Being "on your own", meaning running the PC environment with Linux only is interesting. It brings about a different kind of challenge, than having a typical corporate Windows environment. The GNU (or Free software foundation) people have brought a huge number of free software to play with.
GNU got started with Richard Stallman, an MIT university hacker extraordinaire, a bit frustrated with the implications that firmware copyright had on system usability. Unix programmers often needed to get ahold of source code for completely legit purposes, namely "making things work". The world was at that time pretty different from ours, but already it was ridden with the secretive and quite invalidating paradigm of software vendors wanting to always cover their software lock it up as much as possible. This was mostly due to general paranoia - not necessarily so much of real use, but a habit that everyone did.
Stallman wanted to make the computing more sane one. He started writing a very central piece of the Unix world, GCC compiler. It is an advanced and flexible suite of compiler technology, by which follow-up software could be made in a more controlled and powerful manner. Using GCC "the rest" of utilities and applications could be compiled. In fact, one of the best features of it was that GCC could compile to many platforms, not only its native original one.
FSF's software range from the very core necessary (GCC compiler suite) to scientific simulators, and a lot in between. GNU is a bit like the app industry of mobiles, except that an average GNU program is more complex and less fancy looking. They're in the class of true utilities. In fact I think so far we as a general population have not yet understood fully the value of this chest of treasures.
Linux is about hacking. It's about reading. Getting hard answers and a good laughter in your face. And learning. But it's fun.
For a desktop user, I can recommend you get started with:
- Pidgin for instant messaging
- aterm or xterm for terminal working
- emacs for text editing
- GIMP for graphic working
- Apache (www server)
- openssh suite for secure connections
- Putty (ssh client)
It's about knowing how your machine behaves; how to install things that enable you to do more. There's inherent power in the tools. If you don't like a particular one, usually there are tens of alternatives. And what's really a treat is that you get them for free. This is one aspect of the FLOSS world: you truly do have the freedom to explore, test, take advantage, grow, and get satisfaction from software.
You have to tolerate a bit of chaos in order to live a happy life in GNU/Linux world. If you are the kind of type who always needs direct command and instructions from somewhere, it might be that this world might scare a bit. But under the surface, there's plenty of instructions available for newbies. I wouldn't hesitate to make the step now, 2011 (I made it approximately 1999, running my own RedHat 6.0).
One way to get going easily is test a Live CD version of your favorite Linux. These kinds of distributions make no modifications into your PC: you can test it without any commitment at all. The Live technology expands the Linux runnable code both into your computers working memory, and into the stick, using the latter as a file system (fs). This way the runtime Linux seems like a whole, normal system, but actually it does not touch hard drives nor any other "real" media. You still have every bit of normal Linux functionality, including the ability to install new applications, create files, run programs and so on.
And once you got the media going (a CD, DVD or USB stick), there's always the option to really install it permanently on your system. Yet even here the Linux offers you courteously two alternatives: all for linux, or install it side-by-side preserving the existing operating system.
You can get a wonderful tool for downloading and burning the image in one go: Unetbootin.
Unetbootin is such wonderful, because it supports "everything on everything". It is there to help you easily select, download, and burn a bootable ISO (clone of a Linux) into a USB stick. You can the tool itself from a Mac, Win or Linux.
Intro to very first steps on Ubuntu
So, Unetbootin got you a bootable Linux. I'm putting here just a couple of points where you can get into reading and learning. Remember; no need to overdo. Learn as much as feels comfortable. The Linux is almost completely virus-free, though network security is quite essential.
- Ubuntu Forums
Go. Get. And test! Welcome to the otherworld 🙂