exactly is Linux? What is "GNU/Linux"?
is "open source"?
heard that Linux is difficult to use. Is that true?
is great because it runs on very old hardware!
is great because it never crashes!
is great because it's free!
thought Linux was free. Why does it cost $30, $50, $90...?
exactly is a "distribution"? Which is the best one?
is great because it is virus-proof!
I have to learn how to compile software in order to use Linux?
don't want to work from the command line!
I have to learn a whole new set of commands if I use Linux?
I have to type my translations in a primitive text editor?
heard Linux users prefer to use TeX - what's that?
which is the best word processor for Linux?
the difference between OpenOffice.org and StarOffice?
how good is the compatibility between OpenOffice.org and Microsoft
Word? I need it to be perfect!
there a Linux version of Microsoft Office? I really can't do without
about translation memory?
hate Bill Gates! Windows is a rip-off! How can I start using Linux
an emulator? Can I use one to run my Windows applications on Linux?
is "WINE"? Can I use it to run my Windows applications on
is "Lindows"/"Linspire"? Can I use it to run my Windows applications
is "Crossover Office"? Can I use it to run my Windows
applications on Linux?
the reasons for using Linux more to do with politics than anything
else? If Linux is free, can it really be good? Is Linux an
a translator, what reasons might I have for not using Linux?
a translator, what reasons might I have for using Linux?
What exactly is Linux?
What is "GNU/Linux"?
The term "Linux"
itself is a cause of confusion, as it is often used for several quite
different concepts. These concepts are:
- The Linux kernel. This
is the heart or "bare bones" of the Linux operating system.
You may have heard of Linus Torvalds, who gave his name to Linux:
this is the piece that he and his friends wrote.
- An operating
system, comprising the Linux kernel and other software, for example a
user interface, file management utilities, etc. Such a system can
take several different forms depending upon its intended purpose, but
it could well resemble the desktop "Windows" operating
system you are familiar with. The software which complements the
Linux kernel in this case is generally that produced by the GNU
project, and the correct name for such an operating system is
"GNU/Linux". (GNU stands for "GNU's Not UNIX".)
However, when they mean "GNU/Linux", most people just say
"Linux". Except where I say otherwise, I've followed the
usual, i.e. incorrect usage in this document.
- A complete system
comprising the Linux kernel, the remaining GNU software, and
applications (such as word processing software).
- A Linux
- Open-source software in general.
What is "open
A program is in fact a
long list of commands which are carried out by the computer. In order
to make the task of writing these commands easier, the program is
written in a programming language which is easier for a human
programmer to understand. A program in this form is referred to as
Once the programmer has
written the source code, it is converted into a form which the
computer can understand, "machine code", also referred to
as "the binaries". The process of conversion is called
Machine code is virtually
impossible for human programmers to understand. In order to make
changes to a program, they must change the source code written by the
original programmer, and then recompile it to produce new machine
code. Companies selling or distributing commercial software do not
usually want users to be able to make changes to it, so they do not
normally provide the source code along with the program.
Consequently, users are not normally able to modify the program in
any way. If the author, seller or distributor of a program also
provides the source code of the program, the software is described as
"open source". The source code is accompanied by a licence
describing what the user is allowed to do with the code. A program
supplied without the source code is called "closed-source".
Note that not all open-source software is for Linux.
The ForeignDesk translation memory program, for example, is
open-source but only runs on Windows. Equally, not all software for
the Linux platform is open-source. Software for Linux also includes
commercial software (such as Crossover Office, which currently costs
around $60 and enables you to run Microsoft Office, if you have it),
free closed-source software (such as Java), and commercial software
with free demonstration versions (such as the Heartsome CAT-tool suite).
I've heard that Linux is
difficult to use. Is that true?
