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Monday, September 17, 2001
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Looking for a free lunch

Linux is now in the same league as big commercial operating systems. This presents the case for open source software rather eloquently, says Roopinder Singh.

YOU want something that’s good, easily available, and to top it all, free. Even though the old saying goes that there are no free lunches, it has never stopped people from looking for them.

In the realm of programming, there has been a movement (see box) that supports the use of freeware. However, over the years, the term acquired a negative association that equated it with something in which bugs had not been fully worked out and users were being used as digital guinea pigs.

Free software can be of various kinds, and we have had that for a long, long time…. It is, however, the introduction of the Linux operating system that has redefined the boundaries and caused much concern to commercial operating systems’ manufacturers (including Microsoft, Apple and Sun).

An operating system is the foundation software of a machine; that which schedules tasks, allocates storage, and presents a default interface to the user between applications. The facilities an operating system provides and its general design philosophy exert an extremely strong influence on programming style and on the technical cultures that grow up around its host machines.

Linux is an open-source (see box) software, which follows the principle of releasing the product to the community, getting feedback, incorporating improvements and then passing it on to the world.


Open-source movement

There is no doubt that the open-source movement is gaining ground and the commercial software companies are under the pressure. Linux is a 10-year-old creation of the Norwegian Linus Torvalds who posted the first kernel, version 0.01, to an FTP site in September, 1991. The penguin logo was drawn in 1996.

Since Microsoft is the biggest OS manufacturer, with a near-monopoly over desktop operating systems, it faces the greatest challenge, perhaps bigger than what it faced when the US Justice Department wanted to break it into parts. However, recently, the Justice Department has let Microsoft off this particular hook saying is not interested in breaking-up it up.

While the Windows operating system (its latest version XP is to be introduced shortly) has more or less marginalised its rivals in commercial systems like Mac OS and Sun operating systems, Linux is still a challenge since it is not commercial and thus canbe combated in a normal fashion

Advantage Linux

Linux has grown far more than its creator envisaged and has become one of the best-known examples of free software, a cult ware, to coin a term.

What are the advantages that Linux has? Fundamentally, it is free, open-source software that has been developed by thousands of software engineers. These are the ones who are doing labour of love and have pooled their talents to make a highly stable and lean system, one that outperforms its competitors most of the time.

One of the best things in its favour is that operating system crashes, or "blue screens" as they are popular known are rare. As Satwinder Singh, a Linux programmer in Delhi says: "Many Linux users have never seen a crash (called ‘kernel panics’ in Linux)."

Efficient OS

It is the efficiency of Linux that allows users to load it to nearly any machine. A typical Web server or file server can be a 486 or a low-end Pentium PC. Running graphical applications (such as office suites) is more than acceptable with 150 MHz Pentium machines. Such computers would be considered obsolete if used with other operating systems. Of course, this is of tremendous importance to the Third World countries like ours where changing computers frequently is simply not an option. Linux has even found takers in cost-conscious US school systems, where a combination of Linux and Windows is used through Win4Lin that runs a copy of Windows as a process under Linux. Multiple users can then run Windows programs on a single server from remote clients.

Readers may be surprised to know that many schools in the USA depend on donations of old computers for fulfilling their student’s needs, and most of the systems that are given away are the ones that can’t run the latest commercial software.

The combined Windows/Linux approach also enables schools to run multimedia educational software that is still largely made for Windows and Mac OS. Incidentally, you can run Linux on a Mac or a Windows computer provided you partition the hard drive.

IBM support in India

In January, IBM India announced that it would aggressively support Linux in India. The main focus of IBM’s Linux initiative will be in improving the availability of applications in India and with commercial product marketing help.

Besides, IBM had announced that it would work with academic communities, universities and the Internet companies to develop awareness about Linux in India.

There are many support groups in India. To cite one example, Linux India Organisation (www.linux-india.org) has chapters in Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Calcutta, Chennai, Delhi, Goa, Hyderabad, Indore, Jammu, Kochi, Mumbai, Mysore, Nagpur, Pune, Thiruvanathapuram and Visakhapatnam. There are many Linux users in Chandigarh too.

It’s free

Since you can download Linux from the Internet and install it on as many machines as you like, it is free. This also holds true for most of its application software. You can also buy software on cheap CD — tens of dollars vs hundreds of dollars. A word of caution, seek professional help in installing it.

You can get pirated software at inexpensive rates too, though now it is illegal to do so in India. Countries such as India, China, the former Soviet Union, Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, etc are some of the largest users of pirated software in the world. In many of these nations, you can buy pirated software with the CDs and Xerox copies of the original manuals.

While the use of pirated software is widespread, it is getting increasingly difficult to do so. The latest version of Windows XP and Office XP have specific features designed to inhibit piracy, including an activation feature. Also, as time goes by, governments are enforcing anti-piracy laws.

It does not make any sense to use pirated software in organisations, since this would leave them exposed. Most enterprises or departments do not want to take such risks and therefore use legal software. Thus they look for cheap and reliable alternatives to costly software.

Argentina, Mexico and many other countries are actively encouraging Linux support for their projects. It has also been seen as the means of getting Africa into the computing world, which would otherwise be denied to it because of the high cost associated with computer software and the hardware necessary to run it.

There can be no free lunch. We know that there are some problems in installing Linux. The main one is that an overwhelming majority of computers worldwide use various versions of Windows, which is costly software.

Advantage Windows

The sheer size of the Windows users has made it the defacto desktop operating system and this is very hard to beat. There are many times more applications available for Windows than there are for any other operating system.

This gives it a terrific advantage. A number of primary Windows software programs that are actually brand names have not become the generic names for those kinds of applications.

A problem that was associated with earlier versions of Linux was that it was not friendly to the non-initiated computer users. The improvements in the Linux graphic user interface (X Windows) have made an enormous difference now and users find the program friendly. Unlike other GUI’s, the Linux GUI is an optional subsystem that you can choose to use or not. This is a feature that endears it to the technical users.

Linux and other Unix-compatible operating systems work on a wide variety of processors and machine architectures — from a Macintosh to a mainframe, while other operating systems display a marked preference for particular processors, Mac OSneeds Apple hardware and Windows run on Intel and Alpha processors.

Anyway, the feature list of pros and cons can go on and on. Mention Linux or Windows, and you have a debate on your hands. It goes beyond the realm of geeks or computer nuts and takes wide ideological detours, before it meets the touchstone of practicality.

And the winner is….

This is where a free lunch is being sought by those who are looking for ways of providing cheap computing experiences. The very fact that Linux is now in the same queue as big commercial operating systems presents the case for open source software rather eloquently. No matter who wins the ongoing skirmishes in the operating systems war, one thing is certain, the real winner is the consumer, who may either actually get a free lunch, or find a good and cheap one. (For sites on Linux see Dot com World, Page 2)

Free software or open source?

As defined by Richard M. Stallman and used by the Free Software movement, free software means software that gives users enough freedom to be used by the free software community. Free software has existed since the dawn of computing; Free Software as a movement began in 1984.

On the other hand, the term open source was coined in March 1998 following the Mozilla release to describe software distributed in source under licenses guaranteeing anybody rights to freely use, modify, and redistribute, the code. The intent was to be able to sell the hackers’ ways of doing software to industry and the mainstream by avoid the negative connotations (to suits) of the term "free software".