What Is the BASH Shell?

The best way of explaining the BASH shell to a Windows user is to compare it to the DOS command prompt. It lets you issue commands directly to the OS via the keyboard without needing to mess around with the mouse and windows (although it is sometimes possible to use the mouse within a BASH shell to copy and paste text, and sometimes to control simple text-based menus). The big difference is that the BASH shell has commands for just about everything you might do on your system, whereas the DOS command prompt is mostly limited to tools capable of manipulating and viewing files and directories.

In the old days, the DOS command prompt was also the visible layer of an entire operating system in which DOS programs were designed to be run. However, the shell is merely one of the many ways of accessing the Linux kernel and subsystems. It’s true that many programs are designed to run via the BASH shell, but technically speaking, most actually run on the Linux OS, and simply take input and show their output via the BASH shell.

The instinctive response of a longtime Windows user is to be wary of the BASH shell, because it presents an entirely new way of working and a new set of concepts to learn. There’s no denying that the shell provides plenty of challenges for the newbie user, but the rewards it brings—both in terms of sense of achievement, as well as making users more effective at controlling their computers—more than outweigh the initial difficulties.

Linux finds itself with the BASH shell largely because Linux is a clone of UNIX. In the early days of UNIX, the text-based shell was the only way for users to control the computer. Typing in commands directly is one of the most fundamental ways of controlling any type of computer and, in the evolutionary scale, comes straight after needing to set switches and watch blinking lights in order to run programs.

That the BASH shell can trace its history back to the early days of UNIX might sound like a tacit indication that the BASH is somehow primitive—far from it. It’s one of the most efficient and immediate ways of working with your computer. Many people consider the command-line shell to be a fast, efficient way of using a computer that has yet to be superseded by a better method.

Most Linux distributions come with a choice of different shell programs. However, the default shell for most Linux systems is BASH, as is the case with Ubuntu. BASH stands for Bourne Again SHell. The name is a pun and alludes to the origins of Bash as a rewrite of the Bourne shell, a tried-and-tested program from the heyday of UNIX in the late 1970s.

The other shells available include PDKSH (Public Domain Korn SHell, based on Korn Shell, another early UNIX shell) and ZSH (Z SHell), a more recent addition. These are usually used by people who want to program Linux in various ways or by those who simply aren’t happy with BASH.

The BASH shell is considered by many to be the best of all worlds in that it’s easy enough for beginners to learn, yet is able to grow with them and offer additional capabilities as necessary. BASH is capable of scripting, for example, which means you can even create your own simple programs.

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