Introduction to Linux, Free Software and Open Source


This is a general guide to free software and open source (FOSS), as well as the Linux (or GNU/Linux) operating sytem.

For more information on how free and open source software can benefit education and learning, see our Education section.




  1. The basics
    1. What is Linux, Free Software and Open Source?
    2. I'm new to Linux and FOSS. How can I learn more?
    3. How can it cost nothing? Doesn't it cost money to make good software?
  2. Why FOSS is good for you
    1. Why is FOSS important for society as a whole?
    2. Why is FOSS important for government, business and education?
    3. Why is FOSS important to Australia?
    4. Who uses FOSS? Can you give examples and case studies?
  3. Using Linux and FOSS
    1. Do I have to give up anything to use FOSS? Do I need to use Linux?
    2. Do I have to give up anything to use Linux?
    3. How can I find, install and remove FOSS applications?
    4. Can I get FOSS customised to my language and region?
    5. How can I get started with Linux? What's this 'distribution' stuff?
  4. Get help and become involved
    1. How can I meet real people who use FOSS?
    2. Can I get help online?


The basics


What is Linux, Free Software and Open Source?

Linux (also known as GNU/Linux) is a computer operating system, like Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac OS. Unlike those two, however, Linux is built with a collaborative development model. The operating system and most of its software are created by volunteers and employees of companies, governments and organisations from all over the world.

The operating system is free to use and everyone has the freedom to contribute to its development. This co-operative development model means that everyone can benefit. Because of this, we like to call it Free Software, or Socially Responsible Software. Closely related is the concept of Open Source Software. Together, Free and Open Source Software is collectively abbreviated as FOSS. This contrasts with the proprietary (or closed source) development model used by some software companies today.

Many of the principles behind FOSS are derived from the axiom of standing on the shoulders of giants, most famously used by Isaac Newton, which has guided scientific and industrial development for hundreds of years. Transparency of the code and development process means that it can be participated in and audited at all levels. Software is just another form of information, and people have the right to have full control over that information. In the same way that you are free to share cooking recipes with your neighbour, you should also have the freedom to share and change software.

Linux has many other benefits, including speed, security and stability. It is renowned for its ability to run well on more modest hardware. Linux comes from the venerable UNIX family of operating systems, and so has been built from the ground-up with Internet-style networking and security in mind. Hence, viruses, worms, spyware and adware are basically a non-issue on Linux.


I'm new to Linux and FOSS. How can I learn more?

We're glad that you asked :)

The basics of free and open source software (FOSS) are explained here. The Free Software Foundation explains the philosophy behind it.

Here are some great Web sites that explain in simple terms what FOSS and Linux is all about:

Here are some freely-downloadable television/film documentaries explaining Linux and FOSS:

There is a good chance that you are already using FOSS directly. Popular applications like Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, VLC, Gaim/Pidgin, The GIMP, Inkscape, Tuxpaint and Scribus are examples of FOSS. Vital components of Apple Mac OS X are FOSS, and even some important parts of Microsoft Windows originated as FOSS.

Due to its ubiquity, it is almost certain that you already deal with FOSS, at least indirectly. For instance, any time that you use Google, Yahoo, YouTube or Facebook — or most Web sites for that matter — you are communicating with computers running FOSS. Wikipedia is an example of a Web site that is not only hosted on FOSS, but is actively developed in the same open and collaborative spirit as FOSS.

The world of film making is no stranger to FOSS. FOSS has played a vital role in the productions of blockbuster films like Titanic, The Lord of the Rings trillogy and Finding Nemo. The short films, Elephants Dream and Big Buck Bunny, were built entirely by community members using FOSS methods and software — the same software that that you can download for free and run on your home computer. The film as well as its sources are openly available under a Creative Commons licence.


How can it cost nothing? Doesn't it cost money to make good software?

It can cost time and resources to produce good software, which are not synonymous with money. Many FOSS developers develop for fun; many others are paid for their time. Because the code is open, it is actively worked on by all sorts of individuals and organisations. Since development is shared, it can cost relatively little to work with FOSS. The savings made can be invested into creating better customisation or into improving integration with existing systems and processes. When access to the source code is available, there are essentially no limitations to what can be achieved. Free Software is so named because of the freedom granted to the user.