No. Linux is not difficult
to use. Most of the time, you won't even be aware that
you're using Linux, because most of your work will be done in
applications with user-friendly user interfaces. For example, you
might use OpenOffice.org as your word processor. OpenOffice.org is so
similar to Microsoft Word that you may well forget that you're not
actually using Word. You are likely to surf the Internet using
Firefox or Opera, either of which is as easy to
use as Microsoft Explorer (which you won't be using!). You'll use
Ark, which looks much the same as WinZip, to zip and unzip
files. Adobe has a version of Acrobat Reader for Linux which is much
the same as the Windows version. And so on and so forth.
difficulties with Linux arise when you:
- install it;
- add new hardware, such as a modem or printer;
install new software.
if you are careful in your preparation and you are prepared to
experiment a little, you can make installing and configuring Linux as
easy as installing and configuring Windows. Well, almost.
Linux is great because
it runs on very old hardware!
This is only partly true;
the reason is confusion about what exactly Linux is. The Linux kernel
is extremely compact, efficient and flexible, and it can be installed
on an enormous range of hardware and adapted to a wide range of
tasks. It may be possible to intstall it on a PC which is several years old. The problem is that on its own, the kernel is of little use. Enterprising individuals have installed the Linux kernel
and certain other carefully selected software on old Intel 386
PCs in order for example to use them as firewalls or routers - a
task for which one would normally buy a dedicated piece of hardware.
This is one way of "breathing new life" into obsolete
hardware instead of throwing it away, but it is of little interest to
The flexibility of the
Linux kernel and associated software also means that it is possible
to install a working operating system and the software needed by a
translator, such as a word processor and an Internet browser, on an
old PC. There are however two problems with this. The first is that
the older the hardware, the more carefully the various pieces of
software will have to be selected to run on it, and the greater the
effort involved in "tweaking" them to get them to run
together. The second is that even if you manage to get such a
solution to work, there will be a trade-off between user-friendliness
and speed. Linux may well enable you to get one or the other on older
hardware, but not both at the same time.
Linux is great because
it never crashes!
this is only partly true, and again, the reason is the same: the
Linux "kernel" is extremely stable - but you will need more
than just the kernel.
Linux system can be thought of as a number of layers. From the bottom
up, these layers are:
- The Linux kernel.
- Other GNU utilities
making up the foundation of the operating system; these are generally
variants of code that has been developed over many years in the UNIX
environment, and are also very reliable.
- The window system. This
is normally the X Window System, and is what enables Linux to have a
graphical user interface (GUI).
- The desktops, the most common of
which are KDE and GNOME. These are what give Linux its "look and
feel" on the desktop.
- The applications. These may be native
Linux applications (i.e. applications written specifically for Linux,
or at least for its close relative, UNIX), applications ported (i.e.
re-written) from Windows applications, or applications running on a
further layer of software (such as Java).
last three (or if you prefer, the top three) of these layers, whilst
not necessarily being particularly unstable, do not generally share
the legendary stability of the Linux kernel. In practice, this means
- crashes on Linux are likely to happen extremely rarely, if
at all, though they should not be ruled out completely;
an application crash, Linux' multitasking capability is likely to
mean that only the one application crashes, and other applications
open at the same are not affected;
- at the very worst, only the X
Window System is likely to crash; the user may have to log in again
and relaunch the applications, but it is extremely unlikely for the
whole system to have to be rebooted;
- it is extremely rare for a
Linux system to become corrupted and have to be re-installed from
Linux is great because
is free. But ask someone why they use Linux, and they're unlikely to
give that as a reason (though "value for money" might well
feature in the answer). Linux is not really about "free",
but about "freedom" - freedom to use software, to
copy it, pass it on to friends and colleagues, and even to modify it.
Freedom to use older versions if you like, for example because they
work better with your older hardware; freedom from having to upgrade
for the sake of it. Freedom to select what suits you from a number of
I thought Linux was
free. Why does it cost $30, $50, $90...?
