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Free Software - myths and realities

A.Rajagopalan
System Analyst, National Institute of Technology, Calicut, email: argopal@nitc.ac.in

Free Software represents a new and emerging phenomenon matured during the late 90's and the
beginning of the century as a viable alternative to the traditional proprietary software. The basic
philosophy of Free software is quoted by George Bernad Shaw(1856-1950) much before the birth of
this concept. (the quote is like this "If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples
then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we
exchange ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.") From this it is clear that the concept implies a
radically new method of cooperation and exchange. According to Richard Stallman who is the founder
of GNU (GNU's Not Unix) project, Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. It is a matter of user's
freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. To explain this concept more
clear, let us take an example of a car. If you purchase a car from a car dealer and then you have all the
freedom to change the colour of the car. Similarly you have all the freedom to change any parts of the
car since you are the owner. Also you can lend the car to your friend or any other person for his use.
But in the case of proprietary software you can't do these things.

When we are talking about Free software, GNU is almost like a synonym. The GNU project was
conceived by Richard Mathew Stallman in 1983 as a way of bringing back the cooperative spirit that
prevailed in the earlier days of computing. In 1971, when Stallman started his career in the Artificial
Intelligence lab at MIT(Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in US, he worked in a group which used
free software exclusively. In those days Even computer companies often distributed softwares free
along with the hardware. By 1980, the situation was totally changed. Almost all software was
proprietary and they prevent cooperation and exchange of users by imposing restrictions. This made the
GNU project necessary.

Every computer user needs an Operating System(OS); if there is no free OS, then you can't get
started using a computer without resorting to proprietary software. Like the religion we are born in, the
language we speak, and the state we owe our affinity to, we all have strong biases about the OS we use.
So the first item on the free software agenda was a free OS. An Operating System is not just a kernel; it
also includes compilers, editors, text formatters, mail software and many other things. Stallman and his
team decided to develop a Unix like Operating System because compatibility makes it easy for Unix
users to switch from Unix to GNU. By 1990 almost all parts of an OS were developed except one- the
kernel. Then Linux, a free kernel, was developed by Linus Torvalds, an undergraduate student at
University of Helsinki in Finland. Combining Linux with almost complete GNU system resulted in a
complete OS; a Linux based GNU system. It is estimated that millions of people now use Linux based
GNU Operating System including slack ware, Debian, Red Hat, SuSe and others.

Before closing, we should understand that GNU/Linux is not a replacement for Windows. It is
alternative to Windows. If we compare Linux and Windows it is like comparing Motorbikes and Cars;
both are vehicles that get you from one place to another place by roads. But we know that they are
different in shapes, different in sizes, have different controls and they work fundamentally different
ways. they are not freely interchangeable. they have different uses and different strengths and
weaknesses and you should pick whichever is appropriate, not pick one and expect it to do everything
that the other can do. In the same way GNU/Linux and Windows might both be used for the same
purposes, but so are a car and motorbike. That doesn't mean features can or should be swapped directly
from one to other. A Windows user must realise that he is only an experienced Windows user, not an
experienced computer user; just like a car driver is only a car driver, not an all-road-vehicles driver. A
Windows user on GNU/Linux must realise that he has just become a novice again, just like a car driver
on a motorbike. A windows user must be willing to lean that there are different ways of accomplishing
the same task just as a car driver must get used to the handlebars replacing a steering wheel and need
for a crash helmet he never had to use before. And they have to be prepared to accept that "different"
does not mean "inferior"

This simple fact causes great difficulty for the more established Windows users. They come to
GNU/Linux with many Windows habits and an attitude of a computer master. The problem is, they
only know how to use Windows. When they come to a different OS, these masters can be the ones who
have the worst problems; they have far more to unlearn. They don't realise that all their knowledge is
working against them, causing them to have more problems than less knowledgeable users. They have
made the mistake of thinking GNU/Linux is different software doing the same thing as Windows, when
it's actually different software doing different things. It is not doing a bad job of the same task, it's
doing a good job of alternative tasks. Linux is an alternative to Windows, but not replacement. It will
never be a replacement, because it has incompatible goals. It's main goal is not profit because it is free.