FOSS makes it possible to leverage the skills and insights of a wide range of developers, thereby avoiding the constraints and limited viewpoints of a small, closed development team. Usable feedback can be received throughout the development process from users worldwide. Code and ideas from different programs can be melded together, creating interesting and powerful combinations whilst minimising duplication of effort.

Many proprietary software packages are sold at far above the cost of their production. Microsoft Windows, for instance, has for many years been sold at at profit margin of 85 per cent. A mere 15 per cent is spent on marketing, packaging, shipping, and development of the product.

Software, like any information, is infinitely replicable. Despite this, many vendors like to price their proprietary software as if they are physical items. Through the enforcement of artificial scarcity and vendor lock-in, software prices can be kept artificially high. In contast, FOSS promotes abundance and open standards.

If you think that the software that was installed on your computer was free, think again — they were no doubt factored into the cost of the computer. In fact, software can make up to a quarter of the cost of a modern computer.

Other misconceptions about FOSS are addressed here.


Why FOSS is good for you


Why is FOSS important for society as a whole?

Our lives are becoming increasingly governed by technology. Records that were once stored on paper and could be read by anyone are now managed by complex databases that are only accessible to a select few, using specialised hardware and software. The letter that you wrote or the financial records that you stored just a few years ago might no longer be readable, due to incompatibilities in the file format. Even the very cornerstone of democracy, voting, is in some regions being entrusted to machines that can be easily influenced to alter the outcome. Some of the manufacturers of these devices are even trusted by banks to manage your money, in the form of automatic teller machines (ATMs). Without the transparency granted by FOSS, the systems of business and government have been steadily locked away from accountability to the average citizen.


Why is FOSS important for government, business and education?

For more information on how free and open source software can benefit education and learning, see our Education section.

FOSS allows people and organisations to do what they want with the computers that they own, without being beholden to any company. They can make whatever modifications that they wish, providing unparalleled flexibility. The traditional vendor-user relationship is thus broken, as the users can also be the developers if they so desire. The choice is theirs, and the possibilities are limitless.

Many groups in the government, business and education sectors use Linux as a means of cutting costs. It also allows them to create products that they would not otherwise be able to make. Small business makes the bulk of our economy, and FOSS enables them to compete on a world stage by allowing them to draw from a wealth of free software to build their products and services. As their improvements are fed back into the commons, everyone benefits.

Schools both nationally and internationally are seeing the benefits of FOSS. There is a vast wealth of free software designed for children of all ages, including educational programmes and games. Education is all about imparting knowledge in an open fashion. What better way to achieve this than with tools that are themselves open and fully accessible to students and teachers alike? As Jimmy Wales, founder and leader of the Wikipedia project, explains, free knowledge cannot exist unless the tools used to manage it are also free.

Linux allows schools to make more efficient use of tight IT budgets. There is no need to purchase expensive software, or new computers, since Linux runs well on older machines. The reliability and security of FOSS means that computers will require less maintenance, and you can feel safer knowing that your computer won't be infected with malware that might compromise your personal information or automatically load porn and other objectionable material onto the screen in full view of children.

The cost of proprietary software means that many people do not have access to the tools that they require to build their skillsets and further their careers. It may be difficult to justify spending $1000 on software for a 10-year-old who might have an interest in graphic design. With FOSS, that monetary cost doesn't even have to be a consideration.

For more information on the organisational case for FOSS, take some time to explore these sites:

Governments around the world are realising the strengths and benefits of FOSS. Here are some reports and resources built by or for government agencies:


Why is FOSS important to Australia?

See our FOSS in Australia page for more information.

Many Linux and FOSS developers and users are based in Australia. When you support FOSS, you are supporting Australian innovation and employment.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) represents 13.8 per cent of total investment in Australia. According to a 2006 study, ICT comprises 8.4 per cent of all imports, but only 2.8 per cent of all exports. Australia loses more from importing ICT than we gain from exporting wheat and coal combined.