Linux is free. Most of the
associated open-source software is also free. This means that
licences are free: you can install one copy of the software on
several PCs, lend the CD to your friends in order for them to do the
same, burn copies of the CD, etc.
The makers of a
distribution, however, charge for the actual media upon which the
software is supplied. If a manual and/or technical support is
provided, they will also charge for these. The licences for complete
distributions differ slightly, but most are fairly liberal: so
liberal, in fact, that some companies make a profit purely by burning
cheap copies of well-known distributions and selling them at a
fraction of the price. This is (in most cases) perfectly legal.
generally be downloaded free of charge from the distributor's web
What exactly is a
"distribution"? Which is the best one?
A distribution is a
package of software comprising
- the Linux kernel itself;
other software which together with the kernel forms an operating
system (similar in function to Windows);
- a collection of
- a number of installation utilities which enable
the user to install all of the above.
The packages are put
together and distributed in some cases by commercial companies, in
others by volunteers or even by governments.
Which distribution is best
is not an easy question to answer, firstly because people's needs
differ, and secondly because Linux is developing at a phenomenal
pace and any information on particular distributions will quickly be
out of date.
At the time of writing, there are well
over a hundred different Linux distributions to choose from. For a
comprehensive list with descriptions, visit Distrowatch
Factors to consider in your choice include:
- Support for hardware. Some
distributions are better for new hardware, some provide better
support for older hardware; if your hardware is very old, one of the
best solutions may in fact be to use an older version of an existing
distribution. There is, however, a certain element of "luck"
with hardware support, and it is quite possible that one distribution
will automatically recognize your printer but not your modem, another
your modem but not your printer, leaving you to do some manual
configuration with either. If you are trying to install Linux on an
existing PC, you might therefore consider taking the path of least
resistance and "letting your hardware choose", i.e. select
the distribution which requires the least additional configuration.
- Language support. This is likely to
be a major consideration for some translators. At one time, Linux -
like Windows - was somewhat Latin-centric. Since then, support for non-European alphabets in most of the major distributions has improved considerably. At the same time, distributions are appearing
which are geared to certain world regions. If you wish to work with
Chinese, for instance, you are likely to be better served by a
Chinese distribution such as Red Flag Linux than by kmLinux, which
was designed for the German education system.
- Ease of installation. Some
distributions are designed with ease of installation in mind. "Ease
of installation" needs to be taken with a pinch of salt,
however, as it is generally involves an attempt to automate as much
of the installation process as possible, for example by relieving the
user of the tedium of manually selecting hardware components and
desired software applications. If you are lucky, and both your
hardware configuration and your program requirements are very
standard, a "user-friendly" distribution might live up to
its name; when manual configuration does become
necessary, however, a distribution that is truly user-friendly will become evident by the ease of use of its configuration tools.
- Availability of
support. This takes two forms. Firstly, some distributions include
hotline support (at a price). If you value a friendly voice on the
end of the line when all else fails (or long before), consider it
when you go shopping for a distribution. Secondly, safety in numbers!
If you choose one of the more common distributions such as Red Hat,
Mandrake or SuSE, you are more likely to find a helping hand in an
Internet forum to guide you through some tricky configuration problem
than if you opt for a very obscure distribution which hardly anyone
- Special needs.
This covers all manner of particular requirements which, by
definition, aren't "general" and which I therefore can't
attempt to cover here. If you are disabled, for example, there are
distributions for you. There are distributions which run from a CD
and require no installation - a very good way of getting an initial
"feel" for Linux without the work or risk of installing Linux on an existing PC. If you're looking for something special in the way of a distribution, look, or ask around, and you may well find it.
- Applications. The applications a
translator is likely to need are covered in more detailed below.
Remember, though, that a typical Linux distribution includes not only
the operating system, but a huge number of applications as well. Some distributions are so comprehensive that very little additional
software need be installed before you sit down and start translating.
