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In Praise of the Console:

Why You Do Not Need X

All GNU/Linux distributions now come with an X server which enables a Window Manager and a Graphical User Interface (GUI) to be used. Indeed, most of these distributions when installed for the first time boot straight into a GUI which, like KDE, presents the user with what is almost an imitation of the Microsoft Windows look and way of doing things.

Many recent GNU/Linux distributions have gone further, and make a point to remove the user from the pure console command line. I remember recently reading a review of such recent GNU/Linux distributions in one of those glossy "computer magazines" which now adorn the news-stands in such profusion in which the various distributions (which they naturally and wrongly called Linux) were praised or condemned by their GUI, with the "winning" distribution having managed to completely do away with the command line.

The truth of the matter is that GNU/Linux does not necessarily require X and a slick GUI: and it certainly does not need to imitate other Operating Systems. One of the reasons GNU/Linux is so good is that is gives us the choice - we can choose to use X, or we can choose to use the console. We can use the console because GNU/Linux provides superb tools that work in console mode. A lot of these tools - such as lynx, the web-browser, mutt, a Mail User Agent, and Midnight Commander, a file-manager - actually look better in console mode than they do in a small xterm run by a Window Manager.

People like me who use their system for writing articles and web-pages, for E-mail, for business administration, for finding information on the Internet and managing several web-sites, can do everything in console only mode. For writing and editing articles there is Emacs; for converting ordinary text into html there are good utilities such as texi2htm; for E-mail mutt; for browsing, lynx. Furthermore, all the standard GNU/Linux tasks - such as running exim, fetchmail, apache, ftp and so on - run from the command line anyway. I never need to use tools which require X. For instance, if I wish to view system messages, which under Debian go to the xconsole, I can simply alter the /etc/syslog.conf file and display them on a spare console, immediately available just by pressing the F key associated with that console. To connect to the Internet, I just type in pon. To upgrade my system, I simply type in apt-get (yes, I am running Debian). And should I ever need to edit source code (it has been known) then there are excellent utilities such as vfte, with its useful colour modes and host of other source-code friendly facilities.

It seems to me that many newcomers to GNU/Linux never get to use the console, which some people in their ignorance now consider to be either "out-dated" or "inconvenient". This is a great shame, as they are missing not only a valuable experience, but also that different, and better, way of working which really is the essence of GNU/Linux and which sets it apart from other Operating Systems like MS Windows. For it is the console way of doing things which expresses the ethos of GNU/Linux - that interaction between user and system which only the console with its command line and simple, configurable tools, gives.

Window Managers, and things like GUI's, just distance the user from the system as they make total configurability and real interaction more and more difficult.

I, like many others, actually prefer to do everything on the console - and if I am, for instance, using lynx to browse the Internet and come across one of the image-rich, Java-based sites that does not work with lynx, then I simply ignore it, convinced I have not missed anything informative or worthwhile since such badly-designed sites show a complete mis-understanding of the ethos of computers, the Internet itself and the morality which underlies the Free Software movement.

(Written and spell-checked with emacs, converted with texi2html, final edit done by emacs through lynx.)

Copyleft 1999 by Space-Time Systems. This document is free; you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation; either version 2 of the license, or (at your option) any later version.
This document is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but without any warranty; without even the implied warranty of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose. See the GNU General Public License for more details.
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This document was generated on 23 December 1999 using the texi2html translator version 1.54.