Friday 24th June 2005
For many years now, Windows has been the dominant player in operating systems, and probably will be for some time to come. This doesn't mean that there are other alternatives, many of them free, and I'll be looking at one of those alternatives in this article.
There are many areas where there are free alternatives, and in one of those areas, we can already see Microsoft's dominance slowly ebbing away in another area - specifically, internet browsers. Internet Explorer is still used by the vast majority of web users, but free alternatives, particularly Mozilla Firefox, are gradually becoming more and more popular. Internet Explorer's usage has fallen to below 90%, and possibly even further. On some sites, Internet Explorer's usage has dropped to 65% with Firefox taking some 25%. While this is far from the fall of Windows, it shows that Microsoft do have some very real competition.
The competition to Windows, or at least part of it, comes from Linux. There are various different types of Linux, each behaving differently, called distributions, or distros for short. In this article, I will be looking at Debian and seeing if it is a viable alternative to Windows. The current version, 3.1 or Sarge, has just been released, although I have been running the testing version for quite some time. While this may not be the most practical choice for those that just want a simple Windows alternative, it is the distribution I have used frequently and so can actually write about. Much of what I talk about, especially after the installation, can be applied to almost any distribution - the programs mentioned should be available on all major distributions. As such, although this may not be the most 'newbie-friendly' distribution, many of the points are still valid for those distributions. Once the system is set up, it should be easy for anybody to use it in everyday life.
First thing's first - installation. Installing Debian is relatively easy - throughout every stage, there is an explanation, which certainly helps you throughout. Where you are uncertain, the default values tend to be fine. I won't go through the entire installation since most of it is intuitive, and is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, anybody who knows how to install Windows and a little about computers should be able to manage it without any problems, especially with a guide. It installed, and used my various hardware such as network cards, without a problem on both my computers - one an older 1.2ghz Athlon, the other an nForce2 based machine.
So, what's the first major difference between Windows and Debian? First of all, Debian has a huge range of programs, called packages. From depositories on the internet, with some packages included on the CD, you can download everything from an office suite to an instant messenger (more on those later). Naturally, it's all free. Installation is simple - just bring up a command console, log in as root (explained in a moment) and type 'apt-get install' and then whichever program you want. You can easily search the package depository using the command 'apt-cache search' and then whatever you're looking for, or by going online and searching the Debian website itself for packages. You don't need to worry about dependencies - apt-get will work out all the other programs it needs to make the one you selected run automatically.
The next new idea you may come across is the user 'root'. Most people that use a Windows NT derivative as their personal computer just spend all of their time as Administrator, which is what root effectively is. However, Debian strongly advises you to stay as an ordinary user, which is sound advice - the only time you're likely to need to be root is to install programs.
So, to summarise so far, we can say that Debian is relatively easy to install to the level of a working operating system with minimal knowledge, with plenty of free programs that are easily obtained. From here on, almost all of what is said can be applied to most other major distributions.