Even though the "additional" software is largely free and
readily available, obtaining and installing it still costs time and
energy, so there is a clear advantage in obtaining a distribution
which includes most, if not all the applications you need. Some, but
by no means all "comprehensive" distributions (from a
translator's point of view) are advertised as "desktop" distributions, as they tend to concentrate on desktop applications to the detriment of Internet server, router, firewall applications etc.
which are of much lesser interest to translators.
Linux is great because
it is virus-proof!
This is not strictly
speaking true; viruses for Linux do in fact exist. Generally
speaking, though, the chances of a Linux user falling victim to a
virus are extremely slim.
There are a number of reasons for this.
- Writers of viruses
naturally target the largest group of victims. As Linux still
accounts for only a tiny fraction of desktop users, writers of
viruses have evidently not considered them worth targeting.
Windows software, both the operating system and certain applications,
are extremely poorly protected against virus attack. In particular,
the combination of very poor (if not downright reckless) default
settings and a high level of user ignorance has contributed to making
many users very vulnerable to attack. Both of these factors are rare
in the Linux world: as well as being very secure against attack,
Linux applications generally have very defensive default settings,
and their users have an above-average awareness of how the software
is supposed to be used.
- A Linux system, even on a humble PC,
normally features several "user" accounts and an
"administrator" account, known as "root". A user
account is used for normal work; the root account, which is the only
account to have access to the whole system, is normally used only for
administration. This is often cited as a major security advantage for
Linux, as damage caused by an attack is normally limited to just one
user account. If you are the only person using your Linux system,
though, it is little consolation if you only lose "your"
- Open-source software itself is also claimed to benefit
security, as the fact that technically skilled users are able to look
closely at the inner workings of a program means that there are
always many pairs of eyes looking for security weaknesses. In
practice, whilst there is no doubt some justification for this view,
the willingness of many open-source users to try out obscure
applications could equally further the spread of viruses should their
numbers grow, their average technical awareness fall, and virus
writers begin to take an interest in them. At present, though we are
a long way from reaching that stage.
Do I have to learn how
to compile software in order to use Linux?
No. Although some diehard
Linux users insist on compiling all software themselves before
installing it, this is hardly ever necessary: most software is
I don't want to work
from the command line!
You don't have to. Linux
has a graphical user interface. In fact, it has a number of different
graphical interfaces, and you can choose whichever suits you most.
Will I have to learn a
whole new set of commands if I use Linux?
No. You won't have to work
from the command line if you don't want to (although the option of
doing so is often a great advantage). System administration, file
management and productivity applications are available which make use
of the familiar style of GUIs, use of the mouse, menus, drag and
drop, and keyboard shortcuts such as Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, Ctrl-X, etc.
From the user's perspective, Linux has a few basic features which
differ from Windows, but these are not necessarily any more
complicated than the corresponding Windows features - just different.
The fact that folder (directory) names are preceded by a forward
slash rather than a backslash, for example, is something which will
be familiar to you from the Internet. Linux also lacks drive
designations, such as a:\ for the floppy drive, c:\ for the hard
drive, etc., but such differences are soon learnt.
Do I have to type my
translations in a primitive text editor?
No, you don't have to,
though some Linux users seem to have a masochistic inclination to do
so. There are several fully-featured word processors available for
I've heard Linux users
prefer to use TeX - what's that?
TeX is frequently referred
to as a "text processor". It is also described by the
acronym "WYSIWYW" (What You See Is What You Want) rather
than the common "WYSIWYG" (What You See Is What You Get).
The essential difference between "text processing" and
"word processing" is that with "text processing",
the user defines much more exactly how the final text is going to
look when printed out, although it will not necessarily look that way
on the screen. It is also much harder to work with than with the
familiar word processors such as MS Word. This method of working has
its adherents, but you don't have to be one of them - there is
nothing to stop you using one of the many word processors for Linux.
So which is the best
word processor for Linux?
