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Taking command – why none should fear the command line

Open a Terminal. Three words that are enough to send Windows users scurrying back to Microsoftland. But why, wonders Linux User & Developer's Simon Brew?

This article originally appeared in issue 92 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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I’m guessing that many of you hear this too. There you are, chatting to people about Linux, and why they don’t use it, and sooner or later you’ll stumble across one of the more regular answers. The Terminal window. That window of joy that to the untrained eye looks like we’ve gone back to the days of DOS, typing in laborious commands to get every job done.

Of course, this kind of comment overlooks the fact that the evolution of GUIs has made it kind of redundant in the world of modern-day Linux, and the fact remains that if you choose your Linux distribution with a little care, you need never open a Terminal window in your life. However, even though many of us like to say that, there’s still, festering away, the knowledge that in a more realistic world often the Terminal is the quickest way to get from A to B. To some degree, the same argument applies with certain tasks with Windows, where a quick Start>Run>CMD can get you to the guts of the operating system quicker than messing around with open window after open window.

Yet whenever the question of the Terminal is raised, my tendency has usually been to argue that it’s not vital to use it. But I wonder if that’s actually the right answer. Because there are myths to it that, if someone sat and actually spent ten minutes typing in commands, they might actually be able to see past a screen seemingly full of code.

Take this for an example. Twice in the past month I’ve had conversations with people, where they bemoaned Linux’s supposed craving for having you typing lots of things into a Terminal window. Why, they argued, should they have to copy a lot of code off a webpage, just to do something in Linux that’s easy in Windows?

In both cases, I simply answered that you don’t. You can copy and paste it. A look of surprise crept across their face. Copy and paste? You can’t do that can you? The Terminal, after all, is clearly an archaic relic of computing past, put in to keep nerds happy. Surely you have to type everything in? And, having been assured that this wasn’t the case – with the usual caveat of watching for carriage returns – they’ve actually been a lot happier.

My second response, however, is what’s actually wrong with taking a look beneath the engine hood, if you will? I tinkered with MS-DOS for some time back in the day, and learned a lot about how the structure of a computer works. I’m loath to say it didn’t do me any harm, and I was glad in the end for the evolution of the GUI, but like most things that people pretend are very difficult in order to avoid, it was never actually that hard. Granted, there are always moments where you get stuck, but in the modern day, how far do you really have to look for help?

The Terminal is seen, sadly, as an albatross hanging around the neck of Linux, whereas there’s actually a really strong case that it should be seen as something else entirely: a feature. A chance to get your hands a little bit dirty. A chance to find out how things work. Or, if nothing else, a quick way to get a driver installed. It’s certainly far from the big bad wolf at the door, and I suggest that it’s nothing that Linux operating systems should be in the slightest bit ashamed of, warts and all.

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