Switching to Linux

Recently, some of my peers were considering switching to Linux. They had their doubts about whether it would suit them. Could it help them resist and divest from the "big five" tech giants of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft? Would it be too complicated for them to use? How on Earth could they ever settle on a particular distribution, given that there are hundreds that are actively maintained? Unlike Windows or MacOS, Linux operating systems are quasi-independently developed and distributed. The creative freedom at the heart of Linux allows it to be many different things to many different people, and to serve as an operating system on a profound array of hardware around the world.

One's choice of distribution comes down to many personal tastes. What kind of computing do you do? Does it look different at work compared to at home? Would you prefer an operating system made by a Massachusetts for-profit business, or perhaps a local non-profit team? There are distributions trying to appeal to tech nerds, and there are distributions trying to appeal to very casual users, including new users experimenting with a jump from Windows or MacOS. Many distributions are organized specifically for schools, or with the public sector in mind.

My personal story starts in March of 2021, when I was considering making a bold leap to all new software. For the previous 24 years, I was a loyal Microsoft user, with MS-DOS as my first operating system ever. I'd seen some recent versions of MacOS, and the desktop environment wasn't intuitive to my Windows-oriented brain at the time. I had some idea of what I wanted, because I used an old laptop, had heard about some different desktop environments, and was motivated primarily by an urge to give free software abundant opportunity in my life.

Free software is a global social movement that originated in Boston, Massachusetts with the founding of the Free Software Foundation & GNU in 1985. The name GNU was chosen as a backcronym for "GNU's Not Unix". The original idea behind GNU was to create an operating system which respects end-users' freedoms and which improves upon the great technological progress of the Unix operating system, originally invented in 1969. Within the Free Software Foundation, we label software "free" when it allows the end user to run it as they wish for any purpose, to study & change it, to redistribute it, and to redistribute their changes. To emphasize that the software is free-as-in-freedom, we also label it "libre" in contrast to "gratis". We hold that non-free, proprietary licensing & patent practices create unethical power relationships between developers and their software's end-users.

When it comes to free software, the Debian family tree is typically the place to be. Debian are a very well-established group of free software activists, and a major commercial vendor of Linux software has positioned itself "downstream" of them. In our community, the terms downstream and upstream describe the relationships between those who develop software, and those who copy, possibly modify, and redistribute the software. Having a healthy and cooperative downstream can help promote, monetize, and debug projects over time. Having a quality upstream partner makes it easy for distributors to complete project goals without having to reinvent common software such as networking stacks, desktop environments, or administrative utilities.

Many end-users may be new to thinking about desktop environments. After all, there's only one desktop on either Windows or MacOS. In free software-based operating systems like Linux, GNU, and *BSD the end-user has enough freedom and is empowered to choose between a variety of unique desktops designed by completely different teams. Some desktops embrace modern trends, look beautiful, and may be intuitive to those coming from either Windows or MacOS backgrounds. Other environments offer old-fashioned interfaces & simple designs, often marketing themselves on their humble use of system resources. Desktop environment is the first of many meaningful choices users tend to make when selecting a distribution.

Below are a few links to different free software desktop projects. There are plenty more to choose from, but these are all very popular.