Saturday, June 23, 2007

Considering Linux

Unless you've been living in a cave, you've probably heard about the PC operating system alternative to Microsoft Windows known as Linux. Linux has been around as long as Windows because it comes from UNIX, a large computer operating system donated to the public 30 years ago by the original AT&T and subsequently maintained by universities and volunteers. Linux is technically just the basic input output processing code or kernel of an operating system written and still maintained by Linux Torvalds and his associates. Many others contribute the remaining code for a complete OS.

More recently, Linux has been kept going by paid programmers from commercial software companies who follow the free licensing rules known as GNU and earn money by providing support and added services to those using their software which must still be made available for free. This is one key difference between Linux and Windows. Windows may be included with a PC, but it is never free or freely distributable. While commercial versions of Linux are sold, a free, no support version must be available for download.

Linux distributions include free software such as an Open Office suite, DVD playing, burning, and copying software. Much Windows software is not free but the quality of 'purchased' (licensed) software is generally far better than free software. There are notable exceptions including free browsers, office suites, and image software. There are thousands of programs available for both Windows and Linux. How much you pay for most software and the quality of that software is another difference between Linux and Windows. Today, many users of Windows and Linux can find free software that does most of the basic computing tasks they need or want to perform.

There may always be some software or hardware that you want or need to use that requires a specific OS. That's why many users of Linux also run Windows on the same computer in a 'dual boot' configuration. Virtualization software allows one OS to run another in an emulation mode, but this requires more system resources and performance is usually not as good. If you decide to try Linux, you will need to decide what hardware and software you need to use and whether you must run both Windows and Linux.

In the past, there have been few restrictions on what you can do with Windows and many included software applications for things like disk maintenance, media playing, and even some free updates and virus removal tools. Starting with Windows Vista, you will face license and performance limitations in how you may use Windows with certain hardware and high definition media content. These limitations are imposed by Microsoft to protect the intellectual property rights of the recording and motion picture industry at the expense of users. In the near future, you may have to pay extra for software updates, accessories, and other added features. There are no arbitrary limitations on what you can do with Linux on your PC.

While the quality of Linux distributions has improved dramatically and is probably as good as Windows in most respects, the amount of hardware that will work with Linux is very limited when compared to Windows. This is the most serious issue for new Linux users. Will Linux install and run on your PC? How difficult will it be for you to find and install drivers to make all your essential hardware work? For many users, Linux is just too hard to install on their hardware and almost no major vendors offer Linux pre-installed. This is the biggest difference between Windows and Linux and the results vary completely with your particular hardware and software.

Microsoft may be working to keep hardware makers limited to Windows Vista in the future with new license agreements that enforce intellectual property restrictions through hardware driver encryption and digital certificates. If a hardware vendor fails to pay or comply with a Microsoft license agreement, it's digital certificate will be revoked and all users of that hardware will no longer be able to use it with Windows. Worse, this may prevent vendors from ever opening their hardware specifications or even providing compiled drivers to work with a few major versions of Linux.

Microsoft dominates the PC market totally. Fewer than 1% of PC's now run Linux. That may be enough to force hardware vendors to ignore Linux completely and comply with Microsoft's newly added level of hardware complexity. Just as VCR makers built in circuitry to prevent 100% copying of tapes and paid license fees on manufactured blank media, high definition digital content will be protected by a new level of hardware driver protection designed to work only with one authorizing operating systems.

It is ironic that this time in history may be the best Linux has ever been and the best it will ever be. I've watched Linux shrink from five percent of the market to less than one percent as it gets better and easier to use. I don't think Linux is quite ready for low-skilled PC users. But more importantly, I don't know if Linux can withstand this final assault from Microsoft and the recording and motion picture industries. Unless PC users revolt over the subtle manipulation of their computers against them to enforce copyright restrictions, the hope of Linux becoming a mainstream OS is doomed.

To read more about Linux:
If you want to learn more about free or so-called Open Software or the Free Software Foundation, search in for Stallman. Richard Stallman, a Harvard predecessor of Bill Gates, made a crucial decision early in his programming career. He felt software should belong to the end user and be free to use, modify, and distribute, not private intellectual property that can only be rented or used only as intended by the developer.

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