What is the terminal?

This post is about computing and is targeted at users with a lower level technical ability.  Other names used for the terminal are the command line, the DOS prompt, the command prompt, the shell, the blinking cursor on the black screen.

In its essence the terminal is a way of interfacing your computer and its non-graphical capabilities.

A terminal emulator open in FVWM.

Perhaps the question many people want to ask, but don’t realize is “What is a shell?”  The reason for this is that the terminal, or in many cases a terminal emulator, is just a means of using a shell.  For the new user though we can continue conflating these terms for the time being.  What we’re interested in is illustrating what the blinking cursor and black screen is all about.

The terminal’s complexity and power are betrayed by the simplicity of the blinking cursor.  When interacting with the terminal it is often easiest to have a printed out guide or book to refer to until you are accustomed to navigating it from memory.

First off, you need to know what operating system you are using.  If you are using Windows, then the command prompt will not take many of the commands used in Linux, Unix, or other Posix systems.  I will go ahead and shirk the responsibility of describing the Windows command prompt because I don’t know it well.  This article’s focus is primarily on Linux systems.

The terminal can do a great number of things, I’ll provide a short outline of some of those here.

1. Navigate the files and directories of your hard disk.

2. Manipulate, copy, move, and delete those files.

3. Execute (run) programs you have installed on your system.

4. Execute shell scripts.

Most of the power of the terminal is hidden in #3 and #4 of that list.   On a deeper technical level the functions listed in #1 and #2 are actually subsumed by #3, as the commands used to perform them are in fact just programs like any others.  So for a more elegant description of the terminal you could say it has one function.

1.  Execute programs.

This article is not a guide describing how to use the terminal, so I won’t presume to try to explain that.  Many others have done it better than I can already.


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