The best things in life are free

Here I am again, enjoying the irony that the first time I've had a chance to blog in ages is while I'm on a business trip.

It feels like Linux's place in personal computing has gone up another notch — people have been asking me what it's like to use Linux as a writing environment. So, partly to kick-start the blog, and partly because I think the more articles about using Linux in everyday life, the better, I'm going to do a little series of entries on writing in Linux. I don't aim to get very technical — one of my major arguments is that a casual user doesn't need to get technical — but I'll try to include enough detail to make it interesting.

First stop: an overview. Unlike Windows or Macintosh, there are lots of different flavours of Linux out there, and they're all made by different groups of people. In order to be Linux, they have to meet certain standards. Not all of them are free, although any that you would be interested in for personal computing are. There are a few flavours (called "distros") specifically aimed at people who are not hard-core computer people but want to explore alternatives to Windows/Mac. The one I'm using is called Ubuntu, and it's very popular.

The Ubuntu site tells you more about how to try out and install the operating system better than I ever could, so I'll leave it to them. Here are some highlights, though:

  • The environment looks pretty.

  • It plays nice with older/slower computers.

  • Unlike Windows/Mac, when Ubuntu is installed, it also installs all the applications you'll probably want to use right away: a word processor, spreadsheet, presenter, photo editor, music player, basic games (like Solitaire)and so on. It does this in about the same amount of time it takes to load just a new verion of Windows.

  • Although there is a certain "Toto we're not in Kansas anymore" feel to it, if you already know Windows/Mac and take your time learning the new space, you'll be fine.

  • If something you want wasn't installed right away, just find the Add/Remove Programs menu option and search for what you do want. Unless it explicitly says so otherwise, everything available from here is safe. That means protection from spyware and other nasty stuff.

  • If what you're interested in is getting some writing done, probably everything you want is already installed.

  • All your stuff (documents, photos, music) gets saved in a folder named after your user name. It's called your home folder. Ubuntu automatically creates some sub-folders and adds bookmarks to them on the menu to help you get organised.

  • By the way, when it comes time to back up your hard drive, that home folder I just mentioned is the only one you need to back up. All your data and personal settings are saved there. Really.

So, it's pleasant, it's friendly, it's efficient, and best of all, it's free. For real free. Not "my brother got it off his friend whose sister-in-law works in IT free", but really free. And so is all the software stuff that comes with it.

By the way, this blog entry was written on my Nokia 800 using the off-line blog writer MaemoWordPy. The N-800 uses Linux too, although not Ubuntu. But yes, there is lots of free software for it as well.

When people are giving away such nice, useful stuff, why pay for frustration?