Building the Community Computer Lab – The Software

Operating System graphic, from Wikipedia at

Operating System graphic, from Wikipedia:

CAVEAT: The information provided herein is most likely exactly correct, HOWEVER use it at your own risk: we assume no risk or liability. Do your own evaluation and make your own choices.

In the prior articles we purchased and assembled computer parts into working computers for the community lab. In this article we install the Operating System(s). In the next article we configure user accounts and security software to get and keep our lab usable, including installing and configuring Raspbian onto our control server, a Raspberry Pi 4B.

Why Operating System

Hardware in and of itself alone is mostly useless as an Operating System is necessary to orchestrate activities in the hardware so that it does something useful.

An operating system (OS) is system software that manages computer hardwaresoftware resources, and provides common services for computer programs.

By way of example, the operating system is what recognizes that a key was pressed on the keyboard,  or a mouse button clicked, or the mouse moved, and does something constructive with that information. The operating system is what loads smaller programs or “apps” so we can use them. Examples of apps are word processors, spreadsheets, email clients, and web browsers. When one buys a complete computer at a store normally an Operating System will already be installed. When one builds one’s own computer then one must install the Operating System, which is actually fairly simple and quick.

Because our purpose at Adult Life Training, Inc.  is to help people become familiar with computer technology so that they get and stay happily employed in a job that pays a living wage, we want the people we help to be comfortable with any kind of computer a potential employer may have. We use two of the most popular operating systems: Debian Linux and Microsoft Windows.


Acquiring Linux is a simple and free activity: you download any of the hundreds of distributions (known as “distros”) such as Mint Linux, according to your personal likes. Acquiring Microsoft Windows is also a simple process of purchasing the Microsoft Windows from a local retailer or from the Microsoft on-line store, or for documentably tax-exempt organizations through

How to Install the Operating System

Once you have the software, and it is on a DVD or USB Memory Stick, you can proceed to install it onto the computers.

When the BIOS  screen comes up hit the F12 (or whatever key your computer designates) and select BBS Boot. BBS means BIOS Boot Specification. The purpose of the BIOS Boot Specification is to standardize the boot process across PC systems. Selecting BBS from the BIOS screen will bring up a menu allowing you to select the install media: do so, and the installation will begin for you.

Order Matters

If you are installing only one Operating System, then simply insert the media (DVD or Memory Stick) into the DVD drive or USB port and start the computer. If you are a small charity without money to buy Windows, then just install Linux. If you have no need for Linux then just buy and install Windows. If you would like both then install both, but install Windows first.

Installing for Diversity

If you are installing two systems (dual boot) so that your guests can choose which ever one they prefer, then be certain to install the Microsoft Windows FIRST and then install the Linux: the GNU (Linux) bootloader recognizes Windows and will include it in the list of operating systems from which your guest may choose, but the Windows bootloader does NOT recognize Linux (without taking special technical steps that are beyond the scope of this article) and only Windows will be available regardless of your guest’s preferences.

There is much interesting and detailed information on bootloaders and the intimate technical details of disk formats on Wikipedia, and some more information specifically on GRUB on the GRUB project web page.

Completing the Install

As the install(s) progress(es) you will be asked several simple questions: what is your name, what password do you want, what time zone are you in – just answer them. If you are making several computers to be publicly available, I suggest that you do not use your own personal name or password but rather a simple name for the administrator, such as “Manager”, and a password for this “Manager” on each computer. The first account that you create (during install) will be the administrator account, and should NOT be available to your guests. Create additional (user) accounts after the Operating System(s) is(are) installed.

Additional Software

Installing additional programs in Linux is simply clicking on whatever program(s) you would like out of several thousands of free programs available.

Installing additional programs in Windows is similar, using the Microsoft Store. You select which programs you want, pay for them if they are not free, and then download and install them.

Open Source vs. Proprietary

In a practical sense, Open Source usually indicates the app is free for you to download and use while proprietary usually means that someone is selling you permission to use the software (not own the software) for money and you cannot share it.

When Linus Torvalds wrote his own paraphrase of Minix, the large Unix type operating system that he was using at the University of Helsinki, he unintentionally started/joined a global movement of sharing computer software known as Open Source software. Another group, Richard Stallman and GNU, were creating other necessary operating system parts, but not the kernel. The Stallman/GNU work combined with Torvalds’ Linux kernel became the foundation of what we use in Linux distros now. Most fairly it is called GNU/Linux, but we are a lazy folk and usually just say “Linux”.

Commercial manufacturers produce mostly Proprietary software, although some also produce Open Source. The end user must acquire a license to use (not own) proprietary software and the manufacturer retains ownership.

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The internal workings of Proprietary software is considered a trade secret and cannot be disclosed or shared, and the software must be acquired through the manufacturer’s distribution channel.

Open Source refers to something people can modify and share because its design is publicly accessible. Open source projects, products, or initiatives embrace and celebrate principles of open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, transparency, meritocracy, and community-oriented development. See for more information.

Such software allows anyone sufficiently motivated to download the needed information and produce, modify, and distribute that open source software themselves. Linux is Open Source; Microsoft Windows is proprietary. More on Open Source Software can be read on Open Source .com, Open Source .org, and the Free Software Foundation.

Office Apps

To perform office work, one uses office apps. “App” is the popular slang for “Application”, which is a computer program. “We’ve got an app for that”. Examples of office apps are Microsoft Word, Excel, Power Point, LibreOffice Writer, Calc, and Impress. Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird are email office apps. GNU Cash, Quicken, and Quick Books are accounting office apps.

A “Suite” is a collection of apps. The most common office suite is Microsoft Office. The current version is 2019. A very forward looking alternative to Office 2019 is the Office 365 suite of apps. Office 2019 is installed onto the computer while Office 365 is used but not installed through a web browser. The computer must be using Microsoft Windows 10 to reasonably use Office 2019, however Office 365 works with any kind of computer, on any browser, and that includes tablets, mobile phones and other devices. LibreOffice can be installed on Linux, Windows, and many other operating systems.

Linux distros usually already have LibreOffice (substitute for Microsoft Office) and other important apps installed. Microsoft Windows does not come with office software and it must be acquired and installed separately.


In the next article I will explain the steps that should be taken to protect as much as practical from malicious people and software, and some configuration options that make our computers run better.

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