Spoutin' Off: How free software is leading to change
By Michael E. Rau
May 2, 2005
Many events in the evolution of personal computing have constituted true change. A small news item recently appeared that I believe heralds such an event and went by unappreciated. It represents a tremendous victory for consumers everywhere. More about this later.
Computer enthusiasts, professional and amateur, who are interested in intellectual stimulation rather than dollar signs have always existed, as exemplified by the emergence of the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park in the mid-1970s and the creation of the GNU project for free software in the mid-'80s.
Their influence has ebbed and flowed over the years, but they've always been there, pushing the envelope and trying to keep the profiteers honest. I don't believe that there's any way to fairly estimate the global economic benefit that their contributions represent, particularly when you consider that these contributions were donated pro bono.
How many people do you know who have collectively donated an almost inconceivable number of man-hours of their best professional services out of sheer love for the intellectual challenge and appreciation for what their contributions mean to the rest of us?
In a nutshell, it means we all still have choices, in spite of the attempts by some to utterly dominate. It means you're not limited to one choice in an operating system, or one choice in an office suite, or one choice in a browser or e-mail application.
It also means that if those who currently dominate through corporate imperialism want to stay in the race, they're going to have to acquiesce and become competitive in quality, stability and security. This is guerrilla warfare. Conquering territory will no longer work.
Linux, the brainchild of an unassuming coder named Linus Torvalds, is a freely distributed version of the rock-solid UNIX operating system. It became a rallying point for those who embraced the idea of an open community rather than the rigidly closed, tightly controlled environment that exists at a certain place in Redmond, Wash.
Torvalds published his source code in 1991 and, following the GNU model, invited the entire software-writing community to contribute to making it better. The result is an operating system that thousands of programmers have been tweaking and strengthening for more than a decade.
Contrast this with the Microsoft model for software development. All code, except what is necessary to ensure interoperability, is a tightly held secret. Its own applications, which take advantage of hidden code in Windows, work better than competing products. And if a competitor's product threatens one of its products, Microsoft acquires the competitor or crushes it (remember Netscape) using its awesome economic arsenal.
With virtually a blind eye from the federal government, Microsoft squashed virtually all competition. All, that is, except UNIX/Linux, and by extension, all open-source software (even Mac OS X is built from another open-source UNIX variant, OpenBSD).
Why not crush those, too? Because there's no single entity to acquire or crush. No one owns open-source software.
Microsoft even tried to use SCO, the company that holds one of the last proprietary licenses for UNIX, as a hired gun by "investing" millions of dollars in the company. SCO, in turn, has filed or threatened to file what amounts to nuisance suits against anyone associated with Linux.
So, in spite of its best PR efforts to denigrate and crush Linux, Microsoft is hemorrhaging market share to Linux in all its various flavors.
Three critical applications have risen from the open-source community, each vastly superior to its Microsoft counterparts. The Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail application (both at www.mozilla.org) are free and a magnitude more secure than Internet Explorer or Outlook Express. OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) is a productivity suite every bit as powerful as Microsoft Office is, but with a slight difference in price - OpenOffice is free, MS Office Standard retails for $399.
You can find most of the hundreds of others listed on the Free Software Foundation/GNU Project Web site at directory.fsf.org. But I believe that these three might be the "giant killers."
And how about going a step further? As an example, the newest version of SUSE Linux has just been released by Novell and looks to be exceptionally consumer-friendly and easy to install.
For 99 bucks, you can install a rock-solid operating system with a gorgeous interface, plus the three applications mentioned above and a few others, on your existing Windows machine. You even can partition your drive and leave Windows intact if you're scared.
So what was the news item I mentioned at the beginning of the column?
Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, announced recently that the next version of Windows, code-named "Longhorn" and due at the end of 2006, will contain a virtual port to Linux systems.
This might be the first time in history we've seen Microsoft concede anything.
Strange and glorious days, indeed. We still have choices, and the heroes in this little drama are the citizens of the open-source community.
Care to join?
Mike Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com
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