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Why Linux and Free Software?

Text by Godwin Stewart, Georges Lhuissier, Philippe Lecomte, Faruk Kujundzic, Scott Robbins.

Don't waive your rights
Is Linux "better" than Windows?
What do you need to know?
What is "Free Software"?
Why should I trust Free Software?
Consumer protection
Advantages of Free Software

Why should Linux be used on PC's? Rather, let me turn that around, why shouldn't Linux be used on PC's? Why should Windows be used? Because it was already there when you bought the PC or because you actively chose it? What choice did the salesperson give you? I'll bet you weren't given any choice at all. Would you be happy if your sliced bread came with peanut butter and cream cheese already on it? Would you be happy if your brand new car was sold to you with an engine which doesn't work? Would you be happy if your new TV set was preset to receive one station chosen by the manufacturer and you couldn't watch anything else?

These pages aim to compare the all too often badly known computer to the more familiar car. We'll see that there are many common points between the two.

DON'T WAIVE YOUR RIGHTS

When you go and buy a car you have a certain number of choices to make. You can choose the colour of the paint, the colour and covering of the seats and sometimes the dashboard too, the wheels, the engine (petrol or diesel, turbocharged...). All of these choices seem natural, if not essential, in order to end up with a car which does what you want it to do and looks how you want it to look.

Now, let's suppose that you can no longer choose the engine. Let's also suppose that the only engine available is a small petrol engine which grossly underpowers the car and which is so badly cooled that you have to stop regularly and allow it to cool down. Furthermore, let's imagine that the manufacturer of the engines says that the fluorescent pink paint on the car and the sticky brake pads which make your fuel consumption go through the roof are an essential part of the engine and you can't change them. Finally, suppose the salesperson tells you that they have to fit these engines so that the global price of the car remains reasonable.

What if the sales contract prohibited you from opening the bonnet or from fitting a car radio? What if it legally bound you to fitting tyres and using fuel and lubricants from one particular manufacturer? What if it prevented you from selling the car when you decide to change?

Scary, isn't it!

And yet this is exactly what happens each time an unsuspecting customer buys a PC with preinstalled software they didn't choose.

How many dealers even sell PC's with anything other than Windows (for example) installed? They do exist, but they are few and far between!

How many members of the general public even know that there are alternatives to Windows? For most people, the desktop with its "My Computer" and "My Documents" icons are precisely what makes a PC, and it's exactly what someone would like us to believe. This is, however, miles away from the truth.

Do they know that what Microsoft calls the "Desktop" is more generally known as a "Graphical Environment"? Linux-based systems leave you the choice of which Graphical Environment you want to use (KDE, Gnome, Fluxbox, Blackbox and Enlightenment are just a few examples) with each one having different advantages and drawbacks, whereas Windows provides JUST ONE.

You have every right to choose the characteristics of your new computer, including its operating system and user interface, in just the same way that you can choose the bits which go into your new car. Don't waive your rights by simply going with the flow.

IS LINUX "BETTER" THAN WINDOWS?

It all depends on what you mean by "better" and what you want to do with your computer. Windows and Linux both have good things and bad things. We're going to have a look at what's good and what's bad in them, both in the short term and in the long term.

One argument I'm always hearing in favour of Windows is how easy it is to use. There are, indeed, a few tasks easier to accomplish in Windows, but there are also others for which the "easier or harder" question is debatable, and many which are far easier to accomplish in Linux.

Other people say that Linux is complicated and that they want a system they can work without having to take a degree in computer science. They want it to work with a point and click - after all, you don't have to have a degree in mechanics to be able to drive a car.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

A degree in mechanics? No. Know at least a little bit? Yes.

A degree in computer science? What for? There are millions of Free users around the world who have never taken a degree in computer science because there really is no need. They have either learned what they know on their own by reading books and scouring the web, or they have received help from organisations called LUG's (Linux User Groups - see http://www.linux.org/groups/index.html to find one near you).

How do you drive your car? Do you just sit at the wheel, wave your arms about, yell at the speedometer and expect to get from A to B? If so, you can't spend much on fuel. The fact of the matter is that you have to learn how to use the car and you have to know a little bit about the basics of how it works.

The basic knowledge you need in order to drive a car cannot be limited to turning the ignition key, shifting gears and using the lights and the indicators. You should also know how to change a wheel, inflate the tyres to the right pressure, where to put fuel and what fuel to use, where to pour the windscreen cleaning liquid, how to check the level of the cooling fluid and, of course, how to open the bonnet in the first place... You should also know how to read the dashboard and be able to interpret what it's telling you so that you know how to react if warning lights start flashing. This is a basic safety requirement.

Like it or not, you must know how to take a peek under the computer's bonnet from time to time so you can check up on things which aren't always immediately visible. This remains true whatever operating system you're using. So, I'd like to put some kind of perspective on the statement that Linux is more complicated than Windows. Linux is definitely completely different from Windows, but not more complicated. The knowledge you need is different and is much more closely related to the hardware of your PC. Not only will this knowledge help you get the most out of Linux, but it'll also help you in Windows. The hardest part of switching from one system to another is having to "unlearn" everything the first one taught you - especially if the information was presented in a way which hides the mechanisms of what's really going on.

