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What do you do with an old computer? Say, a 386-generation PC running Windows 98 that hadn't been patched in years, with a 20-Gbyte hard drive most likely infected with all manner of viruses, spyware, and other maladjusted programs?
Sure, it could go to the landfill, or you might be able to get a tax deduction from donating it to a local school. Or, using a Linux-based operating system, you could turn it into a functional desktop, browser, and e-mail client, and put it back to work.
I started with an old computer that had only been used for Web browsing and instant messaging, and which hadn't been updated since it was purchased in 1999. My thinking was that if it didn't work, the PC would go to the landfill. But if it did work, I'd have a second computer for various science projects.
The first step in switching to Linux is picking a Linux distribution. A popular site called Linux Distribution Chooser can help you decide. I found this site while writing this article, and the first distro I had selected, Ubuntu, landed near the top of the list.
Ubuntu markets itself as "Linux for human beings," which begs the question of who exactly the other versions of Linux were written for, and whether the Finnish embassy has lodged a formal complaint.
Here's what I did to install Ubuntu:
The problem was that I couldn't see what was going on behind the scenes. Ubuntu, in an effort to make a user-friendly operating system like Mac OS X, hides most of the cryptic inner workings of the installation process behind a graphical interface. As a result, I wasn't able to pinpoint exactly where in the process it was breaking so that I could request help from the famously helpful Linux community.
In other words, Ubuntu is "Linux for human beings," but I was trying to install Linux on a computer. What I needed was "Linux for outdated PCs."
Ubuntu is built on top of a Linux distribution called Debian that has a reputation for needing slightly more technical knowledge. This didn't scare me, so here's what I did:
I can't say that it was a simple process. There's definitely room for improvement in terms of picking a distribution that'll work the first time, and in rebounding from errors during installation. Nonetheless, the Linux ecosystem had enough diversity to get the job done.
Considering my investment in Windows software and its prevalence among larger businesses, I'm not ready to move my main PC over to Linux. Still, I'm glad to have the exposure to Linux and the chance to try it out.
For small businesses that don't want to spend thousands of dollars upgrading PC hardware and software, it's great to know that new life can be injected into old PCs using a free operating system that's fast enough and secure enough for basic needs.
While you wouldn't have access to all Windows-based desktop applications, that should pose less and less of a problem as the Internet moves toward Web 2.0.
Are you a Linux-based small business? How's that working out? Let me know!