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10 key lessons for Linux learners

TR's Jack Wallen says he can ensure a smooth migration to Linux simply by providing new users with a machine running the operating system and a few basic facts.
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I recently told an event audience that I could ensure a smooth migration to Linux simply by providing new users with a machine running the operating system and a few basic facts. The faces of some members of the audience betrayed their scepticism. So I thought I'd set out here the 10 pieces of information that I believe can help ensure a successful transition.

1. It's just an operating system
Most of the computer tasks people perform today are done through a web browser — unlike two years ago. That change makes the operating system almost irrelevant. As long as it can run a browser, it just operates in the background, working away without being noticed. Of course, that's the state of affairs that should prevail anyway, because an operating system is nothing more than a layer between user applications and hardware. This gallery was reproduced from ZDNet UK.

Captions: Jack Wallen, TechRepublic

Image credit: JA Watson

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2. It's not Windows
Many new users aren't really aware of a difference between Windows, Linux and Mac. But what they do need to know is that they shouldn't invariably expect Windows-like behaviour. That expectation almost always leads to trouble. Of course, you don't need to explain every difference between the operating systems, but you do need to prepare them for any unfamiliar machine behaviour that you think they are likely to encounter.

Image credit: Dong Ngo/CNET News

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3. There is no C
Windows users are used to a file-system structure that never really made sense. Linux, on the other hand, has a perfectly logical directory hierarchy — a fact new users need to understand. There really is only one main directory they need to know about: /home/username, where username is their name.

Most modern distributions create certain directories in the user's home directory: Documents, Pictures, Music and Video. The purpose of these subdirectories is obvious, and new users only need know where they are located. They also need to know that their home directory is the only place on the file system where they can save files.

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4. Installing software is a different process
This issue can trip up the new user more than any other. PC users are used to searching for software on the internet, downloading the .exe file, double-clicking it, and waiting for the software installation to complete. So they have to understand that Linux distributions come complete with their own special tool that will do all of that for them.

All they have to do is open the add/remove software tool — such as the Ubuntu Software Centre, PackageKit or Synaptic — search for a piece of software, and install it. New users tend to love the sheer volume of software available. Naturally, some of it is useless, but most of it is good and serves its purpose.

Image credit: Polishlinux.org

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5. The command line is not necessary
When new users get a Linux box, one of the first things they often say is: "Am I going to have to learn a lot of commands?" The answer is no. In fact, modern Linux distributions are created in such a way that users could live their entire Linux lives and never touch the command line. This is now a non-issue.

Only those who want to use the command line need ever open up a terminal window. What's more, users can rest assured that they will not have to grep, ls, mkdir, chmod, or chown. Nearly every action in Linux can be handled through a GUI.

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6. No need to worry about infection
New users need to know that all that concern about viruses and malware is a thing of the past because they're no longer dealing with Windows. They won't see AVG or SEP in the notification tray, and their machine will not be at risk without them.

But it's still important to ensure users remember that their colleagues may still be using Windows, so they shouldn't be cavalier about forwarding email attachments. Just because those attachments won't harm a Linux box doesn't mean they won't damage a Windows machine.

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7. It's free
I'm always shocked at how much trouble users have understanding the concept of open-source software and the fact that most of it is free. Their response is often to think the software can't be any good. Of course, in a consumerist society the idea that something free can be good may be difficult to grasp. In fact in many cases, open-source software is not only better for society, it's better for your computer.

Image credit: Tonx/Flickr

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8. If you don't like it, you can change it
This point is another strange concept for new users, but one it's important for them to understand. Unlike Windows and Mac, if you don't like a Linux desktop, you can change it. Of course, swapping desktops is probably something a new user will not do lightly. But knowing that changing is an option can help new users understand how much flexibility they have. Besides, working with a desktop you don't like can be frustrating.

I prefer to demonstrate the types of desktops available and let them choose. Usually, they will go with what they're somewhat familiar with — KDE (pictured) is a good choice for most people — but on occasion a new user will go with something completely different just for the experience.

Image credit: kde.org

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9. Not all hardware is created equal
New users need to understand that not every piece of shiny new hardware will actually function properly with the Linux operating system. This is far less of the issue it once was, but for some pieces of hardware — such as multi-function printers, some wireless cards, and laptop displays — the problems still persist.

For those pieces of hardware, solving the problem often merely requires downloading proprietary drivers. But on other occasions it may involve switching to a different distribution altogether. Nevertheless, Linux has come a long way in this area and continues to expand and improve.

Image credit: Bill Ruhsam/Flickr

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10. Google is your friend
The single most important thing you can do for yourself and your new users is to ensure that they understand just how helpful Google can be. When there is a problem or an aspect of Linux they don't understand, they should know that someone else has probably documented this issue, and helpful information is just a search away.

Show new users how to make the most of a Google search to avoid their being inundated with worthless results. In the end, they might come to you with fewer requests, and even more important — they'll be learning in the process.

Easing the transition
People fear change, but change doesn't have to be avoided. With just a little preparation on your part, the new Linux user will have a positive experience. Do you have any other important lessons that you always make a point of passing on to new users?

This story originally appeared as 10 things you must teach new Linux users on TechRepublic.

Image credit: Daniel F Pigatto/Flickr

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