Through leveraging FOSS, local companies are able to create and offer world-class products and services. There are many companies in Australia doing just that.


Who uses FOSS? Can you give examples and case studies?

There are over 30 million users of Linux, and that number is growing rapidly. The Mozilla Firefox Web browser is the most popular Web browser in Europe, and its use is accelerating alongside other open source based Web browsers such as Chrome, Safari and Konqueror.

There is considerable demand for FOSS and Linux on desktop computers, as is evidenced by the top-ranked choices at Dell's IdeaStorm site. In response to this, Dell are now distributing Linux on some of their consumer and professional systems. Even Michael Dell, founder, Chairman and CEO of Dell Inc., uses FOSS and Linux. Other PC manufacturers, like ASUS, HP, IBM/Lenovo and Acer, distribute Linux on certain models.

Microsoft may dominate on home and office desktops, but remember that the desktop computer market is but a small fraction of the overall ICT industry. Unlike Microsoft, Linux and FOSS are major players in most other markets. The amazing flexibility and scalability of the software means that Linux can be found in computers both large and small.

  • Linux powers over 85 per cent of the top 500 supercomputers in the world (including the top 46 in the Green500), while also scaling down to run on one quarter of new smartphones.
  • Over 95 per cent of the servers and desktops at large animation and visual effects companies use Linux.
  • Linux drives over half of all Web servers, including 8 of the 10 most reliable hosting providers. The Apache Web server, a flagship example of FOSS, propels over 60 per cent of Web sites, including 44 per cent of secure (SSL) sites.
  • The One Laptop Per Child programme, a unique and ambitious collaboration between the United Nations and a multitude of governments, companies and other organisations worldwide. They are represented in the Australian/Pacific region by OLPC Australia.

After some more detailed case studies? Read on:

The FOSS industry within Australia itself is growing strongly. The national industry organisation for FOSS within Australia, Open Source Industry Australia (OSIA), is supported by a wide range of businesses. In addition, there are related organisations that share similar interests.


Using Linux and FOSS


Do I have to give up anything to use FOSS? Do I need to use Linux?

Not at all! Many FOSS applications are available on Windows and Mac OS, and they install and run just like any other piece of software. Popular examples include Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, VLC, Gaim/Pidgin, The GIMP, Inkscape, Tuxpaint and Scribus. Many of these programmes are able to read and write the same types of files that you would be using on mainstream proprietary products, such as MS Office and Adobe Creative Suite.

Most FOSS applications that are available on Windows are also available on Linux. This can greatly smooth the transition to Linux, if you so desire, by allowing you to become accustomed to the applications before you try Linux itself. If you are impressed by the quality of FOSS applications in your existing operating environment, imagine if the entire operating system was FOSS. The benefits of FOSS, including open standards, security and stability, are then allowed to permeate throughout the entire computer.


Do I have to give up anything to use Linux?

Nope. There are many ways to try Linux on your computer without disrupting what is already installed. The aforementioned Web sites for beginners are a good place to start. Here are a few options:

