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For the Love of Linux

Aug 04, 1999, 13:32 (41 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Paul Ferris)

[ The opinions expressed by authors on Linux Today are their own. They speak only for themselves and not for Linux Today. ]

By Paul Ferris, Staff Writer

I'm often asked questions about Linux, and one of the most difficult ones to answer seems to stem from just what it is that makes me so passionate about it. It's a hard thing to explain, but here is my closest take on the addiction.

First, Linux is like Unix in a lot of ways - and I do love Unix, although it's kind of like an old love, not a new one. More and more as I use commercial Unices I feel like I'm dealing with an antique. Linux is more modern than most "modern" commercial Unices. That's tough to swallow for a lot of people. Especially lovers of commercial Unices, and by Gawd you can find a lot of brand name loyalty in just about any Unix camp.

But here it is: Freedom. It's basic, simple things that I can do every day without having to go and purchase some do-dad or download some stupid fix. For example, I use vi a lot to compose things - html, text and programs. Vi is a very difficult editor for some people to learn, and Linux has other editors. I still love it because it's such a power-house. It's power is something that slowly dawns on you. The more you learn it, the more you can't stand using anything else.

It goes deeper. I use vi to edit my commands on the command line. I use ksh as my command interpreter. With Linux, like most Unices, you have a choice of command interpreters. You aren't forced to put up with something else and you can even write your own if you are so inclined.

I like my text login screens to be a smaller size. I like to altering the boot-up screens so that they say what I want. I like my own font for my text consoles. I like being able to run my computer from another terminal in another room - and not pay royalties to some monopoly for the privilege to do something an operating should do out of the box. For some company to promise me that they will do that for me and take away even 10% of this freedom, I'd say forget it.

Some of it is about autonomy. Why do I need another company to provide for me what I can do myself given the source code or the right automation tools? Why do I have to pay big bucks for something others are willing to do from the bottom of their hearts? Why do I need things that are being assembled by people who have in mind their exploitation of me, when I am perfectly capable of creating those things for myself?

It's mainly about freedom, and it's obvious. There are a lot of people that could care less about the underpinnings of an operating system. A lot of those people today run Windows. Why? I've said it before: Mostly because they have had no choice in the recent past and before that they had no understanding that there was an important choice being made.

In the not-so-distant past I honestly could have cared less about those people. It was only recently in the past 4 or so years that I realized that I was going to have to educate people as to how important that choice is. As more and more people were "choosing" proprietary software (here I speak for both Mac and Windows users), more and more people were saying that my Unix on my desk was taking up too much money or that it was obsolete.

And therein lies the trigger that fired me into action. Because my time daily was getting wasted on managing these pathetic desktops. People who didn't know better were starting to make my decisions for me. "No-Brainer" decisions, like "Just buy NT, everybody else is doing it", without looking closely at what a mess a lot of those IT shops were.

And personally that's where the line was crossed. It's one thing to make a bad decision for yourself - it's another to come and try and make one for me. And for money? How much money has been burned on "client access licenses" that were not needed before in my world? How much money has been lost on pathetic down time from servers crashing? How much time on hiring IT personnel who are now needed to service desktops by manually walking around to each one? How much? No one was doing these calculations to justice, it was all "no-brainer" decisions.

That's where the line was crossed. There are people in this world who don't want to learn what they need to know about computers. Those people are not to make my decisions for me. If they want my Linux, they can come and pry it out of my cold, dead hands.....

In the mean time, I will continue to explain what it is about this that is good. I will continue until the threat abates. The world is not a safe place if bad, privacy-compromising, heroin-ware software is being forced down our collective throats. When there comes a day when Joe Public can purchase a Linux or FreeBSD desktop computer fully configured, and he can get his day-to-day chores done on it, then I will start to breath easier.

Change is only going to come when Joe Public realizes just how important the GPL is to freedom. When Joe Public understands true open standards. When Joe Public understands that choice on the desktop is an important freedom. In the mean time it's time to sound the alarm. In the mean time, I will not stand by as people choose proprietary solutions over less costly ones that bring more freedom as well.

Using Unix, and then going to any Windows based solution was like going from a place where you were allowed to have the full run of the landscape into a dark, damp cell. I don't care how many different font settings are in the "control panel", I want full control of my environment. I want control of the important things underneath it all. I used Unix at work and when I went home I had no hope of having that kind of control. At home my computer was a PC running a Microsoft operating system.

I had pretty much given up on the idea of having this freedom at home. Then one day I was reading my favorite Unix magazine, and found a review of Linux. It was about 2 weeks before I found a decent buy on the product - Yggdrasil's "plug and play" Linux. It must have taken me 2 weeks of reading documentation to get the thing to boot up on my PC. Far from plug and play but it was usable. The kernel revision level I believe was .97, but it's been a while there.

I can still vividly remember getting lilo properly configured, and being presented for the first time with a login prompt. I logged in, looked around, and began customizing my environment. I found crazy things, like the shell - BASH. I did a "man bash" and read the description: "Borne Again Shell", and I laughed out loud. I immediately began toying with it and found that it was missing one of my favorite Korn shell features - arrays. It didn't matter, it was Unix as far as I could tell. There were minor quirks but a lot of pleasant surprises.

This is the part that probably tells you I'm not your average Joe operating system guy - I cried. I truly cried. It's not the same thing for me as for Joe Public. For Joe Public, an operating system is something you use to launch Solitaire or a word processor.

For me, it's something else - it's freedom. For me it's much, much more. I remember thinking what an amazing gift it was. Having all of that, and that it was free - no company was going to charge me thousands of dollars for it. I could compile programs. I had a compiler for crying out loud (literally).

I know that a lot of people who read this are probably thinking right now: Geez, this guy is crazy. Some of you are laughing. Well, sorry to hear that if it is so. Let me tell you, I've confessed this to several Linux geeks over the past few years and I've found something out: I'm not alone. There have been very few things in my life where I felt moved to tears over happiness and Linux is one of those things. If you don't understand, that's ok.

So, you see, this is not just about Microsoft although a lot of people see it that way. It's not just about a bunch of geeks showing off their coding skills, although the media likes to focus on that too. This is about something very intrinsic to a small few of us that actually give a damn about the whole thing. We want people to have the chance at seeing this extra dimension of freedom. Point and Click - ok, we can do that too. But underneath we want the future people who use computers to have more power, if that is what they want. And we are the few who know truly how much power that is.

This is a rather long winded piece about free software that I hope shows that it's more than just technology - it's emotion too. If it's been puzzling to you, this will probably help clear up some of that. Next time you wonder why there is so much ranting going on, try and realize that to some of us, this is more. To some of us this is true freedom.