just not something that can usually be done with Windows or Mac OS, so it is something helpful for people to know about.

In the case that your computer doesn't have a DVD drive or you want to experience things closer to speed, live DVD's can be burned to a USB stick that you can buy almost anywhere. These work in a similar way to the live DVD, and can even be setup to write data so you can keep your work on it just like a regular hard drive. Running an operating system from a USB stick will often require capacity of 8 GB or greater, so keep that in mind before making further plans. The live USB stick option also kindly saves our landfills from yet further discarded DVD platters.

If you run Windows and are willing to install something, Ubuntu Linux has a version they call WUBI you could use. This allows you to install Linux as if it were a Windows program and boot into it without getting too technically involved with hard drives, etc. WUBI can be nice because it almost feels like a Linux installation in which documents can be saved. There are two versions, WUBI and WUBI-EFI, the latter being for newer computers that have EFI.

There are other options for giving Open Source operating systems a try, but for your average computer user, these are probably the most accessible. The methods included in this article are intentionally chosen because they are fairly easy and will either not change anything on your computer or have little chance of causing problems. With them available, there is really no reason not to jump in a give it a go. More on this will be coming up in future articles.

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