That depends very much
upon your criteria for selection. Assuming that you are receiving
texts from a customer, though, and your job is to overwrite the text
in a different language, the most important criterion is likely to be
how well the existing formatting is preserved. In practice, this
usually means: how good is the compatibility with Microsoft Office,
in particular with Microsoft Word? At the time of writing, one
particular word processor office suite/word processor is streets
ahead of all the others in terms of this compatibility, and that is
What's the difference
between OpenOffice.org and StarOffice?
Simple. OpenOffice.org is
free. You can download it from the Internet and install it on as many
computers as you like. StarOffice is a commercial product: you buy a
copy and with it the licence to use it on one PC. The copy you buy
comes with a manual and with access to the StarOffice help line.
There are minor differences in the actual software: StarOffice
includes extra goodies such as clipart graphics, for example. To all
intents and purposes, though, the applications are the same.
Exactly how good is the
compatibility between OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Word? I need it to
The compatibility isn't
perfect, and never will be as long as Microsoft insists on using
closed, proprietary file formats, although the prospects of perfect compatibility have increased substantially since Microsoft announced its XML formats. What's
more, in order to get the best possible compatibility, other
applications would have to be as similar as possible to MS Word,
whereas their vendors would rightly point out that they aim to be
better than MS Word.
said that, OpenOffice.org's import and export filters for MS Word are
extremely good. In particular, when an MS Word document is
edited in OpenOffice.org (as opposed to a new document being created
in OpenOffice.org, possibly with complex formatting, and then
exported), the changes to the formatting are extremely small. It is
worth noting that conversion between Word and RTF, which is needed by
many translation memory applications, is not perfect either, and in
fact even conversion between different versions of MS Word may result
in formatting loss.
Is there a Linux version
of Microsoft Office? I really can't do without it!
No, there's no Linux
version of Microsoft Office - and don't expect one to appear in the
foreseeable future. There is, however, a piece of software called
Crossover Office which enables you to run Microsoft Office (versions
97, 2000 and XP) on Linux.
What about translation
At the time of writing,
there are no translation memory applications written specifically for
Linux. You can, however, use a cross-platform translation memory application. These include programs written in Java, such as OmegaT. If you choose to use Crossover Office in
order to run Microsoft Word or Office on Linux, you can also use one
of the translation memory applications which take the form of a Word template. The most popular application in this category is Wordfast.
I hate Bill Gates!
Windows is a rip-off! How can I start using Linux right away?
Whether these are good
enough reasons for abandoning Windows in favour of Linux, only you
can decide. Even if you are absolutely determined to use Linux,
though, don't expect to be able to do so overnight. You will have
- find suitable hardware for your Linux system;
and configure the Linux operating system, unless you buy a PC with
- find alternative applications or solutions
for the ones you previously used on Windows;
- become familiar
with the particular characteristics and a range of new
- perhaps convert legacy data into a different
This can generally all be
accomplished (assuming you are not particularly attached to a certain
Windows application), but it does take time. It is therefore better
to use Windows and Linux side-by-side for a while.
What's an emulator? Can
I use one to run my Windows applications on Linux?
An emulator is a piece of
software that pretends to be a piece of hardware. Emulators such as
VMWare and Win4Lin can be installed on Linux. You then install a copy
of Windows, and finally your Windows software. In other words, you
don't use an emulator on Linux instead of Windows; you use it
in order to use Linux and Windows on the same machine, and you still
need the Windows operating system and a licence for it. Some
translators who prefer to use Linux but who insist on using one or
two Windows applications - Déjà
Vu is one of the favourites - use this solution.
What is "WINE"?
Can I use it to run my Windows applications on Linux?
stands for "Wine Is Not an Emulator". Why is WINE not an
emulator? Because an emulator emulates (pretends to be) a piece of
hardware. WINE pretends to be a piece of software - Windows. That
means you can install Windows applications and run them without
having a copy of Windows and the associated licence. That's the
theory. In practice, there are three problems: most Windows
applications of interest to translators won't work on WINE; those
that do require a lot of "tweaking" of WINE; even when they
run, most don't run very well.
