Slackware is one of the many distributions of Linux. Linux is a "totally free" operating system designed by Linus Torvalds, with the help of many other people throughout the Internet. Linux was designed to be a Unix-like operating system, a very popular flavor of operating system in academic institutions, research facilities, and corporations. While Linux continues to move forward and has a great deal of support throughout the Internet community, a few companies have taken an nterest in Linux to make it a more "commercial" operating system and sell their own version of Linux complete with their own custom applications, printed and bound documentation, and technical support.
The developers of Linux have made it a lot nicer for people to get started by allowing you to run Linux on your existing FAT filesystem, the filesystem used for DOS/Windows, Windows 95, and Windows NT. The installation program that comes with Walnut Creek CD-Rom's release of Slackware Linux allows you to run partially or entirely off of CD-ROM as well. This means that you need not dedicate a large chunk of your hard disk to run Linux -- a typical installation with X Windows runs approximately 150 to 200 megabytes. Or, even if you do choose to install everything onto your hard disk, you are not required to repartition your drive. Partitioning your existing drives involves backing up, entirely reformatting your drive, and restoring the data onto your drive. Anyone whose had to do this knows what a pain this is. The main reason you would want to install Linux on it's own partition is that the native Linux filesystem is faster and more robust than the FAT filesystem.
Once you figured out how you want to install Linux, you need to figure out how you want to boot into Linux, all of which in some form or another involve using LILO, the LInux LOader. LILO can be installed on your hard drive in such a way to allow you to choose which operating system you want to start up in (Linux, Win95, WinNT, etc). It can also be installed on a floppy drive in such a way that it will load up the Linux "kernel" and continue loading from your hard drive. Though I've finally figured out all the peculiarities of getting LILO running on my system (which has some weird hardware), it was well worth it.
Even with all the documentation that is provided on the CD-Rom in the way of "HOW-TOs" and "READMEs" as well as my 5 years of Unix system administration experience, it's still a little daunting to get everything going. For instance, I was displeased to find out that my video card did not work correctly when I started up X Windows, which is a program for displaying and running programs in mutliple windows similar to Windows 95 or Windows NT. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as getting the latest drivers off the Internet, adding them to the program and re-starting. I thought I might have to download an entirely new distribution of X Windows, but I was lucky and only had to download the server program, which still took more than a few minutes at 28,800bps. Later distributions of Slackware (3.2 and later) included the right distribution of the X Windows software for my card.
After I got X Windows running, I needed to get connected up via PPP to my provider so I could download Netscape Gold. Having done this before, it was simply a matter of creating a "chat script" so that I could get the modem to dial up and log into my Internet Service Provider and set up a couple of additional things to make it all work. The setup isn't nearly as clean as it is in Windows 95 with it's "Dial-Up Networking," but it's just as flexible as DUN with the scripting add-on.
The next thing I wanted to be able to do is print. Fortunately, the default printer setup "worked" for text documents, but in order to print documents from Netscape Gold, I had to be able to print Postscript. Short of going out and buying a postscript printer, I had to figure out how to get postscript into something my DeskJet 320 can understand. Fortunately, I installed "ghostscript" which converts postscript into a variety of things, including something that is compatible with my DeskJet 320. I wrote a little script that will print correctly (given postscript) and configured the printing system to use it.
To make a long story short, I've still got a long ways to go to make Linux something I can use to get all my work done. I have to find Linux versions of all the programs I'm used to using (or Java-based at the very least) and get them installed and working correctly. I need to tinker with everything to get it just the way I like it. And the level of tinkering requires a bit of knowledge that the average computer user should not be expected to have. But pne thing I will say for Linux is that it provides me a source of endless tinkering and I can get it to work and do just what I want it to without spending lots of money. Being a computer geek, I look forward to the challenge.
If you really want to start learning about your computer and how it all works, installing and configuring Linux is a great way to gain some understanding. If you're frustrated by the the limits placed on your PC by the WinTel monopoly, you're tired of giving "Mr. Bill" your hard earned cash, and you don't mind spending some extra time getting everything "just perfect," Linux is for you. But if you couldn't care less about any of this and you're just interested in getting real work done, then stick with Windows 95.