Most of the programs described here are available through the freshmeat network. Here are some open source operating systems:
The open source community offers a variety of Linux distributions. Various commercial and independent projects build unique versions of Linux by adding special programs or configurations. Educators use many of the popular distributions: Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake, Debian, and Knoppix, among others. These distributions run on the Intel x86 architecture, so an existing Microsoft Windows machine can be converted to Linux. (Some current users have replaced unlicensed copies of Windows to avoid possible fines.) For Apple Power PCs there's Yellow Dog Linux.
Users can choose between two competing Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs): Gnome and KDE. Both mimic the look and feel of Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh, to some degree. Current users believe it's relatively easy to acclimate to a Linux desktop. The most advanced GUIs, like Red Hat 8.0, have user friendly menu/folder/file systems. Installing a Linux desktop may be more challenging than a proprietary alternative, especially finding drivers for unusual or cutting edge hardware. Once a desktop is installed, it's allegedly very stable. The community prides itself on reliability and security, while offering a huge variety of enhancements and customization. Like any operating system, if Linux isn't properly configured the user may have too much access, leading to accidental or deliberate damage.
Screenshots: The Gnome and KDE graphical user interfaces for Linux. Click to enlarge (images courtesy of K12LTSP.org).
The Berkely Software Distribution (BSD) is an open source version of UNIX. While it doesn't garner the same visibility as Linux, BSD shares many of the same advantages. In particular, BSD servers are powerful network nodes, so much of the Internet's global infrastructure runs on BSD. Apple now builds their proprietary operating system on BSD. Macintosh OS X ("ten") is based on Darwin, an open source variant of BSD. See: "Apple"
Many users only need a browser, an email program, and some productivity software (e.g. a word processor). In some cases, the easier, less expensive way to meet these needs is a thin client. Rather than install a stand-alone operating system on every workstation, a school can deploy a single powerful server (or server bank) and a series of thin clients. A thin client is a minimalist workstation: it can be little more than a network card, graphics card, monitor, keyboard, and mouse. The server handles computing (including running all applications inside the server), networking, and managing files. Only the server needs to be maintained and secured, since the thin clients are just interchangeable hardware. This is also called the terminal server model.
One of the most popular open source solutions is K12LTSP: the K-12 Linux Terminal Server Project. It's based on Red Hat Linux and the generic LTSP project. The combined product is tailored to schools and allegedly easy to deploy and maintain. There are proprietary thin client solutions available, but K12LTSP is free and well-used in education. As a result, current users praise the large, free community of mutual support and troubleshooting around K12LTSP.
The open source community offers a wide variety of programs so many users can choose an open source operating system without much risk. However, since schools often depend on specific programs, interoperability is important. If a school deploys Linux, users may still need to run Microsoft Windows programs. The most popular solution to this problem is Wine, an open source implementation of the Windows API on top of X and Unix. Think of Wine (http://www.winehq.com) as a Windows compatibility layer that allows many unmodified Windows programs to run on Linux. Wine does not require Microsoft Windows, as it is a completely alternative implementation consisting of 100% Microsoft-free code, but it can optionally use native system DLLs if they are available. One drawback is that while Wine is maturing, Windows APIs are shifting standards so some tweaking is inevitable.
Linspire (http://www.linspire.com) is a Linux distribution formerly known as Lindows that was designed to leverage the emerging power of Wine. It's user friendly package includes an operating system that looks and feels like Microsoft Windows, runs Windows programs, and costs far less. It uses CNR technology that allows installation, updating, and management of more than 1900 software programs available from Linspire's CNR Warehouse. (http://www.linspire.com/lindows_products_categories.php)
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