  • A LiveDistro (also known as a LiveCD) is a piece of removable storage media, like a CD or DVD, that allows you to load a complete operating system without any installation to your hard drive. All that is generally required is for you to insert the media and (re)start your computer. It is a great way to try out Linux without installing it.
    When loaded from read-only media like a CD or DVD, your changes are lost upon reboot. Some LiveDistros can load from a USB flash drive, which allows you to save your settings, giving you a completely portable and operating system installation that is not tied to any one computer. In the case of many LiveDistros, you can install to your computer's hard drive, giving you a proper installation of Linux.
  • Most Linux installers give you the option of having Linux co-exist with your existing operating system. This is known as a dual-boot. After being chosen, some of your unused hard drive space is re-allocated towards the Linux installation. Whenever you turn on or restart your computer, you will be asked which operating system that you want to run. Simply select the one that you want, and the computer will boot straight into it. Dual-booting gives you the best of both worlds when it comes to operating system choice, and it is a common configuration for even experienced Linux users.
    You can find a practical guide to dual-booting here.
  • Some distributions can be installed and removed just like any Windows application. Just double-click on the file and go through the installation wizard. Whenever you boot your computer, you will be given a choice of which operating system to run, just as if you had configured a dual-boot. There main difference is that there are no modifications (like partitioning) required to be made on your hard drive. This makes uninstallation a snap: just head to the Add/Remove Programs menu in Windows, and remove it just like any other application.
    This method allows you to install Linux at ease and with minimal risk, as you can very easily revert to your previous setup. An example of such an installer is the Wubi installer for Ubuntu Linux.
  • With virtualisation, you can run a full copy of Windows on top of Linux, or vice versa. In fact, you can run as many operating systems as your computer will allow, on top of the host operating system. Virtualisation is great for trying out new software, consolidating servers, or for just running that one application that you can't use on your normal operating system.
    An easy way to try out Linux on top of Windows is to grab the freeware VMware Player application and download a good Linux virtual applicance to run on it.
  • WINE allows many Windows software to run on Linux. It does not employ emulation or virtualisation techniques, so it can essentially run at full speed. There are two main commercial variants of WINE: CrossOver, which focuses on compatibility with normal applications, and Cedega, which orients itself towards running Windows games.

In other words, in using FOSS you are not losing anything. You are merely gaining extra choices.

Linux is renouned for its ability to run on older and less powerful computers. Some mobile phones and PDAs run Linux software that is not too far removed from what you see on a desktop variant. Because most of the hardware drivers have been developed openly, there is no reliance on the hardware vendor for support, as is a problem on proprietary operating systems. If you have an older computer lying around (even a Macintosh!), you might find it worth your while to rejuvenate it with Linux.


How can I find, install and remove FOSS applications?

There are FOSS equivalents for most proprietary products, and some FOSS applications are truly unique. Many are Linux-only (which is added incentive for you to try Linux!), but quite a few are also available on Windows and Mac OS. To find the applications that meet your needs, try these sites:

If you're a Mac OS X user, take a look at these sites:

Most Linux distributions include a user-friendly means of finding and installing software. The general way is to load their included software management application, which will allow you to browse and search for the programmes that suit your needs from a list of thousands. Simply mark the ones that you want, and the software management tool will take care of the rest: it downloads the software from a secure Web site (thereby protecting you from viruses and other malicious code) and installs it for you, all automatically and without cost.

You can install as many applications as you want, all in one go. There's no need to reboot to use them. You should get entries in the easy-to-follow desktop menus, so loading the application is a snap.

On proprietary operating systems (like Windows or Mac OS), installing and running is far more complicated. Simply finding the software you need might require researching online (unless you already know exactly what you want). Then it's either a trip to the store to buy a boxed version (in which case, a lot of your money is just paying for the fancy packaging), or a download from a Web site (which is insecure and can get you infected with a virus or other malware, even if you are careful). The installation will expect you to read a long legally-binding document (known as an End User Licence Agreement), to which you must click "I Agree" before it allows you to proceed (did you take note of what you agreed to?). Some products demand that you enter a special licence key, or in the case of some of the most popular software, a complicated product activation procedure. If you've survived that gauntlet, it will probably ask you a bunch of annoying questions, to each of which you have to click "Next". If you're lucky after this, the product will install.

But wait, there's more! There's a good chance at the end that you'll be told to restart your computer. After doing this, you might find that the new software has obnoxiously set itself to automatically start every time you boot your computer (thereby stealing precious system resources and slowing down your computer). You click on your Start menu to run it, and find you have to wade through a labyrinth of menus just to find it. Finally, you click the menu item and it loads. Success!

But that's just one piece of software! What if you want to install ten? Well, you'll have to run (or rather, limp) through that process for each and every one. What if you want to install on multiple computers? Have you bought a licence for that?

Confused? We sure are! Why must it be so convoluted?

As you can probably see, it is much easier to install software for Linux. There's no need to run through a complicated licensing procedure just to prove you're not a criminal ("software pirate"). You can install on as many computers as you like.

Uninstalling software on Linux is just the reverse: fire up the software management application and untick the boxes. Those programmes will be entirely removed, without leaving remnants that could interfere with or slow down your system, as is often the case on Windows.

