Thursday, December 17, 2009

What every Linux user should know

ScienceBlogs is running an item about using Linux. In his post, Greg Laden talks about "topics that a savvy non-techie yet still geekie desktop/laptop Linux user should know", including:
  1. Introduction
  2. OS, Distribution, Kernel, Windows Manager, Desktop
  3. The file system, with a focus on home, but including useful information like dot-files.
  4. The Gnome Desktop
  5. What is on the hard drive?
  6. Backing Up
  7. Users, permissions, sudo.
  8. Packages
  9. Making WiFi work and the problems of freedom and drivers
  10. Firefox, Flash, DVD's and ISOs
  11. Upgrading/updating.
  12. Linux/OSS equivalents to commonly used apps (OpenOffice, The Gimp, Xara Xtreme, and Gnumeric)
  13. File based and command line processing of photos/graphics.
  14. Old fashioned text processing: Gedit
  15. Old fashioned text processing: Emacs outline mode, LaTeX, RegEx, and Sed
I agree with most things, but these days I don't know that a non-technical user needs to know the command line to do anything with Linux. Those days are long gone. While the command line is definitely useful (and I cut my budding admin teeth on the command line) I prefer to recommend new users explore the more-familiar GUI.

So, allow me to make my own list of things a non-technical user should probably see:
  1. Introduction to Linux
  2. How to install Linux
  3. The GNOME desktop
  4. Navigating folders
  5. Backing up & restoring files
  6. How to install extra software
  7. Wireless networking
  8. Linux equivalents to commonly used apps (, GIMP, etc)
It's a shorter list, to be sure. And to be honest, the first 4 items are pretty basic stuff. Those last 4 topics can be more advanced, depending on the user.

On a related topic: My wife and I recently discussed upgrading her laptop to Fedora 12 over this coming weekend (she's still running Fedora 11.) She is not a technical user at all, but is comfortable installing Linux on her laptop all by herself. The bit where she gets a little worried is backing up all her data, then putting it back after re-installing her laptop.

While my wife has run the install process previously, I've always done the backup beforehand, and restored her data afterwards. Her data won't fit on a USB thumb drive, so I create a compressed tar file ("tar.bz2") of her home directory, copy it over our home network to another computer - then back again after she re-installs. It's easy to do, but kind of hard to explain to someone who doesn't know "tar" and "ssh".


  1. Of those, backups will be the toughest.

    I think only Mac has really gotten it "right" with TimeMachine, where the user doesn't even need to think about backups. They just happen. To restore a file, you go into TimeMachine, flip back until you find the file, then click a button to restore.

    In Windows, it's confusing.

    In Linux, tar is as good a method as any, but I prefer rsync to another Linux box. For a non-geek, rsync will be too confusing. So then you're left with doing a tar backup. Which is fine. You talk a lot about using a GUI tool to do things in Linux, that you don't need to use the command line anymore. And a non-geek can probably easily create an "archive" file (tar) of their stuff. The problem is making sure to get all those dot-files and dot-directories. Most importantly, for Evolution, so you don't lose any saved (local) emails. And for Firefox so you don't have to recreate bookmarks.

  2. Two addiitional items occured to me that don't earn heading status in an outline but should be on anylist of thigns to know:

    1) Linux tends to be case sensitive;
    2) Linux is silent when working. So, deleting a file will not be followed by a confirmation request, etc. This requires a little more tha n a single sentence to explain (so people know why it is good) but it may be important


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