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20

Taking command – why none should fear the command line

by Simon Brew

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.Taking command - why none should fear the command line Subscribe and save more than 30% and receive our exclusive money back guarantee – click here to find out more.

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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    • turn.self.off

      I sometimes wonder if the fear of the terminal is the fear of entering a command that can not be reversed. Think the old geek warning against entering “rm -rf /”, or that the shell used may resolve paths in unexpected ways (like say if one want to get rid of all .hidden files, and do not consider how .* will be resolved).

      Even seasoned geeks gets those wrong from time to time.

      Basically, the terminal have no trashcan, no “are you sure” dialogs or any of the safety nets that a GUI provides by default thanks to years of “oh crap” moments.

    • http://www.dontfearthecommandline.com Nick

      The command line isn’t necessary for normal users. Power users on the other hand can unleash the power of their Linux PC in the same way many Windows gurus use DOS for certain tasks.

      For those wanting to learn the command line you can download a free eBook at http://dontfearthecommandline.blogspot.com/2010/09/free-ebook-introduction-to-command-line.html

    • vr

      Power of dos terminal!! Ha ha…you are kidding right.

    • http://non aboutlinux

      My opinion is that the fear of the command line is both about the need to have to type many lines of code to get something done, that could also be done with a single click of a mouse, and also being aware that to become productive in the console imply an extensive number of learning hours about commands and other stuff, something that it’s not at all compatible with the modern user’s ideas on computer’s “ease of use” and computer’s “look and feel”.
      So, let’s give the gui to the users and let the developers be with the cmmand line.

    • http://linux.com DavidD

      @vr
      “Power of dos terminal!! Ha ha…you are kidding right.”

      Well no, in windows 3.11, or 9x days and even now the command prompt was and is pretty powerful for getting things done in rapid succession. Batch scripts were quite useful and the “net” command alone was a big help for many services. It is still the fastest/easiest way to release/renew an IP address on DHCP.

      I was an avid fan of batch files before I found linux.

      DOS is nothing in comparison to the power of a linux shells like bash but then nobody was saying it was as powerful as bash.

      PowerShell v2 in Windows 7 is quite a bit more powerful than DOS command prompt shell but it is WAY more confusing and hard to learn than bash and still not quite as powerful.

      So now I have to ask, why are the PowerShellv2 and CMD (command prompt) both forgotten when this topic is brought up. Is it somehow ok for Windows to have a command prompt and not Linux?

      Yes, Linux has bash, but Windows has a command shell as well. If you are not a power user or administrator… don’t use it. You can use thunderbird for email and firefox for web the same way as in Windows. Point your mouse at their icon and click. If you are afraid to install Linux, that’s OK! Just stick in a Live CD or Live USB stick and run it off of that until you are ready. Please at least use a current distribution like Fedora 13 or Ubuntu and give it a try. Don’t rely on a 5 year old post of someone that in all honesty probably did not even truly try it themselves.

      Linux is a great free alternative, however if you don’t like it, or find for some reason you can’t use it, then don’t use it. We won’t be mad at you, it’s your choice. That is the real beauty of Linux… choice.

    • Ham I Am

      Great article. I just made the switch over to Ubuntu about 2 months ago and I love it. My first fear was Terminal, I’m not going to lie. But a friend of mine showed me how “easy” it was. And I’m no longer scared. I’m actually more inclinded play with it a lot more. Definitely going to check out that eBook that Nick posted.

    • RonW

      It’s about perception. Even when you show them the CLI that MS Windows and MacOS have, most users will blissfully forget it’s there. Linux, on the other hand, has a strong reputation for needing the CLI. Partly this is because a large majority of answers on the various Linux related forums involves the CLI. Of course it is possible to get done what needs to be done using the GUI, but the CLI is the lowest common denominator, so most who give answers will give CLI commands.

      After all this time, the perception is so ingrained that many users just can’t get past it.

    • Pingback: The Linux Terminal, a good feature that make life easier | My Opinions

    • Theo Cullen Mouze

      Face it. Computers used to be powerful tools. You needed to actually learn. Nowadays people that they should be able to use computers right from the start. They think there kids are computer geniuses because they click 60 times per second.
      now lets say you have a folder which has 50 .txt files and 50 .odt files.
      You want to delete all the .txt files, but not the .odt files. GUI solution: spend hours reading each file name and deleting files.
      CLI:
      cd /path/to/your/directory
      rm -r *.txt

      Tell me which takes the least.

      Oh, and if you can’t understand how computers work, you probably shouldn’t have one :)