Monday, August 29, 2005

Home base


I made a rash promise a few posts ago to write down how I use computers today, both to laugh at it in 10 years and just in case there's anything I'm doing that may be useful for others in the family. But I can't go too far without mentioning Linux, thereby outing myself as a hard-core geek. Bear with me through this one, please. I'll get back to some stuff that my family will actually use in subsequent posts.

First, some basics: Linux itself is just the kernel -- the lowest level of the operating system, the part that runs the hardware, loads the drivers for peripherals such as printers, keyboard and mouse, and manages how applications share the processor, disk and memory. It was originally written by a Finnish student named Linus Torvalds, who is still the main guy in charge of its development, although there are now many programmers working on it.

On top of that are basic Unix-like utilities, primarily written by an organization dedicated to free software called the GNU Project (it's a recursive acronym, meaning GNU's Not Unix). Richard Stallman, who founded GNU, prefers to call the whole system "GNU/Linux," since Linux by itself would be useless. He's right, of course, but most people still just call it Linux.

On top of the kernel and basic utilities, there's the X Window System, a basic graphical environment originally invented at MIT in 1984. Above that is a desktop environment (the menus, file manager, etc.), the two most popular of which are Gnome and KDE.

Since there are so many, independently developed parts to Linux, most people use it by installing a "distribution," which packages everything together for easy installation. I first played around with Linux using a distribution put out by Texas A&M University (TAMU) in 1992, but the first easy one I used was Slackware. If I remember correctly, I had to download 30 or 40 disk images for 3 1/2 inch floppies. I couldn't get the darn thing to boot from the hard disk -- I had to boot from a floppy and everything else ran from the hard drive. But it ran, and ran and ran. It was the most stable thing available for a PC, bar none, and I was hooked. I've run Web sites on it since late 1993 and it's always what I come back to it for my own, personal work. I may spend most of my time on Windows, since I've always been required to run it at work, and I like Mac OS X, but Linux is my preferred home base.

I've tried many distributions since Slackware, including Red Hat, and now use a Debian-offshoot called Ubuntu. Each has been progressively easier to use and more sophisticated. Ubuntu, in particular, is close to the point where a normal (i.e., non-geek) could use it for everyday work. Installing it is the toughest part, but have you ever tried to install Windows on a bare hard drive on a new PC? Ubuntu is actually much easier than that. It usually just works. It's when it doesn't that you'll need a little help. There's also a "live" CD that you can boot and run the distribution from, which is useful for checking if the installation will work for your hardware. (My Ubuntu PC is what's in the screenshot above.)

One of the aspects of GNU/Linux that I find most fascinating is that it works despite turning traditional economics on its head. The software is copyrighted, just like Windows or Office, but it is shared with a license (primarily the GNU General Public License) that requires the distributor to let users have the source code, the underlying instructions that companies such as Microsoft keep secret and guard like the crown jewels. Any modifications to that source code must be distributed with the same license, i.e. made available to everyone.

The result is that GNU/Linux operates like an open consortium. Most of it is now worked on by paid developers at corporations that benefit from it. If you use Google or Amazon or have a Tivo, you use GNU/Linux. There are several Linux-powered mobile phones now. Nokia, for example, is releasing a wireless Web device this year, running Linux. The license is the key. If Google makes an improvement to the operating system, it benefits, but so does Amazon, IBM and Novell. But Google is glad to do this, because it gets any improvements made by Amazon or IBM. Sharing benefits everyone. (And, by the way, there's nothing in the license that prevents people from selling Linux, and they do. Most people aren't programmers, so the source code is useless to them, and they're paying for the convenience and support.)

Linux lets me be as geeky as I want. If I'm curious about how the operating system works, I can find out, as far as my curiosity leads me, right down to the most basic level. And since thousands of people and several dozen (at least) companies depend for their survival on Linux, I can opt out of the so-called operating system wars. I don't care if Windows takes over the world and everyone has to follow its twists and turns just so they can keep accessing their own data. Linux isn't in that rat race and is the safest place to keep my stuff. Even if it never breaks out of its 2 percent or so market share of desktops, people such as researchers, students, programmers and startups will run it, and improve it. The economic benefits are too great, and the license ensures that I benefit from their improvements.

The big change in the past 10 years is that the disadvantages of Linux have slowly been going away. In the past, what you gave up in using Linux was access to the latest in cool software. Today, the world is coming to us. The Internet and standards-based systems means there are relatively few things developed on Windows and the Macintosh that I can't make use of or find an easy alternative. And much of the best software is written for the Internet directly. The best email program right now is probably GMail, for example, which runs on a Web site. I was able to use Google Talk right away from Linux because it uses a standard instant-messaging system called Jabber. I can open and write Word documents, edit photographs and videos, watch DVDs and write Web pages. Even some of the hottest software, such as Skype, are often available on Linux because it is where the so-called early adopters are. They're the people that will try new stuff first and tell their friends about it (like me).

I'll probably never be able to recommend Linux for everyone in my family, but it's an integral part of my own use of technology, allowing free exploration. And that's good enough for me.

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