A few months back, my friend Chad inspired me with a post describing his foray into the world of open source. I’ve been a fan of open source for a while. I dabbled in OpenOffice.org, an open source office suite with applications that give MS Office a run for its money — partly by not even charging any money. I have even administered and used a lot of applications that run on LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP). I blog in on a WordPress.com platform, administer a SMF forum and a MediaWiki field guide, and developed a blog for a friend using WordPress.org. In all that, though, I never learned anything about Linux itself since all that fun stuff happened in the background on whatever served provider I used.

So when I saw Chad’s blog and that he had actually installed and used (at times, exclusively) Linux as an operating system for his day-to-day computing needs, it excited me. As much as I appreciated the freedom of not having to pay money for great software, the thought of getting away with not even having to pay for Windows as an operating system blew my mind. Could I find complete freedom from the chains of the corporate computing world?

Chad’s blog actually made it sound easy. And even better, it sounded like you could maybe even revive older hardware with this Linux stuff and make it run better than it ever did with Windows.

[I] recently created what my coworkers are calling the “Ubuntu Lounge”, a computer room on the third floor of our library where I’ve set up four legacy machines to run Xubuntu and Fluxbuntu.

Okay, Chad didn’t say specifically in his blog that he made it run better than it ever did with Windows, but after researching these strange and mystical names (Ubuntu, Xubuntu, Fluxbuntu) I started to get the idea that this magical reviving might be possible.

You see, I’ve had this little HP laptop that I bought back in 2001 that had died of a virus likely downloaded through Kazaa and compounded by a chronic case of Windows ME. To make things worse, the restore disks that I had gotten with the laptop wouldn’t work. If I wanted to ever use the thing again, I would have to either find a Windows ME install disk to use with the license I already had, or I would have to shell out money for a Windows XP license. I remember at one time, Chad had actually mentioned that I should look into putting Linux on it, but at the time those happy-go-lucky distributions like Ubuntu never turned up on my radar.

Also, I work at a non-profit that doesn’t always have the money to upgrade its hardware, so the thought of using Linux to bring old hardware back to life — without having to pay for any license fees — really appealed to me.

After poking around at the different distros on the plate, I decided to try putting Xubuntu on a machine at work that had pretty much stopped limping along in XP. I downloaded the live CD. What a concept, by the way, letting you try out a whole operating system from a CD that doesn’t even have to install a single file on your hard drive. After trying it out, I decided to go ahead and install the full version. And guess what — I liked it.

It’s probably because I started out in Xubuntu’s XFCE window manager that I still gravitate to it over the more popular KDE and Gnome environments. But I also love it as a great middle ground: not as weighty as KDE and Gnome, but it’s user friendliness is so much better than Fluxbox.

Let me take a moment to explain some of these crazy words to the uninitiated. I know they sound confusing.

Linux is the kernel of the system. It’s what lets the hardware and software talk to each other. A distribution (or distro) is all the goodies on top of the kernel that make it into something that you can turn on and run the way you expect a computer to do. The distro packages the kernel together with a window manager (which, imagine that, manages your window environment) and a smattering of software that works with the window manager.

  • Ubuntu is the name of one of the most popular distros. It packages the Gnome window manager (one of the most popular wm’s) with a ton of popular Gnome-based software.
  • Kubuntu is a distro in the Ubuntu family that uses the KDE window manager (prettier and far more configurable than Gnome, but somehow less popular overall) with a bunch of KDE-based software.
  • The Xubuntu distro uses XFCE as its window manager and generally tries to get away with sofware that doesn’t depend too much on the Gnome or KDE libraries.

The above three distros are all canonical distributions of the appropriately named orgnaization Canonical Ltd that engineers, supports and releases updates for them on a regular basis with fancy animal names like Dapper Drake, Edgy Eft, Feisty Fawn, Gutsy Gibbon, and most recently, Hardy Heron.

The Fluxbuntu distro is a non-canonical and non-Canonical distribution that combines the reliability of the Ubuntu base with the ultra-light-weight Fluxbox window manager.

So is all that as clear as mud now? Good. Don’t worry, you’ll catch on. The beauty of it is that you can install all of the window managers on the same computer and run whichever one you want whenever you log on to your computer. The computer I’m typing on right now came with Vista installed, but I shrunk down the partition and installed Ubuntu, Kubuntu and Xubuntu all together on a separate partition. And you don’t necessarily have to install a whole -buntu just to run the software that comes with that distribution. For instance if you like Kubuntu’s Amarok music player better than Ubuntu’s Rhythmbox, you can have it. Just use your fancy Synaptic Package Manager to install the program, and it will check to make sure that you have all the libraries you need in order to make it work.

If this sounds like a bunch of nerdy jargon and doesn’t make much sense, don’t worry. Two months ago I wouldn’t have understood what I’m talking about. So, in no time, you too can be as nerdy of a noob as me. I pretty much use Xubuntu exclusively at work and at home. If I can do it, then so can you. I can even recommend some required viewing so that when you take the nerd test you’ll pass with flying colors. You do know the difference between a TARDIS and a DRADIS, right? I mean, you could potentially catch a TARDIS on the DRADIS, but you’re not too likely to see a DRADIS on a TARDIS. And you know that Serenity is in Firefly and is a Firefly at the same time, right? Beats. Bears. Battlestar Galactica. I’m off to Tashi Station to pick up some power converters. Leggy Blonde, goodbye.