Open Source Computing — Linux

This week is Open Source Week here at the institute. We’re celebrating all things open source. We’re taking a broad view of this term, which generally includes peer production, open collaboration, and free licensing.

tux_monoThe lovable Tux, the penguin and mascot, represents the open-source computing world of Linux (source for cover image), which might more accurately be called GNU/Linux (but let’s not get into that). If you’ve heard of Linux, you probably use it, think it is for computer geeks, or both. If you haven’t heard of Linux, let me introduce you to the most popular computer operating system in the world. You are using at least two forms of it right now if you’re reading these words. First, the Low Technology Institute runs on Linux and open-source software, so I can only put this out because of it. The servers that run the internet, yep, most of them are Linux. That’s two, but you’re likely using more versions of the operating system and don’t even know it. Do you use an internet router? Linux. Are you reading this on an android? If so, you can thank Linux again, which is the basis of the smartphone’s OS. Does your television include a DVR? Probably Linux. Why is Linux so quietly popular? Because it is open source, free, and adaptable (kind of like the research and work we do at the institute).

An Inadequately Brief History

AT&T developed the Unix operating system, which they had to make free after their trust was broken up in the 1970s. It grew in popularity but became paid software again in the 1980s. Richard Stallman worked to create an alternative, called GNU (which stands for “GNU’s Not Unix”). His software was distributed with the GNU General Public License, which allowed for the free distribution, use, and modification of the software as long as the same license was attached to derivatives. In the early 1990s, Linus Torvalds released the Linux kernel. Think of it this way, the kernel is the car frame and the GNU software are the components that get connected to that frame. Because it is free and open source, the operating system can be adapted to fit whatever computer architecture or needs a person has.

Ways You Can Use Linux

In addition to the behind-the-scenes uses I mentioned above, transitioning your desktop computing to Linux is easy. Do you have an old computer or laptop? You could install a Linux distro (distribution) designed for old, low-memory machines, such as Puppy Linux, Damn Small Linux (DSL), or Lubuntu (“light-Ubuntu,” which we chose partially because my partner’s nickname is Lou). How about a specialized media platform? Linux has a distro for that; try Fedora Design Suite, Ubuntu Studio, or Apodio . You can even install a full, user-friendly desktop operating system, like Ubuntu ( or one of its derivatives) or Mint, that is an easy transition for Windows or Mac users. And it is all free.

A note of caution, however, is needed. Linux is not Windows or Mac OS, so a new user is going to hit some speed bumps. It takes a little workaround to get Netflix running, for example. You’ll get to meet a few new programs that will take the place of your usual ones (see below). The internet is your friend and helper on this journey, as answers for whatever question you have will probably be answered in the Ubuntu community pages (if you choose an Ubuntu flavor) or more generally on the web. I usually search with the distro name and version followed by the problem I am having, such as “Ubuntu 16.04 triple monitor set-up.”

Equivalent Applications

One of the biggest difficulties in migrating to Linux is our investment in the applications we’ve learned to use on Windows or Mac. Almost all of them have equivalents in Linux that look and/or function like the programs you’re used to (and if not, look into emulators that can run Windows or Mac programs on a Linux computer). The following is an incomplete list of the equivalents that I have found (bolstered by outside additions from the pages noted at the end of the post). Again, like the operating system, these are all free, open-source programs. Many of them are also available for Windows and Mac.

Office Applications

Microsoft Office (Word, PowerPoint, Excel) → Libre Office Suite (Write, Impress, Calc)
Adobe Reader → Xpdf, Evince
Adobe Distiller → Libre Office, kprinter
Adobe Editor → pdfedit, pdfjam, pdfshuffle


Web Browser → Firefox, Chromium
Outlook → Thunderbird
Messaging → Pidgin
FTP → FileZilla


Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator → Libre Office Draw, Inkscape
Adobe Photoshop → GIMP
Media Player → VLC
Film Editing → Openshot Video Editor
Sound Editing → Audacity

Pages Used to Compile this Post

And the Wikipedia pages for Linux, GNU, and Linus Torvalds.

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