Just posted this on my blog, but I don't think anyone reads that. Thought since I'd spent a few hours working on it, I'd put it here, too.
There is an alternative to MS Windows as an operating System for your computer, and it's not a Macintosh. In the last few years, Linux has blossomed into a full fledged Desktop system and is comparable to Windows in every respect except the installed user base. In the spheres of the computer literati, Linux is a fixture, a recognized player. In the real world,
however, likely responses to a Linux reference will be, "Isn't that something to do with computers?" or, "Will it run on my Windows XP machine?" The answer to both those questions, interestingly enough is, "Yes," but probably not in any sense you'd imagine. The right
question that the masses of computer users should be asking is, "Why should I care?" ... and they should be expecting a serious answer.
One of the most difficult concepts for an average computer user to grasp about Linux is that it is free. Free. Free. Free. Free as in beer (it doesn't cost anything), and free as in liberty (once you've got it, you can do whatever you want with it.) You could even take the installation disk you acquired for free and sell it to somebody. Don't laugh ... check out all the people doing just that on Ebay. A surprising number of people aren't willing to take it unless they pay somebody. Actually, there are some legitimate reasons to buy a copy, but we'll get to that later. Scott Ballmer, Microsoft executive, famously referred to Linux as a communist plot. Why should someone allow free access and use of a product to replace an extremely successful capitalistic venture?
There are people, who simply believe that a tool as pervasive and necessary in today's world as a computer should be freely available to anyone who wants it, and that, furthermore, the internal workings of that computer should be visible to whomever uses it. Think about that for a moment ... if that argument makes sense to you on any level, you are a potential Linux user. People willing to accept a black box filtering more and more critical facets of their lives are natural customers for Microsoft. People who have reservations about that kind of exposure, or the lack of it, should consider their options.
On the other hand, one of the worst mistakes many people can make is to say, "Well, that's easy. Let me install it today." Most computer users have been exposed to Windows for an extended period of time. They have come to know it's vagaries, and are comfortable with the procedures required to make it work in a way that is comfortable to them. Linux is not Windows,
and there is a learning curve involved. Depending on you, and exactly how you use your computer, that learning curve may be quite steep, indeed. No steeper than the original learning path you traversed to learn Windows, but by now you've forgotten just how difficult that was.
For most people, the correct solution is to install Linux as a dual-boot setup on the same PC they currently use for Windows. Linux is acclimated to a world in which MS Windows is ubiquitous, and includes tools to co-exist with it in a friendly manner. Once such a system is working, at each boot you will be presented with the option to proceed to Windows or to your Linux distribution. Linux generally comes with a complete Office Suite that is largely compatible with Microsoft Office, and data generated by either Windows or Linux applications can be accessed from either operating system. It also includes Internet browsers and Email programs that will be intuitive in their usage to people accustomed to Internet Explorer or MS Outlook.
Doesn't that sound wonderful. It is! ... but getting to there from where you are now can be quite a headache for people who are less than computer whiz kids. The best solution is to find a Linux user willing to help you with the initial setup. Unfortunately, there are a multitude of folks out there who don't know a single Linux user. In that case, it may be an advantage to you to actually purchase your first Linux OS from a company that specializes in assisting Windows users in making the transition to Linux. Two such companies are Xandros and Linspire. You can find them easily on Google. (You should understand that such solutions may be frowned at by Linux purists, but, Hey! ... do what you gotta do.) There are free distibutions which purport to be "easy for beginners," (ha ha) and if you are patient, and capable of reading and following instructions, one of them may well be all you need. A good place to look for ideas is DistroWatch.
Finally, there are numerous "distibution choosers," which can help you get an idea of which one might suit your needs. One of my favorites is here.
There are two real advantages to choosing Linux today. First, and most obvious, is the virtually complete lack of the computer viruses and spyware so prevalent on MS Windows systems. I usually recommend that people with dual-boot systems commit first to using Linux for anything that involves the internet, including web browsing, email, and instant messaging. Those programs are easy to use for people familiar with Windows, and utterly safe. (The disadvantage of that is that you will occasionally encounter websites that are purposely made to work only with Internet Explorer. We'll refrain from any commentary on that here.)
The second advantage is somewhat more political in nature. A monopoly is necessarily an unfortunate and inefficient model for ventures of any kind. Currently, a practical monopoly in the computer desktop arena exists, and you are in a position to do something about it. Is that important to you? If it's not, you might want to leave your PC just like it is, because I can pretty much guarantee you that the bumps in the road ahead will be more frustrating than you care to deal with.
Successful transitioners, though, will be rewarded with a system whose stability, technical superiority, and "fun" quotient will turn them into unapologetic apostles of Free and Open Source Systems. You, too, can be a FOSS afficianado ... and you should.