Debunking Common GNU/Linux Myths

Debunking Common GNU/Linux Myths

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With the SCO lawsuit, Microsoft's misleading case studies, confusing messages from analysts, editorials from people who don't know what they're talking about and the ambivalence of on-the-fence CEOs like Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems, there is a lot of uncertainty and confusion about the GNU/Linux operating system. This article will attempt to dispel some myths and clear a few things up for those interested in finding more information on GNU/Linux.


1. Is there SCO UNIX intellectual property in the Linux kernel? To begin with, "intellectual property" is a purposefully ambiguous term designed to help corporations claim ownership of ideas and technologies. It's best not to use this term; instead, refer specifically to patents, copyrights, and licensing issues. There is not, and has never been any evidence to suggest that Linux includes any source code from SCO's products or holdings. Despite the baseless and unfounded claims of the SCO Group, you as an end user cannot be held liable for using GNU/Linux in your home or business. This may not stop attempted litigation, but there really is no way to protect yourself from that anyway. Unfortunately anyone can use the US legal system as a weapon against an innocent party.

2. If I switch to GNU/Linux, I can't use Microsoft Office anymore. Not true. Codeweavers makes a product called Crossover Office which was originally designed to allow MS Office to work on GNU/Linux. It has now expanded to include hundreds of other programs from Adobe, Intuit, Macromedia and many others, and its capabilities are expanding all the time. Click here for a current list of supported programs.

Additionally there are other office suites designed specifically for GNU/Linux. OpenOffice.org is an excellent suite with an advanced word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program. It doesn't inlcude a personal information manager or email client, and there is no replacement for MS Access. You also won't be able to port any Visual Basic macros from Excel or Word over to OpenOffice. It really depends on what you need in an office suite, but for home use there is no doubt that OpenOffice.org is a much more sensible choice. Sun uses OpenOffice.org to create their StarOffice suite, which comes with some extra fonts, better conversion utilities, support from Sun, and a database program called Adabas, which doesn't work in the same GUI-driven way that MS Access does. Both StarOffice and OpenOffice.org can convert most Word and Excel documents without any problems at all. How good is OpenOffice.org? Wil Wheaton wrote his first book in OpenOffice.org, and I wrote most of my latest novel in OpenOffice.org, so it's capable of handling very large and important projects.

3. Does Windows really have a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than GNU/Linux? There are some indisputable facts about both operating systems that can help you decide this matter for yourself. To begin with, GNU/Linux is either free or cheaper than Windows XP for desktop use. Secondly, the Linux kernel and the GNU utilities and tools have gone through more extensive security auditing and they have a far larger development team than Windows XP has. It's harder to write and propagate viruses for GNU/Linux than it is for Windows XP, and it is not susceptible to the thousands of Windows-based viruses on the Internet. On the server side, Netcraft says that GNU/Linux consistently has higher uptimes than Windows operating systems. So in short, GNU/Linux is cheaper, safer, and more reliable.

Where GNU/Linux can fall behind is in software support. While it will support MS Office as mentioned above, it won't support some other types of Windows programs. If your business depends on proprietary Windows-based software that was written specifically for your company (or for a specific niche market), it may be difficult to port it to GNU/Linux.

If your employees are used to using Windows, it may take some training to get them accustomed to GNU/Linux -- and that can introduce additional costs in some instances. Figuring out TCO is not something that one can make definitive sweeping generalizations about -- what works for one company may not work for another. In most cases GNU/Linux will be substantially cheaper to use, especially in the long run (due to Microsoft's licensing policies). Many businesses these days are running GNU/Linux servers and Windows clients; in this situation they can keep the client OS that their staff are accustomed to while retaining the safety and security of a GNU/Linux server environment.