What's more, Linux distributions come with a healthy selection of software as part of the standard installation. After you install Windows or Mac OS, you are generally left with a bare-bones operating system. To become productive, you need to spend more time (often hours) installing software. Not so with Linux. An average installation will automatically come with a full-featured office suite (normally, OpenOffice), graphics and multimedia software, and many others.

Keeping your Linux system and software up-to-date is a cinch. If you are connected to the Internet, your computer will automatically tell you when there are updates available for the operating system or for any of the installed software. One major benefit of FOSS is that bugs are normally fixed very quickly. Some of the main Linux distributions have regular major releases every six months, to which you can upgrade in order to take advantage of the latest features and other improvements. When you do this, all of your software gets upgraded along with the operating system.

Imagine that? A new operating system and software every six months!


Can I get FOSS customised to my language and region?

Yes! Because FOSS can be worked on by anybody, there are efforts all over the globe to customise the software for different languages and localities. This allows peoples that have been ignored by proprietary software vendors to make software that is accessible to their own communities. In an increasingly globalised world, it is easy for dominant cultures to swamp smaller ones. FOSS empowers communities to preserve their cultural heritage. It can even encourage collaboration between different cultures for mutual benefit. There should not be any need to learn another language just to use a computer.

Especially when it comes to the mainstream Linux distributions, there is a good chance that your language and culture is already represented. FOSS is generally written so that internationalisation and localisation can be performed even by people who are not programmers.


How can I get started with Linux? What's this 'distribution' stuff?

The easiest way to go is to try one of the methods mentioned above.

Linux is an open market. We don't try to impose a 'one size fits all' solution onto you. You may like to drive a Ford, but I might prefer a Toyota.

Individuals and organisations are free to make their own versions, tailored for whatever their needs might be. You can see a lot of them at the DistroWatch site.

If you're just starting out and are looking for a great all-round desktop operating system and applications suite, our recommendations would be Ubuntu, Fedora and Kubuntu. They are available as LiveCDs, and can be installed easily as a dual-boot. The Wubi installer lets you safely install/remove Ubuntu and Kubuntu straight from Windows.

But remember that there are plenty of other distributions out there as well! If the shoes don't fit, you can always try another pair.

Linux distributions typically come with a large range of applications either included or ready to install on top with minimal effort. Becoming productive with a Linux system is very straightforward.


Get help and become involved


The FOSS community is made up of people from all over the world, who work together to build and use great software. If you ever feel like you need a hand, or if you'd just like to make some new friends, the FOSS community is there for you.

There are many people around the world who develop, use and promote FOSS in a multitude of different ways. The community includes software/hardware developers, systems administrators, translators, documentation writers and artwork creators, as well as ordinary computer users. Some are paid to do what they do, while others contribute in their spare time. As a community, even ordinary users are able to contact developers and take part in the development process.


How can I meet real people who use FOSS?

The easiest way is to visit a local Linux Users Group (LUG) event. Australia has many LUGs around the country, and there are many others worldwide. LUGs are a great place to get assistance, learn new things and make new friends.

There are other FOSS organisations that might have local representation, such as the Ubuntu Local Community Teams and One Laptop Per Child.

There are also regularly-scheduled events in various parts of the world. Software Freedom Day is celebrated by hundreds of teams worldwide in September. Australia has an active community, with several groups holding events and meetings throughout the year.


Can I get help online?

Most FOSS work is done online, so yes! Many LUGs, special interest groups and local community teams have online communications channels as well, including mailing lists and IRC channels. You can chat with the same people whom you would meet at a physical LUG meeting. Visit their Web site or ask their members for details.

Google, a big supporter of Linux and FOSS, have a dedicated page for searching about Linux. There's a cornucopia of generic Linux fora, such as and Linux Forums.

Linux distributions tend to have their own support resources as well:

  • for other distributions, consult the Web site of the project, as well as its DistroWatch page 

This guide is © Sridhar Dhanapalan 2007-2008. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Australia Licence.

A Belarussian translation by Bohdan Zograf is available at