Ever wonder about Linux...
To non-Linux users it will sound strange, but you quickly get used to it. Linux comes in distros. Distro is short for distribution which is what we call the various kinds of Linux (sort of like a brand name). Each distro is different and often represent a project of an individual or small group of individuals. In some cases big companies are behind the distro, as is the case with Fedora (Redhat) and SUSE (Novell). Some distros are commercial, but most are free. Some are both with the fee paying for support. Linspire for example is both. Freespire is the free version and comes without support. Linspire is cheap by Windows standards, usually under $50. Some distros come with subscriptions that enable you to access repositories or software sources, not available to others. Mandriva (formerly Mandrake) does this. Almost every Linux distro is available in a free form.
Free also means that you can give it away or even sell it. There are several companies that offer Linux on disks for a nominal fee. Otherwise you get it by downloading it. This makes a hispeed connection a must. Typically a distro ranges in size from 50 MB to 4.7 GB. Most top out at the capacity of a CD. If you don't have a hispeed connection, buy it on disk. The source for distros is usually a site such as distrowatch.org. There are several others. The disk service is available on their main page.
Some distros try to emulate the look and feel of Windows and some try to emulate the Mac. Most try to avoid this, but they work basically the same way as Windows or OS/X with icons and menus.
In Windows you get the standard XP desktop with the menu at the bottom, the system tray on the right and the Start button on the bottom left. You can add or take away toolbars and move the menu bar to the top or side if you wish. Most Windows users don't do this unless it happens by accident and then they think that someone messed up their Windows. You also have the desktop where you open your windows for viewing and change the wallpaper for eye candy. The name for Windows' desktop manager is Explorer (not the same as Internet Explorer).
Linux is different. Linux is really just the kernel which developers add on top of it. The kernel is controlled by Linus Torvalds who wrote Linux in the early 1990s as a computer student in Finland. He controls what the kernel does or doesn't do and then releases it to the public. Developers take this and add their own spin to it. This is the ultimate in a digital toybox.
When the kernel is finished loading then a Window manager is loaded or not. The most basic ones may just dump you at a prompt, similar but not the same as DOS. All of the big distros are friendlier than this.
A window manager does the equivalent to what Explorer does in Windows. It gives you a graphical display. You get a log in prompt and then a request for a password which you set when you installed it or which came with the disk as the case may be.
There are dozens of window managers for Linux. The two main ones are called GNOME and KDE. They are developed independent of Linux by their developers and the Linux distro incorporates them into their version of the OS. Gnome looks more like a Mac by default and KDE looks more like Windows. KDE emphasizes features and Gnome emphasizes simplicity. Every Linux user has his preference. Either will run your Linux programs. The window manager just dictates how to load them and what happens when they open up.
To complicate things further you can have an additional layer on top of KDE or Gnome, giving 3D desktop effects, similar to what happens in Vista. This is transparent to the user once it is set up.
On my setup, I am running Ubuntu 7.10 and am using KDE right now, but I have both Gnome and other window managers installed. I can choose which window manager to load on my login screen. I have modified my KDE to be more like Gnome with the menu bar at the top a la the Mac, but use KDE because I like the feature set it gives me.
I have Compiz Fusion installed to give 3D graphics effects that take advantage of my 3D graphics card. This gives me multiple virtual desktops on a rotating cube with wobbly window effects and a lot of other useless but pretty features, such as rain or snow, etc. None of this really matters, except one feature not found on Windows.
All Linux Window managers have as many virtual desktops as you want. Without the 3D cube, these are usually accessed by clicking on an icon on the menu bar or sometimes by right clicking on the desktop. Virtual desktops are really useful. They keep your screen free of clutter by spreading your workspace across as many screens as you want. You can read email in one, downloading in another, listening to music on another, etc. This way you don't have windows covering each other up or be hunting around on your bar for a minimized window. This is what frustrates me the most when I go back to using XP.
Linux and Windows have different roots. Linux is an offshoot of Unix which is older than Windows. Unix is still around, but mostly runs a mainframe computers. This means that the file structure is different and how it handles security. Linux allows you to read your Windows drives, but Windows ignores Linux. Without special programs you cannot access Linux files from Windows. Also Linux is very security conscious which is why you don't need to run an antivirus program.
No program can install itself without your authorization. Most Linux distros have a two level security, user level and administrator level. To login you must usually login as user. To change your system you must give the admin password as well. Some distros do not allow you to log in as Admin at all. Admin is referred to as root since you have the access to the most basic level of the file structure.
Linux is peculiar about some things and not about others. It matters for example whether you use upper or lowercase in file names whereas Windows does not care if it is my file.txt or My File.txt. Linux sees these as two different files. Windows on the other hand is fussy about suffixes such as .exe and Linux generally does not need them at all. You can add as many dots in a Linux file name as you want whereas Windows usually truncates the file name at the first dot and assumes the following three letters designate the file type. Confusing.
Linux is not any more complicated than Windows. It will be quite familiar in many ways and takes some getting used to in others.
You can try Linux without installing it by downloading what is usually referred to as a Live disk and the full OS including most software runs from the CD. Linux is really an mix of different projects all coming together, from the kernel to the desktop to the programs that come with it. All of it requires lots of collaboration and to this end there are extensive online forums to help and get feedback.