What is "Lindows"/"Linspire"?
Can I use it to run my Windows applications on Linux?
Lindows, which has been named "Linspire" following a copyright battle between its owner and Microsoft, is a Linux distribution which was designed with two things in mind: first, to make Linux simpler to install and use, and second, to
enable users to install Windows applications. Linspire has succeeded in reaching its first goal, and there are many happy Linspire users out
there, although some of the benefits of Linux have been lost. Linspire has been less successful in making Windows software run on Linux, though. In practice, Linspire relies on WINE and is not much better for
running Windows applications than other Linux distributions.
What is "Crossover
Office"? Can I use it to run my Windows applications on Linux?
Office is a version of WINE specially configured in order to make it
possible to install Microsoft Office (97, 2000 XP and 2003). Unlike WINE, it actually works very well without extra configuration, provided the only Windows software you wish to run is Microsoft Office. In theory, you can try installing other Windows software on Crossover Office. In some cases you will be lucky, but in most cases the applications won't work. Codeweavers, the distributor of Crossover Office, is gradually increasing the number of Windows applications which it supports. WINE is open-source and free, whereas Crossover Office is a
commercial product, albeit not an expensive one at around $40.
Aren't the reasons for
using Linux more to do with politics than anything else? If Linux is
free, can it really be good? Is Linux an anti-capitalist conspiracy?
The best way to answer
these questions is to consider the Internet. If you're a translator,
you almost certainly use the Internet to find information, and most
of that information is free. Some of it is very good. Some of it is
not. But have you considered not using it just because it's
free? Incidentally, it is quite likely that your favourite online
forum is running on Linux!
As a translator, what
reasons might I have for not using Linux?
The main ones are:
- At present, Linux gives you a limited choice
of translation memory software. If you use a TM package that is only
available for Windows and you wouldn't want to be without it, then
stay with Windows.
- Many dictionaries available on CD will not
run on Linux. If you particularly like using dictionaries on CD,
Linux is not yet ready for you (or vice-versa).
- Virtually none
of the main DTP packages, such as Pagemaker or Quark XPress, are
available for Linux. If, by choice or out of necessity, you use one
or more of these packages to edit customers' files in these formats,
you will have to use Windows (or a Mac), at least for the time
- If your first concern is simply to save money, Linux is
unlikely to be the best solution. It is cheaper simply to get the
most out of your existing Windows system. Don't upgrade Windows until
you have to. Instead of upgrading to a newer version of MS Word or
Office, get a copy of Textmaker (cheap) or OpenOffice.org (free),
both of which are very serious alternatives to the Microsoft product,
and are available for Windows as well as Linux. Try one of the
inexpensive or free translation memory programs such as Wordfast or OmegaT before splashing out on an expensive system such
as Trados. Use one of the free alternatives to WinZip. Note: I am not
saying that saving money in this way is the best thing to do - just
that it is an easier way of saving money than using Linux.
does require certain things of you. In particular, you must be
willing to read documentation before doing things, and to ask
questions. If you expect things to work when you click on them but
don't really understand what they do, Linux is not for you.
As a translator, what
reasons might I have for using Linux?
is a philosophy. A significant part of that philosophy is of course
the idea of people all over the world contributing from their own
pool of resources - something that translators are doing more and
more anyway. There is another side to the Linux philosophy though,
and that is the idea that software is a tool. Think of yourself as a
craftsman or craftswoman, and Linux as a toolbox from which you
select the best tool for a particular job. Windows, by contrast, is
not a toolbox, but an environment. You work within the environment
provided by the software. More often than not, you don't know what
the software is doing. Some people are happier that way. More than
anything else, your preference for a "toolkit" or an
"environment" will be what makes you prefer Linux or
Marc Prior 2003-2006