August 2, 2004

You don't have to use free software until you're ready

Author: Chris DiBona

One thing I try to drive home when speaking or giving an interview about Linux and open source software is the concept that, unlike commercial software, open source doesn't need more people to use it. You can take your time and use what you want when you want.

Commercial software development sees income from several places -- initial sales, installation, support/maintenance -- and therefore the companies that produce commercial software are focused on driving customers to upgrade and buy more licenses, which drives income to the secondary service and support business/partners.

Open source software, in and of itself, doesn't require any of that. I was speaking before a group and someone was articulating an issue getting something to work with version 5.2 of FreeBSD when it worked just fine for 5.0. My response was, "Why did you upgrade? Did 5.2 have something you needed?" His answer was no, so I suggested he stick with 5.0 until there was some compelling reason to upgrade.

We computer users are used to upgrading, or, worse yet, reinstalling whenever we have an issue. I've seen Linux users do this when hitting what they perceive to be an intractable problem. The unambiguous nature of many high-profile open source programs often means that if you're having a problem before you install/reinstall/reload an application or OS, you're likely to have it afterwards. This sort of determinism is supposed to be the hallmark of a good application.

Obviously if you have screwed up a configuration file and not kept a backup of the old copy, then a reinstall might fix your problem. For other issues, a reinstall of Linux or Apache, for instance, is likely to be a waste of time you can avoid by spending time on Google finding others with a similar problem and learning how they solved it.

But the point of this article is to let you know that even with all the excitement around Linux and other open source software, you don't have to use it until you are ready, and you can dip your toe into the open source tools out there one at a time. A great place to start might be running the Firefox Web browser on your Windows XP box. Or maybe you like chatting online? Xchat is a terrific IRC client that runs just great under XP. Gaim is one of the only truly sane IM clients. Want to get your beak wet with command line tools? Download cygwin and experiment with bash, vi, Emacs, and others mainstays of the command line. Want a really solid productivity suite? runs great on pretty much any platform out there.

Want to try out Linux but don't want to wipe or mess with a Windows install or any of the free virtual machine software out there? Try Knoppix or any of the other really terrific LiveCD-based Linux distributions specifically meant to allow you to try Linux by booting off of your CD-ROM drive and running everything in memory, never touching your hard drive. When I was still doing television segments on TechTV, the segment I gave about the Knoppix distribution was the one I received the most positive mail about, and I recommend it to anyone looking to expose himself or others to Linux.

All of these projects are there for you to use if you like, but none of them expects a paycheck or any other kind of consideration or compensation for them. You can use them at your discretion on your timeline and you can use them for as long as you care to.

And this is the really nice thing about open source software: No one is really forcing you to upgrade, and most would tell you not to unless you have a compelling reason (likely security-related), because if it isn't broken, don't fix it. It is these kinds of freedoms that we free software types like to wallow in. Join us -- when you feel like it.

Chris DiBona is best known for having been an editor/author
for Slashdot. He is an internationally
known advocate of open source software and related methodologies, writes for a
great number of publications, and speaks internationally on software
development and digital rights issues.


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