One of the problems that those who try and dish out this basic knowledge come up against is defining precisely what should be dished out. What is really necessary? How far can you go without giving people information overload? There's no need for the information to be too deep. All that is needed is a general overview of what makes computers tick, nothing more. The basics of computer science are really quite simple and only become complicated - or rather appear to be complicated - when over-developed.

Furthermore, this general knowledge will be useful for you in all kinds of circumstances:

If you don't want to learn to do a minimum of work on your car and if you'd rather rely on friends for that, you're exposing yourself to the possibility that someone will say "No problemo" but not know anything more about cars than yourself. Damage can be done and the car's safety can be compromised, and you'll end up having to take the car to a mechanic anyway.

Computer users have the same problem. Those who can't be bothered to look further than the mouse button are going to be wholly reliant on others whenever something unexpected happens. Depending on who and how they ask they're not going to get the same answers, therefore confusion sets in. They won't be any closer to solving the problem, so they take the computer to a specialist - and pay for it.

Conclusion: IF YOU DON'T WANT TO HAVE TO RELY ON OTHERS TO KEEP YOUR PC IN GOOD WORKING ORDER, YOU NEED TO KNOW A LITTLE ABOUT HOW IT WORKS.

This is the price you have to pay for freedom.

WHAT IS "FREE SOFTWARE"?

"Freedom" is exactly the right word here because we're right in the heart of the debate on "Free Software" as defined by the Free Software Foundation. There are two main categories of software publishers. On one side there are those whose belief is that software is a commercial commodity designed solely to earn them money, and that it must always be released on time even if it isn't finished. On the other side, there are those who believe that a piece of software is designed to meet users' requirements, and who will continue to develop it as long as it contains flaws and as long as there is demand for it.

Linux (or GNU/Linux to be technically correct) is the ultimate Free Software package. A certain Richard Stallman, who was working at the M.I.T. at the time, started work on his GNU project in the early eighties. The most common operating system in university I.T. departments and in research laboratories then was a system called "UNIX" distributed by AT&T, but licenses were extremely costly. Seeing the potential of this system (and being a fervent believer that software shouldn't be paid for) he therefore embarked on a project which would ultimately produce a clone of UNIX but without using a single line of AT&T's code, hence the name "GNU" which stands for "GNU is Not Unix".

By the time Stallman had nearly completed his project and all the utilities which are part of Unix had been rewritten, tested on a Unix system and found to work correctly, all that was lacking was the system's "kernel", i.e. the low-level resources which boot up the computer and which are used by the various utilities to open files, print things, etc...

Meanwhile, a computer student at Helsinki university, Linus Torvalds, was learning everything he could about the Intel 80386 processor. What started out as a simple program which printed 'A's and 'B's on the screen in order to visualise one of the processor's functions called "task switching", turned into a preemptive multitasking kernel supporting multiprocessor computer systems. This kernel became "Linux", and associated with Stallman's GNU applications makes up the GNU/Linux operating system we know today.

This set of software is distributed under a license drafted by the Free Software Foundation. This license is called the "GNU-GPL", or the GNU General Public License. It basically grants anyone the right to use the software, and even to change it to suit individual needs, as long as the source code for any modified version released is made available, and as long as the original author's copyright is asserted.

The advantages of such a system are huge. There are now thousands of developers working on the Linux kernel around the world because the source code was made publicly available right from the start. They now channel their work to project coordinators like Linus himself, Theodore Ts'o, Alan Cox and many others whose names are familiar to those in Linux circles.

WHY SHOULD I TRUST FREE SOFTWARE?

The main aim of Linux developers and Free Software developers in general is to create a product which is stable. They don't want their name associated with software which doesn't work. There being so many developers, they can check one another's work and drastically reduce the number of bugs in the product before it's even released.

Furthermore, there's no "industrial secret" to protect because everything is out in the open. Anyone can gain access to the logic behind software released under GPL. It is therefore impossible for the author to hide spyware or anything else which can be detrimental to the end user. Releasing all of the source code, i.e. the "recipe" for that software, means the developer has to pay special attention to his/her work. You can't get a much better pledge of quality.

Commercial software publishers will try and tell us that their might and the interest their employees have in doing their jobs correctly is a better promise of quality than what Free Software has to offer. Unfortunately, this is far from true. Their aim is not to produce quality software, it is to produce software which generates profits. Certain commercial software publishers have shown us time and time again that they have no compunction about selling thoroughly flawed software. Consumers discover the flaws long after the software is released and go in their droves to BUY updates which mend the flaws (but which include many more new ones). These publishers hide behind a screen of industrial secrecy and even forbid applying reverse engineering (a process which can help reconstitute the source code of software) to their products. This means that they can include whatever backdoor they like and the user won't be any the wiser.

CONSUMER PROTECTION

Most of the information here is geared towards the French public. This article was originally written for a French LUG (LUG Touraine) after all :o)

Would you be willing to buy a car without having test-driven it beforehand? Would you be willing to pay for the heating system to be repaired even though it has never worked on any of the cars in the series? Would you still be willing to pay for the windscreen wipers to be repaired if they were broken while the heating system was being repaired?

