July 17, 2004

Commentary: Free software on Windows

Author: Joe Barr

I haven't used Windows very often in the past seven or eight years. I declared my independence on July 4, 1998, and I've never looked back. Recently I was issued a company laptop. It came with Windows XP preinstalled, of course, since it is an IBM ThinkPad and only Microsoft operating systems are available preloaded on IBM (and HP, and Dell) desktops and laptops destined for North American consumers. I decided for various reasons to make the ThinkPad a dual-boot machine. Color me surprised at what I've learned about the Windows platform since. Who knew there was so much free -- as in speech -- software available for Windows these days?Sure, there have always been "shareware" and "freeware" programs available for DOS and Windows. But free software as the Free Software Foundation defines it is different. The short version is that a program is deemed free if the source code is available, you can modify the source code, and you can distribute the modified version. If all those things are true -- without restriction -- then it is free software.

The recent spate of critical security flaws in Windows and Internet Explorer, the poster-child for "designed to maximize the monopoly -- to hell with security" of all Microsoft's offerings, taught me that Mozilla, for one example, is available on the Windows XP desktop.

I needed to capture images of windows-with-a-little-generic-w from IE and Mozilla to show each of them handling the shell: exploit. Lo and behold, I discovered the GIMP runs on Windows too.

That got me thinking, and I began to wonder just how widespread the free software movement is on Windows. I turned to freshmeat.net -- one of our sister-sites at OSDN -- to find out. freshmeat provides statistics on the projects it carries: most popular, most vital, and best rated, for example. I checked the top 20 most popular projects. All of them met the definition for free software cited above. 15 of them were GPLed. Out of those 20 projects, an amazing 60 percent of them ran on Windows.

I decided to check even fresher meat by looking at the 20 projects listed as being "on the horizon," another category of statistics kept by freshmeat which is defined as projects picking up steam and heading for the 20 most popular.

In this category -- excluding RealPlayer and Adobe Reader, which are not free -- the percentage is even higher. 12 out of the remaining 18 projects run on Windows, for a healthy 66 percent. Again, I was surprised. I would have guessed that older, more established projects would be more likely to have Windows versions than new ones. But the stats seem to indicate this is a bubbling-up kind of phenomenon, not a process of aging projects reaching out for new platforms.

Here are the names of the projects I found in the two categories. From the most popular list are: gcc, cdrtools, MySQL, PHP, TightVNC, Apache, nmap, zlib, VNC, GKrellM, libjpeg, and OpenSSL. From the up-and-coming crowd are: NASLite, NoMachine,
Clam Antivirus, Php-Multishop, Enterprise CRM, Paper Harbour, SQL Lite, Firefox, ACE Operator, PHP Layers Menu, Dr Python, and plans.

It seems to me that free software is making its way onto the desktop independently of Linux. There must be hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of free software projects sitting cheek-to-jowl with proprietary programs on desktops all over the globe. If this keeps up, the often voiced spectre of the cost of retraining users in order to migrate to Linux is going to be silenced by the simple fact that when Linux finally gets on the desktop, all its favorite apps and utilities will already be there.


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