Ubuntu Setup: About Linux

About the Linux Operating System

What Is Linux?

Linux is a FOSS (free and open source) operating system. It fills the same role on the computer as Microsoft Windows™ or macOS™: operating the computer’s hardware, providing the main user interface, and running all other software.

Linux is a dominant operating system in the technology, science, and academic fields. The majority of web servers, many world governments, and a number of major scientific institutes (including NASA and CERN) rely on some form or another of Linux. Even Chromebooks and Android smartphones are technically Linux devices.

What Is Debian?

In reality, “Linux” only refers to the kernel, the heart of the operating system [“OS”]. The rest of the OS is composed of hundreds of other pieces of software. There are actually over a thousand different “distributions” (or “distros”) of Linux, most specially designed for a particular use or purpose.

“Debian” is one of the oldest and most stable Linux distros. It is well known for working “out of the box” with very little modification, and for supporting the vast majority of Linux software. In fact, the most popular Linux distro, Ubuntu, is based on Debian, and several other distros have been created based on Ubuntu.

What Distro Should I Choose?

The best way to think of Linux is as a box of LEGOs - you decide what you want, and snap the pieces together. Some computer nerds like to start with just the Linux kernel itself and add each piece manually, but the rest of us like to have a starting place. That’s one of the reasons we use Ubuntu-based distros.

The most common distro at MousePaw Media is Ubuntu MATE, which can be customized to suit your tastes, whether you prefer the feel of Windows XP, macOS, Ubuntu Unity, classic GNOME, or something entirely different.

Optionally, you may choose the polished, modern Ubuntu, which uses the GNOME 3 desktop environment. It’s a unique desktop environment, which can be learned in a period of about fifteen minutes, regardless of your computer experience level.

Other options include...

  • Kubuntu: Packed with cool graphical effects and customization.
  • Linux Mint: A polished, easy to use option which resembles Windows 7.
  • Lubuntu: A lightweight option for slower machines.
  • Ubuntu Budgie: A modern option, which resembles Windows 10 in many ways.
  • Xubuntu: A lighter, Apple-like system.

We’ll get to the process of selecting and downloading an operating system in Ubuntu Setup: Installing.

What Is Free and Open Source?

Open Source vs Free Software

Open Source refers in part to a program’s source code being publicly visible. However, the definition does not stop here: Open Source is a distinct philosophy of software development. The Open Source Initiative [OSI] maintains the official definition, which emphasizes software freedom - the right of anyone to freely view, modify, and distribute the source code.

By contrast, the philosophy of Free Software (“free” as in “free speech”, not necessarily as in “free beer”) emphasizes software freedom to an extreme. Free Software posits that non-free (“proprietary”) software, being any software which does not adhere to the standards of software freedom, is inherently morally wrong and should not be used. To this end, their main license, the GNU Public License [GPL], requires that any source code that uses GPL code to be licensed under the GPL as well, effectively preventing proprietary use. Unfortunately, this also prevents developers from using GPL code in many projects licensed under other open source licenses.

The Open Source Initiative [OSI] and the Free Software Foundation [FSF] have long been at odds over this stance. While the OSI seeks to build bridges with proprietary software companies, the FSF seeks to widen the chasm.

Thankfully, most of the politics only affects the software developers themselves. Software developed under either philosophy, known collectively as Free and Open Source Software [FOSS], makes up virtually the entire Linux universe.

How Is This Possible?

FOSS software is developed through volunteer efforts of developers around the world. Usually, these are projects we start to solve a problem we personally encountered, or just because we want to make something cool for ourselves.

Free, As In Cost?

It is important to note that, while most FOSS software costs nothing, some software does have a price, especially business oriented software and some games. However, you can rest assured there are no surprise costs. If you can download and install the software without first paying for it, it’s free.

All the same, you should consider donating to software projects that you use a lot. Regardless of license, it costs money to make software, and most developers donate their time.

Isn’t “Open Source” Insecure?

A common myth is that “open source” software is unsafe, because the bad guys can read the source code. In reality, FOSS software is generally safer than proprietary software, because there are more developers watching for bugs and security issues. The bad guys don’t need to read the source to find holes (just look at all the viruses for Windows), but the good guys do need to read the source to solve the problem.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I run Windows software?

Yes and no. Some Windows software can be run on Linux using a program called WINE, but results vary greatly. Their official website has a database listing all the software that’s been tested with WINE, and reports on how well it runs.

Another option is to run a VirtualBox of Microsoft Windows™ inside of Linux. This means that you have a full installation of Microsoft Windows™ that you can use via a special software application on Linux. You do need to bring your own Microsoft Windows™ installation disc and license key. However, You can find free (and legal) downloads of Windows 98 and prior through many abandonware catalogs.

Is there a Linux replacement for...?

Quite possibly! While Linux alternatives to popular Windows software look different, they are often similar or identical in features. Here are a few examples. You can find more at alternativeto.net.

Instead of... Try...
Microsoft Office™ LibreOffice FreeOffice* WPS Office*
Evernote® Simplenote* Cherrytree Rednotebook
Apple iTunes® Amarok Banshee Clementine Rhythmbox
Adobe Photoshop® GIMP Krita
Adobe Lightroom® Darktable RawTherapee
Adobe Illustrator® Inkscape
Adobe Animate® Synfig Studio
Adobe Audition® Audacity
Adobe InDesign® Scribus
Autodesk 3DS Max® Autodesk Maya® Blender
Any video editor Kdenlive Openshot
Avid Pro Tools® Ardour5 LMMS
Autodesk AutoCAD® FreeCAD BrisCAD**
Finale® MuseScore Lilypond

(*Proprietary freeware.)

(**Proprietary, not free.)

I have an iDevice. Will it still work with my PC?

Unfortunately, Apple® blocked music sync with Linux on all 4th Gen and later iDevices. There are ways around this, however. I have an iPod touch® that runs Google Music™ (a free service), that my Ubuntu machine automatically syncs with.

Will my <device> work?

Fitbit® and Livescribe™ are two devices I’m frequently asked about. Although there is demand from the community, these companies have shown no interest in supporting Linux. There are some open-source efforts to get these devices working with Linux, but it’ll be a while.

On the other hand, Wacom tablets, many cameras, and most printers (just to name a few things) work BEAUTIFULLY with Linux!


Ubuntu MATE 18.04 has no control panel for Wacom devices, while Ubuntu 18.04 does. If you’re using MATE, you can control your Wacom tablet using a set of scripts written by Jason C. McDonald.

Ultimately, you should just do a web search to see if your device is compatible.

Does Linux support speech recognition?

While there are a number of projects attempting to add this functionality to Linux, there is no ready-to-use speech recognition software that works with Linux. Unfortunately, Dragon NaturallySpeaking® has no plans to work on Linux either.