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Free, secure, easy — Linux as an alternative to Windows and Mac

linux-operating-system-explained-computer-programmingFor the first time in her life, 62-year old mother Chit Bernardo used her son’s laptop computer to go online and browse Facebook. She even went on to play solitaire and sudoku to pass time.

What made this senior citizen so computer savvy all of a sudden?

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It’s not a typical computer running on the common Windows operating system (OS) that she’s using. It’s running on a less-known Linux-based OS called WattOS.

Linux is a computer software that is “open source” which means computer programmers have the freedom to use, modify, and redistribute the software in any way they like without costs as opposed to restrictive proprietary software which are expensive.

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This flexibility of being open source allows Linux to run on a car’s electronic system, rice cookers, and even robots. This allowed the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to run Linux on their servers and in the Vote Counting Machines (VCMs) provided by Smartmatic in the past three nationwide automated elections.

There’s also a high chance that your favorite website’s server runs Linux.

Contrary to popular belief, Linux is not just for engineers and programmers. You may have unknowingly used one as Google’s Android OS is based on the Linux kernel.

Linux has many advantages compared to other popular operating systems like Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS in terms of cost, security and versatility. It is a free software that is reliable, generally immune from Windows viruses, and it can run on old and less powerful computer hardware.

READ: World’s cheapest computer gets millions tinkering

Jose Paolo “JP” Bernardo, the son of Chit, told INQUIRER.net in an interview that he was surprised at how easy his mother was able to use his Linux laptop.

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“She has no experience with computers so I was surprised when she can surf the internet and play solitaire using my laptop,” the former president of the University of the Philippines’ Linux Users’ Group (UnPLUG) said.

Improvements in ease of use

Linux has come a long way in terms of usability and user-friendliness. Former Windows and Mac users can easily adapt to Linux’s graphical user interface (GUI) and are no longer required to memorize and type commands.

This intuitive and simple GUI design makes Linux easy to use for people who have never used a computer.

Among the most popular and recommended Linux distributions (distros) for beginners are Ubuntu and Linux Mint.

Most distros also include essentials such as an office suite and a web browser to make it easy for new users to begin working immediately.

New programs can be installed from Linux’s package manager in a manner similar to Android’s Play store or Apple’s App Store.

Ubuntu Linux Software Center apps devices gadgets computer programming

READ: Linux creator, stem cell scientist win big technology prize

Role in Philippine Elections

Comelec programmer Alvin Genota describes Linux as the backbone of VCMs in which inputs from scanned ballots were processed and stored in memory cards. The data were later transmitted wirelessly after the precincts have closed.

The open source nature of the software made it easy for Comelec and Smartmatic to invite third party organizations to do a source code review of the software used in the VCMs. International and national entities including universities and political parties were invited to inspect the code for irregularities.

“The purpose of the review is so they can point out flaws [in the software],” Genota said. “It is also to assure those who are concerned about the transparency of our elections.”

READ: Smartmatic urges political parties to review ‘source code’

Comelec has also switched from Windows to Linux in their servers to cut on licensing and maintenance costs. Windows licenses can cost up to $200 for each unit while Linux licenses are free of charge.

“We made substantial savings by going open source because we can use it on unlimited number of users,” Genota said.

Job opportunities in the IT Industry

Linux was originally conceived as a project for programmers and software developers. Thus, Information Technology and Engineering students first likely encountered Linux in their coding classes because of its hassle-free setup.

Fifth-year Electronics and Communications Engineering (ECE) student Donald Dimailig sees Linux as a programmer-friendly OS compared to Windows.

“In Windows, you still have to download and install compilers and Java. However in Linux, everything you need is right there,” Dimailig said.

“My robotics laboratory class involves a lot of programming so it is much easier to use Linux,” he added.

People with working knowledge of Linux and other open source software have better luck getting careers in server and systems management since Linux is installed in almost 97% of all internet servers according to web analytics company W3Cook. Linux’s reliability and security have made it the OS of choice for web servers around the world.

operating system servers market share linux windows computers

Linux-based OS such as Ubuntu and CentOS runs majority of internet servers in the world. Infographics by Christian Venus

“There is no such thing as an unhackable server but at least with Linux, you have a lot of ways to protect yourself,” Bernardo said.

He is currently the technical support and desktop computer officer of UP Diliman. He provides tech support to offices including PCs running Linux as well as maintaining servers for eUP and Diliman Network (DILNET).

“We used to keep Windows file servers in my former office. Every time it gets infected with a virus, we can’t access our files. It’s also hard to maintain file redundancy,” Bernardo said.

“After we converted our servers to Linux, our downtimes became minimal unlike before when we have a lot of problems with missing and inaccessible files,” he added.

Linux’s ability to run from a USB flash disk makes it an essential part of Bernardo’s toolbox. In cases when a client’s OS is corrupt, he uses Linux to run diagnostic programs and recover the user’s files.

Linux disadvantages

Despite Linux’s advantages and success in the server market, its market share in mainstream desktop and laptop PCs remain at a dismal 5% according to w3schools.com’s OS Platform Statistics and Trends.

operating system share linux mac windows mobile personal computers

Linux’s OS share increased from 2 percent to 5 percent between 2003 and 2015 as Windows gradually lost market share to Linux and Mac OS. Infographics by Christian Venus.

Among the top reasons that keep most users from using Linux is software compatibility.

Electrical Engineering student Ian Tabornal once used Linux as his main OS because his laptop can’t run Windows smoothly. The switch was not without hitches. Common applications like Chrome and VLC installed flawlessly but video games such as League of Legends (LoL) required tweaks to run in Linux.

“I have trouble installing LoL because there’s a lot of workarounds to do,” Tabornal added.

Linux addresses this problem by including a Windows emulator called WINE for running Windows applications. However compatibility can still vary: Adobe Photoshop CC 2015 will run with some issues while all versions of Adobe Premiere are incompatible.

Alternatively, you may find free open source substitutes for these software such as GIMP for photo editing and LMMS for music production.

Another thing to watch out before switching is driver compatibility. Hardware manufacturers do not always supply device drivers for Linux so there is no guarantee that your printer, scanner or video card can run on Linux.

Future of Linux

For Bernardo who has been using Linux for 8 years, it has stood well against its established competitors considering Linux is a non-profit project.

“Think about it: Despite Microsoft huge marketing efforts, Linux still managed to get a slice of the usage share. That says a lot about it,” Bernardo said.

Trends suggest that computing is moving away from desktop into mobile. According to statistics from web traffic analyst StatCounter, more visitors are using their mobile phones to access the internet.

desktop mobile usage in philippines statistics computer devices gadgets

More and more Filipinos are accessing the internet through their mobile phones than through desktop personal computers. Infographics by Christian Venus.

READ: The smart-tech future beckons to us from the CES gadget show

With declining usage share of traditional PC and the rise of mobile devices and smart appliances, Linux’s successful metamorphosis to the so-called ‘future of computing’ is a step forward.

“Linux may not be the largest and it may not be the top, but it sure won’t go away any time soon,” Bernardo said.

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