4. Open-source programs have hundreds of different versions because there are so many people working on the project. This is one of the most damaging misconceptions about GNU/Linux. An open-source or Free Software project has a central repository for the source code which only a very select few (or one person) have access to. That person or team of people are the maintainers or committers of the project and they decide which changes go into the source code. Below them are hundreds or thousands of contributors who examine the code and write patches or suggest changes. Their changes are not made until accepted by the people in charge. So while there may be thousands of people working on a project, its direction is controlled by a governing authority. In some situations, contributors will start a new project based on the original because they feel that their changes should be included despite the reluctance of the project authority to commit them. They take a copy of the source code, rename the project and become their own separate entity. This is known as a "fork," and its implications can be either good or bad depending on the situation. There have been many successful forks that end up being better than their parent project, and there have been countless forks that end up getting no developer support and fall by the wayside. In the end, only the useful projects will survive.

5. Open-source programs are less secure because hackers can see the code. To start off, "hacker" is misused in the mainstream media; chalk it up to a lack of research and a hunger for rhetoric (in other words, bad journalism). "Hacker" refers specifically to a programmer or developer, usually one who is very good at what he or she does. These are generally good people who do good things; ill-intentioned hackers are known as "black hat hackers" or "razbijacers." Now that we're clear on terminology, the issue of security in open-source programs is very important to the developers working on it. That being as it is, most of the popular and oft-used open-source projects subject themselves to regular security audits where several experienced programmers review the source code to ensure that there are no security holes. If any are discovered by this audit or by a bug report or other method, patches appear almost instantly to fix the problem. Since users don't have to rely on a single vendor for patches, the work is done much faster and more efficiently. Opening the source code to universal peer review makes programs more secure, not less. More eyes seeing the code means more flaws are caught before they become a problem.

6. You get what you pay for, so free software must be bad. Do you really get what you pay for? I have a worthless empty wine bottle here next to my desk that I'll sell you for US$50,000. If you buy it, would you get your money's worth? Some might say that the empty wine bottle, of no intrinsic monetary value, was overpriced -- and they'd be correct. But what if I gave you the bottle for free? Would it then be worth less than when I was charging $50,000 for it? Would it be less useful? The point is that value is not determined by price. What a vendor charges and what use you derive from a product are not always congruent. If all of the free, community GNU/Linux distributions were over $100 each, they would be no more or less valuable than they are now -- they'd just cost more. If you truly feel that you must pay a lot of money for good software, the Free Software Foundation gladly accepts donations.

7. Free Software is Communism. Free Software promotes a gift economy and is anti-capitalist. Free Software will kill the software industry and hurt the economy. First let's examine Free Software. Basically it is software that you are allowed to use, sell, distribute and modify in any way you see fit. Compare that with proprietary software, which most often only allows you to use the software on a limited basis -- no redistribution, sale, or modification of the software is allowed. Actually it goes further than that; criminal and civil penalties can be imposed on you for doing any of those things. It would be more accurate to say that proprietary software is Fascist rather than intimate that Free Software is Communist. Some say that Free Software is bad because it is often free of charge, and that fact will hurt expensive proprietary software. Morons will often equate this with Communism because it appears to be anti-capitalist. It is not anti-capitalist in the least -- by all means, Free Software and open-source developers would love to charge money for their work. Many already do, or at very least solicit donations. The true "payment" in Free Software is not to large proprietary corporations like Microsoft though; the payment instead goes to individual programmers or projects. This happens when a company wants to add a feature or in some way modify a Free Software project for their own use. To do so they must hire programmers to make the modifications, and that is exponentially cheaper than developing a new program in-house or paying a proprietary vendor for a premade program. Bugs and security problems are also fixed much more quickly using this model. But best of all, a company has control over their own software rather than depending on a software corporation for support, bug fixes and security patches. So it's true that Free Software might harm the proprietary software industry, but there is no evidence to suggest that it will hurt the economy since programmers will still be employed to work on software.

A "gift economy" is one in which status is given by how much one gives to their community (as opposed to an "exchange economy" where status is given to those who have the most stuff). There are already many microcosms which subscribe to this social system, the scientific community being the most famous. Scientists receive status from their peers by contributing the greatest ideas and inventions. Would it be a bad thing for the entire software world to change to this social system? There is no reason to believe that anything bad would happen as a result. Capitalism was founded on the premise that economic gain would encourage people to be more productive; the key here is encouraging people to be more productive, not the means by which it is achieved. Free Software projects do give status to those whose contributions are most useful, and this encourages better software development. It does not mean that the entire US economy should switch to this philosophy.

