The Daunting Terminal

You've been sitting in a doctor's office for over a half-hour. Each second seems like an eternity. Worry is starting to grip your gut. The test results are being discussed by two nurses in the hallway and the grim looks on their faces don't look promising. You wonder what they've found and hope it isn't life threatening. You have too much to lose: your family, your job, or nice car. You jump as a doctor steps into the room holding a clipboard and looking intently at the scattered data. He looks up and into your eyes. “I'm sorry sir, but it looks like this disease is a terminal illness.” Your heart sinks, knowing that this sickness only ends in death. Everything you've worked for gone.

I remember my first experience with the computer terminal being very similar. I was VERY timid about entering codes manually into the computer. With all the code readout scrolling by, I was worried that something might go wrong. What if I mis-spelled something and it destroys my computer? Over time, though, that worry was replaced by a confidence I could have had from the start.

This is what I think every time I hear the word “terminal.” It's never a happy word. So, it's no wonder that when I looked at some directions for installing something in Linux, I cringed in fear when they said to open the Terminal. But is the fear of entering a string of letters and technically powerful words a reason to be afraid? Is this a rational fear? Why is it that so many are in fear of switching to Linux because of “having to use the command line?” Let me try to smash some of these fears and correct any misinformed thinking by helping you, the user, to understand the terminal a little better.

What is the Terminal

The terminal is an application that enables you to talk to the computer using text based commands. This means that you're eliminating the need to use a graphical interface, or a bunch of friendly buttons, to initiate commands. It's called command line, meaning, instead of clicking buttons and icons, you enter commands with text. For example, the command to update your system, you would enter.

sudo apt-get update

There are many other such commands that you can use to launch applications. Back in the earlier days of Linux, most things were done using the command line. This is one reason many non-geeks didn't, or still don't, want to move to Linux.

The truth is, Linux is so far past that primitive stage of being all command line that it has reached the point of being a usable desktop by anyone, geek or non-geek. So if Linux, or more specifically, Ubuntu, has reached a point where the desktop is no longer command line driven, why use the terminal at all?

Why Use the Terminal?

As a more in-depth Linux operator, the terminal can be your greatest friend. It will talk to you when you have a problem. It will tell you what is wrong. Maybe not in the same way humans interact, but in a very similar way.

Let me elaborate a little. When you click on an icon on the desktop, or click a button, it sends various commands to the computer. All these commands you don't see, because they are going on in the background. If, for example, I was to click the update button on my menu, to update the system, the only thing I would see would be a status bar indicating how much time before my system was updated. Now if I were to type “sudo apt-get update” (the command line equivalent) I would get a very long and exhaustive list of web address that my computer was searching for updates.

You're probably thinking, “Why would I want to see all that?” The answer is simple: it tells me what's going on behind the scenes. Well, why would I need to know that? Because if there was a problem an installation, and a problem was preventing it from completing, then there will be error messages in the terminal read out that I would not see in the desktop scenario. If I was just to have the installation say “I'm sorry, your installation of Gobbledygook Plus couldn't be completed” then I wouldn't know what went wrong. But, by then installing it using the terminal, error messages would appear, informing me of the problem, and enabling me to fix it, or get help. But, the use of the terminal is not for everyone.

Should I use the Terminal?

Though the Terminal is very useful in many computing situations, I do not recommend it for everyone. For basic users, it might be too difficult to grasp, and, depending on the commands involved, may accidentally mess up your machine. But, if you are having a problem with your computer, like a program isn't running, or an installation crashes, you can post the output of the terminal on the web for people to help you out with.

Do I HAVE to use the terminal?

Thankfully for most users, It is not required to know how to use the terminal. It is not a mandatory task. It's an aid to help you when you have computer problems, but, contrary to usual belief, you don't need to use it to do everything on the desktop. There's nowhere in the Ubuntu requirements that says “In-Depth Understanding of the Terminal required.” Even as an advanced user, I only rarely use the terminal. Just because you have a spare tire under your car, doesn't mean you have to use it all the time. You only use it when you have a flat tire. It's that simple.

In Closing

Hopefully, now that you have read this article in its entirety, you will no longer fear the Terminal. Instead you will see it as a tool, that you don't HAVE to tinker with, and can get by quite easily without using. The terminal is a useful tool, but it doesn't have to dominate your computer usage. One should never fear things that are unknown, because if we did, we would never learn anything new.

The Little Tin Man