If you are new to Linux and Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) this text with links to information will help you get started.

What is “Free and Open Source Software”?

     Much software that you use is “closed”. You can not change it, you can not fix bugs, you are told when to use it, how many people can use it, and what machinery you can use it on. You can only use the software the way the maker allows you to use it.  “Open” Software allows developers to re-use software created by other people so you can get better software at lower cost. However there is no guarantee that you will get the sources to allow you, the end user, to change the software. Even if you do not have the expertise to change the software, if you had the source code you could hire someone local to do that, but that would be your choice. You would have control.

Free Software (as defined by the Free Software Foundation) forces the developer to make the source code available to the end user. Linux (also known as “GNU/Linux”) is an example of Free Software.

 What is “Linux”?

Linux is a project started by Linus Torvalds in 1991 to allow a complete operating environment of Free Software. Specifically it is a “kernel”, which controls the hardware of your system and can run applications. You need more than a “kernel” however, so the project took libraries and utility programs from a project called “GNU” of the Free Software Foundation, which is why the combined software is
often called “GNU/Linux”.

In addition to this software there are often databases, graphical software, and many other pieces of software that go into a “Distribution” which allow people to pull down a full system, with useful applications from the Internet.

What is a “Distribution”?

You can think of a distribution as “a whole operating system plus much more”. Sometimes distributions are made by communities of people (Debian, Mint, Slackware, etc) or companies (such as SuSE, Red Hat Software, Ubuntu) and sometimes the companies have completely free
versions made or maintained by their communities (OpenSuSE, Fedora, Ubuntu) in the case of the previous companies. This may be a little confusing right now, but you will soon understand as you go to the websites of each distribution and start downloading them.

Is there more?

Yes. After you download the basic distribution you will find that most distributions also have a “repository” of additional software that you can search and find the software that you need. In addition to that, there are additional repositories of software on sites like GitHub, GitLab,
SourceForge and independent websites that you can also access. 

In addition to all of this is the concept of “Open Hardware”. While hardware and software are  obviously different things and giving out gratis hardware would be difficult to do, the concept of “Open Hardware” allows end users to know how their hardware works, change their hardware or find someone to fix it in the future when the hardware company goes out of business.

Finally there are groups that have “Open Culture”, that provide media freely licensed to allow better use of videos, audio, photographs, pictures and more. This is best shown by “Creative Commons”.


OK, great! But “Where’s the beef?”

Actually your FIRST stop might be your local library. Often they have beginner’s books that explain how to get started with Linux. These books will tell you how to install a distribution, and often either include a DVD in the back or a link to a website where you can download it onto a USB Flash drive. The book will also help you start to use the distribution the book is written about.
There are typically also “beginners guides” at various web sites for the Distributions. Searching the Internet for things like “<name-of-distribution> beginner’s guide” will get PDFs, Videos, and other things to help you.  You can also go to sites like to find a distro that you might like. Look at the popularity ratings, the last time it was updated, and how many developers are working on it. Many people like distributions like Ubuntu (and its offshoot, Mint), and many others like Fedora and OpenSuSE. Some are die-hard Slackware users. Searching for “what Linux distribution is good for beginners” or “Best Linux Distros for Beginners” will find lists of distributions that are popular and “easy” for beginners to use.

Other things you might consider is whether or not you have a local user group near you, or a Linux user group at a university or at your retirement home (hey, there can be “older” Linux users too!)


So many choices! I can not make up my mind!

Just choose one! You can start with that distribution, learn a lot, then choose another distribution later and try that. After all, they are free to pull down. All it costs is your time, and you will learn something each time.

Do I need another computer?

Of course some people might say “just erase your other operating system and use Linux”, but the good news is that there are many ways that Linux can share the same computer you already have. First of all, determine what computer you have. Linux runs on a variety of different computers, but typically people have either a 32-bit or 64-bit Intel/AMD style of computer. Make sure the distribution you use matches your computer. Many distributions support what is known as a “Live” file system. This means you can boot Linux and run in the memory of your computer plus the USB or DVD drive without touching your hard disk. This allows you to see if your hardware supports Linux and gives you a rough idea as to what it is like. You could even mount your existing file system and store data on it. Of course unless you store your data on some non-volatile device, you will lose what you have done when you shut it down. Knoppix is a whole distribution that centers on a “Live” file system. Once you have tried Linux, you can decide if you want to install Linux on an additional disk (inside your computer or on an external USB device).

You can also install Linux on a part of one of your disks. In this case you may have to shrink your existing file system, then install Linux on another partition.

Another way of installing Linux is in a virtual machine on your existing computer system.

In the meantime, here are some other web sites that can help you learn things and find