Lastly, let's take a look at what Communism really means. It's a form of socialism that abolishes private ownership and applies a "sameness" to everyone involved in the system, eliminating social classes and personal distinction. It removes uniqueness and originality from the individual, under the guise of supporting the larger community. Free Software does not promote the abolition of private ownership; rather it recognizes that software is a tool that we all can and must use, so therefore we all should be able to use it according to our needs. Free Software says that software should not belong to one of us, thereby preventing a social hierarchy where the owners have control over the users. Free Software allows contributors to be recognized for their contributions. Free Software gives us the freedom to make a program unique to our situation, and to sell it or give it away to others if we so choose; Free Software doesn't give us all ownership of the software but it does allow us the same freedoms that owners have without allowing us to lord it over others. With Free Software, we all have the same right to our software tools that everyone else does. Proprietary software, on the other hand, uses brute force to remove that freedom and individuality from us -- it allows the owners to "own" us.

8. No one ever got fired for recommending Microsoft. This is the motto of the weak. First of all, has anyone ever been fired for choosing Free Software? If you risk being fired for suggesting a creative strategy that could save your company a lot of money while making the network more secure and reliable, then you're working for the wrong company. No one can really say if anyone's been fired for recommending Microsoft software, but many people have been laid off because operating costs are too high. If you're using Windows and proprietary software where you could just as easily be using GNU/Linux and Free Software then your cost of doing business is too high. If you recommend an overpriced solution, when that very solution is put into action it will become more important than you and your job, thereby making you an excellent candidate for downsizing. The world rewards the creative risk-taker who seeks an innovative solution; those who do as everyone else does will never advance, in industry or in life in general.

9. GNU/Linux is hard to use; Windows is easy to use. This depends on your ability to analyze and solve problems. Commercial GNU/Linux distributions like SuSE, XandrOS and Lindows rarely have problems. When they do, you have support options available to you. Windows has attempted for years to do everything automatically for the user; while in many cases this works properly, when it doesn't it's pure hell to try to work around the problem. Commercial GNU/Linux distributions are more or less in the same category, except that you don't have to go chasing down drivers from Windows Update or from the manufacturer's website. If the hardware is supported, the driver will load upon detection of the new equipment. In effect this makes commercial GNU/Linux distros easier to use because you don't have to mess with drivers. Community distros often require you to configure things yourself. When you work on config files, they are well-commented and include a manual entry that tells you the details you need to know. If you need help there are a plethora of excellent message forums and mailing lists which more than likely already contain the answer to your problem. If not, experts are generally quite willing to help you solve your problem.

In terms of usability, the K Desktop Environment (KDE) and the GNU Network Object Model Environment (GNOME) are just as easy or easier to use than the Windows XP interface. KDE is in fact a great deal like the Windows environment in terms of how programs are executed and how they are listed in the menus, and GNOME is much like the old Mac OS. Other window managers and desktop environments exist which can be customized to your needs if you require something more unique. GNU/Linux can become what you want it to be, with experience and patience. Where Windows users often find that their only solution to a problem is to erase Windows and reinstall it from scratch, GNU/Linux users almost never have to resort to this method to fix a problem. When it's working the way you want it to work, a GNU/Linux-based machine will tend to stay that way until a hardware failure.
Summary

GNU/Linux is a lot of things, and by the same token it isn't a lot of things. The best way you can determine its worth to you is by researching which distribution will be best for what you want to do, and to give it an honest and patient evaluation. Fear generates myth, and in the case of GNU/Linux there is a lot of fear from several fronts: from proprietary software manufacturers, from Windows-dependent businesses and consulting firms, and from users who don't understand what Free Software is about. My advice is to refuse to be afraid.

Copyright 2004 Jem Matzan. Verbatim copying and redistribution of this entire article are permitted without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.



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