Last month I mentioned that it might be time for another go at running Linux. I figured I’d be walking slowly down a slippery slope, but I wasn’t quite expecting the whole hillside to slide out from under me. It started off innocently enough: I got myself a copy of the latest Ubuntu distro (I like Ubuntu!), and went about setting up a dual-boot on my Windows XP box. This practice has always sort of backfired on me. On the face of it, it’s a great way to gradually make the transition from Windows to Linux. In practice, it has always turned out that there is some application that I absolutely need to run that is Windows only. Wine (a method of running Windows apps under Linux) never seems to handle whatever app it is I need, and at some point I boot into XP, and just never get back out. This time a couple of things happened that scared the tar out of me in the moment, but turned out to be the best things that could have happened. First, the Ubuntu distro got really, really good! The next thing that happened was grub (the Linux boot loader) lost track of my hard disks. I eventually got it to find my Linux boot (via a fantastic little program called supergrub), but still haven’t gotten my XP boot back. I think the basic problem involves having too many hard disks in too many flavors of interface. I could probably spend a bunch more time and effort to get XP back, but so far, through the magic of virtualization (and an old XP machine that is now a print server) there is really nothing that XP can do for me that Linux can’t do faster and for free. The big obstacles I’ve had in the past concern video editing and DVD mastering. The tools I used under XP cost several hundred dollars, and some of them have trial periods. Personally, I have yet to find a trial period that was really helpful. Most of the time, the trial expires before I even get a chance to take a look at the thing. I suppose if I were working with the stuff full-time, I’d get to it a little more quickly, but there you are. In the years since my last Linux adventure (Ubuntu 7.04 “Feisty Fawn”), a number of video editors and DVD mastering programs have become mature. I found a list of the top 8 or so, all of which are open source, and, in fact, all of which are easily accessible through the Ubuntu repositories. So the XP experience involved researching to figure out what programs I wanted to download, install and evaluate, and finally, which one I wanted to purchase (I’m small-time, I can’t afford more than one!). The Ubuntu experience, on the other hand, involved looking at a menu of applications, and deciding which ones I wanted to install, and I could compare them at my leisure, or decide that I liked different features for different tasks and use them all. The best part, they are all FREE! That’s free in both major definitions: free as in “Free Beer”, and free as in “You can get under the hood and change stuff”. This works very well, in my humble opinion. Like I said, Linux has really come a long way from the days when you could get it to anything you wanted, just by typing in some incredibly cryptic commands with a huge striong of options, and then recompiling your kernel. Follow me? I din’t think so. Now, through the magic of Xwindows, GNOME (Or KDE, if you prefer), current Linux distros can install in minutes, asking only a few basic questions about you and your computer. When it’s all over, you’ve got a desktop with an environment that should be comfortable to anyone who’s ever used MacOS or windows. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s close enough that you can get around with very little hassle. Of course, if you’re REALLY, REALLY in love with your old desktop, you can configure it to look almost identical to what you’re used to. Most Linux distros also come fully equipped with all the stuff that you normally pay a bunch extra for when you get a new Mac or Windows PUbuntu 9.04 (Called “Jaunty Jackalope” by it’s clever creators) comes with Open Office (which does what Microsoft Office does), GIMP, an image manipulation program (kinda like Photoshop), Mozilla Firefox (Web browser, which you should be using anyway), mplayer (a media player), and so on and so on. The point here is that right after an install, your Linux computer is ready to go to work. There’s nothing else to add (or buy), unless you have some very specific needs. If you doneed something else, the chances are very good that it is contained in the Ubuntu repositories, in whihc case all you need to do is select it from a menu. Ubuntu will then download and install it for you, just like that. Easy! And did I mention, it’s FREE!?!?!?
The concept of “Open Source” is, I believe, one of the most important ideas to enter our culture in a very long time. The idea is that a product will arise out of a community of users and/or enthusiasts who collectively assume the resposibility for its upkeep and development. Inherent in this idea is the freedom for any member of that community to make changes and improvements in the product. Com[puter software lends itself very readily to this notion, as the potential development and user community can be extremely diverse in many ways, not the least of which is geographically. People can code things anywhere on the globe. Software communities may also cross professional and academic boundaries as well. Students, professional programmers and hobbyists can all contribute to the development of their favorite programs. To bring it right home, any user with the skills to make it happen can add whatever feature they would like, need, or use. Add all this up, and it’s easy to imagine projects involving hundreds or even thousands of individuals contributing in their on ways, large and small to the overall product. In the open-source model, products can continuously evolve, as the people who use the product are often the same people who are producing it . Market research in this model occurs almost like an organic process. Want your program to do something? Get in there and make it happen. Bug fixes and feature inclusions can occur almost in real-time.
Compare this to the traditional, closed-source model, in which a company hires a group of developers, and designs a program based on market research. In this model, the user community and the development community do not necessarilyoverlap. Decisions about things like bug fixes and feature inclusions are based once again on market research which is conducted more fomally, and at greater cost. Such inclusions and fixes are also often presented in a “revolutionary” rather than an “evolutionary” manner. Windows itself is a great example of this. Redmond typically issues service packs at various intervals, which represent large changes to their products. Of course, they do also issue Windows updates, so I guess I’ll have to back off on that one just a little bit.
To me, it seems that one of the easist arguments to make against open source software turns out to be just wrong: One might try to argue that a well-funded, focused organization would be able to spend the resources required to ensure a superior product. Apart from an enormous installed user base, I would suggest that, of the major operating systems available for PCs at the moment (MacOS, Windows, and Linux), the open source option wins for speed, stability and utility over the closely guarded secrets that issue from Redmond and Cupertino. Don’t believe me? Give it a shot. After all, it’s FREE!