I doubt it. So, why should we be willing to pay for software to be "repaired"? The only conclusion we can draw from this is that the world leader in commercial software puts all its efforts into releasing software as quickly as possible, even if it is still incomplete, and profits from consumers' ignorance.

Free software certainly isn't free from design flaws. The main difference between it and commercial software is that updates are freely available to whomever wants them very shortly after the flaws are discovered, and usually long before exploits are found out in the wild.

Let us now talk about something which is illegal in France (and possibly in other countries): "Forced sales". Article L.122-1 of the "Code de la Consommation" is specifically designed to protect the consumer from such abuse but there still are far too many computer dealers who practise it. Why? Because they are coerced into it by Microsoft. The agreements signed between dealers and Microsoft plainly forbid the dealers from selling PC's on which Windows, and only Windows, is not installed.

If a dealer declines to tell you how much of the price of a new computer goes towards the cost of the preinstalled software, or if the dealer flatly refuses to sell you a computer with no software, then you can contact the national fraud squad, the Direction Générale de la Concurrence de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes (DGCCRF).

A common occurrence of such abuse is the sale of computers in supermarkets. Once back home, you set up and switch on your new computer, and Windows (preinstalled) asks you if you are in agreement with the End User License Agreement. The law is clear on this point - you can perfectly well reply "no" and be reimbursed for the copy of Windows you're never going to use. However, when you contact the supermarket for reimbursement, you are referred to the manufacturer of the computer, who refers you to Microsoft, who refers you back to the point of sale et cetera ad infinitum.

By using a Free operating system such as GNU/Linux, you are no longer supporting the abusive practices of dominant distributors and vendors and you are showing that you are still capable of choosing what software you want to run on your computer.

ADVANTAGES OF FREE SOFTWARE

We have seen that there are five huge, short-term advantages to using Free Software:

  1. Stability:
    The man-hours invested in a Free Software project mount up extremely quickly if you consider that there can be literally thousands of people on the development team. The chances of a programming error slipping through such a fine net are pretty slim. Also, don't forget that Free developers take extreme pride in producing something which works in the best possible way because they're not in it for the money.
  2. Security:
    Any potential security loopholes in a Free Software project allowing a third party to gain control of your machine are noticed very quickly, usually before they become a real problem. It is almost fair to say that those who are "cracked" deserve it because information which could have nipped the problem in the bud was available long before the incident.
  3. Lower cost:
    It has already been stated that Free developers don't develop in order to get rich, and the fruit of their labours is very often available for free. The total cost of operation of a Free Software system is therefore much lower than that of a commercial solution, but you must have a minimum of knowledge about your computer and the will to learn to use it correctly.
  4. More open:
    The developer of a GPL'ed project must make the source code, i.e. the "recipe" of that project, available to its users. If you are a programmer, you can tweak the project so that it meets your specific needs. Even if you don't change it, by building it from its source on your system (all Linux distributions include the necessary for this) you are ensuring that it is perfectly compatible with your system.
  5. Invulnerability to viruses:
    There are literally thousands of viruses floating around the web, transmitted via e-mail. Some of them even infect a computer without the user having to extract and run any attachments. A security loophole in the most widespread e-mail program on the planet means that a virus embedded in an e-mail can infect the host computer as soon as the e-mail is simply viewed. Linux is invulnerable to these attacks because they all target Windows, Outlook Express and Outlook. It is also worthwhile noting en passant that all the antivirus programs running on Linux are designed to protect Windows machines connected to them...
    (see also http://www.linuxmafia.com/~rick/faq/index.php?page=virus)

These short-term advantages are already enticing, but what about the long term?

To start with there's the lifespan of Free Software. An Internet Service Provider I know in the USA used to distribute a piece of software allowing its new subscribers to configure Internet access on their machines. However, the software was not Open Source and the editor closed, leaving the ISP in the lurch because no more work could be put into the application.

Had the software used by the ISP been Free Software they could still be using it today because they or someone else could have carried on where the original authors left off. The software project would still be alive long after the company which started it.

Then, there's Microsoft's infamous Palladium project. The aim of this project is, officially, to put an end to the spread of computer viruses and to media and software piracy, and this would indeed be one of its side-efects. The main effect of Palladium, however, would be having computers on which only software from Microsoft will run. In fact, Microsoft has already started rolling out the foundations of Palladium with Windows XP, the End User License Agreement of which grants Microsoft and its business associates access to the hard disk of a computer on which Windows XP is installed. Here too, we are told that this is solely in order to ensure that security features are up to date, but it would also allow software to be remotely disabled because the editor has unilaterally decided that it is obsolete and that it is time to (force you to) buy an upgrade.

Refusing to use such an abusive product and telling as many people as possible about the dangers of using it are the only means we have of showing that the Free community has no intention of letting multinational corporations get away with this scot-free. It may be a bit utopian, but one thing for sure is that computing will very shortly no longer enjoy freedom if nothing is done. By using a Free operating system you are no longer letting anyone dictate to you what you can do and what you can't do with your computer.

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