December 13, 2000

Live free or ... not: Why users choose Linux

Author: JT Smith

- by Tina Gasperson -

Live free or die! It's the state motto of New Hampshire, and in the 1970s and 80s it became associated with UNIX aficianados, who "saw themselves as a tiny, beleaguered underground tilting against the windmills of industry," according to the Jargon File. These days, some Linux (and other free software) users who are dead-set against proprietary have adopted the phrase. But not everyone is ready to sacrifice his life for Open Source.Some people just like Linux because it's better. And while they are convinced that Open Source software is superior, they're not beyond taking advantage of what they call the benefits of closed-source software.

For example, several people from the Suncoast Linux user's group (SLUG) in Florida responded to the question: "How many just enjoy Linux as a hobby, or maybe even as part of a career, but are not dead set against proprietary software/OSes (you wouldn't consider disowning your child if he/she decided to become an MCSE) -- and how many see Linux and other Open Source software as part of a philosophy to change the way the world 'does' computer software (and you definitely /would/ be upset if your child decided to become an MSCE)?"

One might expect a typical response to be similar to this one from a SLUG member known as Smitty: "In my company, open source operating systems are required. It is policy. Linux and the BSDs are the only ones we will use."

Nothing surprising there. After all, the Free Software Foundation was created to promote "the freedom to share and change software," according to its founder, Richard M. Stallman. Its philosophy is a set of beliefs about copyright and proprietary information. Says Smitty, "Open Source software is part of a mindset based on knowledge, responsibility, and control in handling information digitally. It is definitely worth the extra work. I could never go back to a proprietary operating system and the malignant, gullible culture that comes along with it."

It seems perfectly logical that a group of programmers, IT managers, tech support guys, and rabid hobbyists -- the kind of people who make up the typical LUG -- being eyewitnesses to the fallacies of non-free (as in speech) operating systems and applications, should be the first ones to subscribe to "Live free or die!"

Should be.

But in this group at least, there's a majority opinion that goes in another direction: tolerance. RMS might not like it, but pragmatism wins the popular vote. That's not to say that they're a bunch of Microsoft lovers, though. Far from it.

Russell Hires got interested in Linux in 1998, when he decided he wanted a free COBOL compiler for his Macintosh system. "I heard there was a compiler I could put on Linux. I'm definitely not against proprietary Oses, since I love Apple for making computing easy and for everyone." Hires says he even sees advantages to proprietary software in some instances, such as the case of the technology coordinator at a local school who barters with his software license for say, Photoshop, to get things he needs from staff. Something tells us that's not part of the Adobe EULA.

Some people just like the fact that most Open Source software is free (as in beer). Anthony, another SLUG member, says, "Linux has changed my view of proprietary software, but I don't think the stuff is evil. I think people should be able to get paid for writing code, and I don't share Stallman's opinion that all software should be free. The nice thing about Open Source software, though, is that most of it is good ... and so I don't see a need to pay for an equivalent commercial app."

Then there are those who have adopted the philosophy, but aren't requiring that others (outside their immediate family, perhaps) do the same. "Would I be upset if my child decided to become an MCSE? No more than if he or she decided to quit college and used the tuition to become a drug dealer," says one member of the SLUG who wishes to remain unidentified.

He says he was a "serious, hard-core" Microsoft platform developer back in 1987. "When Microsoft came out with NT, I thought they would kill Unix for sure." He hedged his bet, though, and worked to keep his Unix skills current by learning Linux.

"Working with Linux slowly revealed to me just how completely broken (as in spirit) was the whole Microsoft development paradigm and environment. As I did some large projects on NT, I discovered how flawed it was at a fundamental level. Later versions did nothing to fix some real show-stopper bugs. All Microsoft cared about was locking in developers to their tools and platforms."

As time went on, things got even scarier for him. "As I became familiar with Linux and the engineering community values that surrounded it, it became apparent that my Microsoft-using colleagues and I were the ignorant, backward slaves of a cruel corporate master. Our chains and wallets were gleefully jerked by every new re-packaging of the same old garbage billed as the 'next big Microsoft initiative.' "

Amazingly, even after these personal epiphanies, the former MS developer wouldn't require others to enter his camp. "I'm not against proprietary software any more than I'm against limousines. There's nothing inherently offensive about either, and I don't begrudge people who use them. I just don't have a use for either, that justifies the cost. A smaller, inexpensive car gets me where I need to go and is much easier to park. If it just happens to drive like a Ferarri, haul like a truck, look like a movie star, and last like a rock, then so much the better."

He maintains that proprietary software itself is not evil. "What's bad is the way that Microsoft has wielded it as a blunt instrument to kill competition and enslave both software developers and consumers."

This thread is woven through the fabric of SLUG, all the way up to the leaders. Paul Foster, president of the Suncoast Linux user's group, makes no bones about it. "I take a moderate stance on this issue."

He says that, as the head of the large, active group, he tries to keep his "Microsoft bashing" to a minimum, perhaps so as not to add unduly to the general perception that the Open Source community is a bunch of rabid fanatics. "However, Microsoft is one of the primary reasons that I object to closed source software. I own a small computer graphics and typesetting company. As such, I have no choice but to use Microsoft products and closed-source software on at least some of my machines; there are no Open Source alternatives to some of the software we use."

There are big benefits to Open Source software. It's cheaper, it's created under peer review, it's more stable and secure, and there's lots of readily available support. "It would seem that, yes, Open Source is intrinsically better," says Foster. "But if there isn't any Open Source software around that does what you want, and you can't afford to create the package you dream of, then your only alternative is closed source. Does that make it evil? No. It's just another alternative, albeit not the ideal one."

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