I have a lot of qualities that define me as what people call a ‘geek’: I love anime, I love talking and pondering over stuff most people would consider strange at best and outright bizarre at worst, I showcase a general disdain for that which is “popular”, I take an active interest in computers, I do seemingly worthless things like trying to learn the Dvorak keyboard layout… But the most notable characteristic that makes me a ‘geek’ in the minds of the general public is the fact that I’ve made a choice:
I chose Free Software.
Now, in the common person’s mind, this means I’ve made the choice of running GNU/Linux as the operating system for my computers. Which is something simple enough to understand, and that many people have no problem to do; but the problem is that my choice entails much more than simply running a different operating system. The fact that I went through the whole deal of finding out about it, of reading about it and finally installing it on my PC means a lot more than just using another operating system. People often mistake that Linux is merely a passtime of sorts and that the only ‘cool’ characteristic about it is the fact that it’s free of charge–but that, of course, being it free of charge, it’s a piece of crap that requires you to do severe adjustments in order to get it working. And this was partially true during the first years of GNU/Linux: Software for it was scarce and fragmented, drivers weren’t plentiful, things had to be compiled manually most of times and such comforts as today’s extremely efficient package management system were nothing but a distant dream during the early nineties.
But here’s a funny tidbit: Even if the general public had asserted that the only cool characteristic about Linux during that time was the fact that it was free of charge, they still would’ve been wrong. Even in the nineties, Linux represented much more that that. It was, and still is probably the single most amazing display of uninterested collaborative effort of our time. And here is where the public fails and those who make the choice (in either way) prevail: they, at least, are aware of what such choices truly entail–they made a conscious effort to learn about it.
Free Software does not mean free of charge (that’s called freeware), it also means that the source code should be open and freely reproduceable. In this openness is where the strength of the Open Source model as a production environment triumphs: Everyone can collaborate if they wish to do so, and most do it free of charge, either for their own amusement or because they feel like it. You don’t have such a benefit with proprietary software: If the original developer isn’t up to the task, then the improvement will never happen unless said developer decides to share the source code with someone else (which, by the way, never happens). In some form, it’s akin to scientific development. International laboratories love to keep their recipes a secret, but science improves not based on secrecy, but on freedom of information. Did you ever stop to think about what would have happened if Einstein kept the inner workings of his theory a secret and merely presented the end results to the whole world? Apart from it being implausible in the scientific world (I mean, would you trust a mathematical result without knowing its development first?), it’s clear that no true progress would’ve been made.
That’s why I chose Free Software. The sheer amount of freedom that the software gives me, even if I can’t code shit, ends up benefiting me in the end. Cool stuff, functionality and performance aside, Free Software gives me the assurance that anyone who has a good idea and wishes to improve on the software is able to do so.
And that’s what they should be teaching in comp class at school. They’ve taught me how to make an MS Word document and an MS Excel spreadsheet, ignoring the fact that maybe I won’t be using those programs in the future and that computers are much more complex and entail much more deeper decisions than that. I took an interest in computers since I was a kid, and that’s why I actually didn’t have much problems with Linux, but to people who don’t take an active interest in computers, Linux is a foreign word. Heck, they don’t even know what an operating system is for the most part. They just buy “the computer” at the retail shop and that’s it. And that’s not wrong per se–people have the freedom to be interested in whatever they like. The problem comes when a company like Microsoft comes in and makes a huge profit out of such ignorance and lack of interest.
So, in the end, I will keep repeating this: I don’t hate Microsoft because their operating system sucks and still sells (though it certainly does, but that’s another story), I hate Microsoft because they make a profit out of the general public not choosing. Until that changes and retail OEMs begin shipping both Linux and Windows machines in equal standing, I will keep on hating them. I won’t hate you for analyzing your choices and coming to the decision that you wish to run a proprietary OS instead of a free one–though I do hate the fact that a lot of people don’t do that at all (and happen to throw in a few lies about Linux users at the same time).
If you’re reading this and have never considered Linux as a viable operating system, by all means do so. Learn about it, read, inform yourself. Information is still free, at least for now, and we have to take advantage of it while we can. And, if you have the time, you can always download an Ubuntu CD and give it a try–hey, it’s free.