FEATURES & COMMENTARY
Paris, FRANCE — The following is issued by Gael Duval (with additions by Phil Lavigna), Co-Founder of MandrakeSoft:
Mr. Bill Gates recently said three things, in addition to many others, in an interview with “Australian IT”. First he said that Linux was just hype and that it cannot compete with Windows in ease-of-use. He also said the Open Source model doesn’t offer any great benefit in terms of reliability and security. Even if we can feel a twinge of satisfaction that Microsoft seems to be concerning itself with Linux’ existence, his remarks deserve a loud response because they’re blatantly just false. Much of what Mr. Gates said is commonly referred to as “FUD” (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt).
What Mr. Gates calls “hype” is actually a worldwide, grass-roots, fundamental change in how computing is performed. This evolution (revolution) had its modest beginnings in Finland in 1991 and continues to enjoy a phenomenal growth rate. The truth is that thousands of new users are discovering Linux each and every day and finding it a complete replacement for Microsoft Windows. Many of these new users have grown weary of relying on an Operating System that is itself unreliable and has a tendency to crash regularly for no apparent reason; many of these people are tired of the forced uniformity, tired of having no control and no power to fix the many bugs and shortcomings faced while performing everyday computing tasks, distrustful of waiting for answers that never arrive, exhausted from the endless cycle of paying and paying again for an operating system and applications that always seem to do what they need – but only in the next release.
The truth is, according to IDC figures, Linux is now the second most widely used operating system in the world. The truth is also that the most widely used web server in the world is the Apache web server which is free software. The truth tends to be quite a bit different from Mr. Gate’s claim of “some single applications and web servers.”
Linux is still harder to use than the MacOS and Windows – why is this so? First of all, Linux has inherited a great deal from Unix which is often seen as a complicated system – not particularly because it’s hard to use, but because it is very featured and different in many ways. People discovering Linux are always surprised of the great many things that can be accomplished with Linux, especially the power that lurks behind a seemingly simple shell command line which can be used to read and write email, edit files on remote servers, talk to friends on the other side of the world, listen to MP3s, burn a CD and compile an application – all at the same time.
Until recently, addressing these ease-of-use issues was difficult because the issue is actually two-fold based on the presumption that security and ease-of-use are mutually exclusive. We don’t ever wish Linux to become unstable at the cost of making it easier to use, just as we never want Linux to become unsafe. People who regularly use Windows are accustomed to system crashes and viruses as a normal daily concern – this is not the way computing has to be! With Linux, this situation largely doesn’t exist because of the fundamental architecture of the system, which consists of independent layers that have specific features and strict permissions. Additionally, normal users have a strict and limited role on a Linux system; it’s only the “root” user (administrator) who has the power to expose an entire system to possible danger. With DOS, Windows 95 and Windows 98, users have the ability to do anything to a system – this is a dangerous scenario in these times of widespread Internet access and extensive networking. With Windows NT and Windows 2000, Microsoft introduced some mechanisms that look like Unix features such as authentication, permissions and others, but they don’t remotely come close to the same level of security that Linux provides.
Linux-Mandrake, in particular, has always focused on ease-of-use issues and has been working hard on this particular challenge of blending common-sense security features while maintaining the same user-friendly operating system that has become so popular with Linux users. With a Linux-Mandrake system, you can choose a level of security for the system based on its intended use while maintaining a very friendly system at the same time.
It appears that “ease-of-use” has come to mean graphical interfaces for everything. While it’s certainly not true that a nice interface instantly means something is easier to use, it is true that users have come to expect and appreciate slick-looking interfaces to do their work in. This is one area where Linux lagged until KDE and GNOME appeared. Now Linux is extremely easy to use day-to-day with these great desktop environments.
One of the remaining issues we, the Linux community, need to address is the refinement and polishing of the wonderful tools we already have at our disposal. For example: it’s true that most applications don’t use anti-aliased fonts for display purposes which might cause a user to think: “Well… it doesn’t look as good as Windows, I wonder what else it’s lacking.” Of course this single point doesn’t mean the application doesn’t contain all the features that would make this user extremely happy, but people’s perception is their reality so it is a valid issue to consider.
Reliability and stability have long been major benefits of Linux; this is proven every day by the thousands of Linux servers that run for months and sometimes even years without as much as a hiccup. Security has also been an important feature of Linux – not only to create the most fundamentally secure operating system itself, but also the way security flaws are handled. When a security issue is discovered it doesn’t take very long for Linux vendors to release an update. Sometimes a fix can take a week, often a few days, or even a few minutes depending on the bug. The Open Source model provides an extremely efficient process for handling these types of matters that can’t be matched by a proprietary software maker such as Microsoft who often take weeks, months or even years to fix a problem.
So how exactly does the Open Source model excel? Even if Microsoft had the best and brightest engineers in the world, we have the power of numbers. When a serious bug is discovered with Linux, hundreds (possibly thousands) of experienced users and developers spontaneously work to fix the problem. And we, as Linux vendors, quickly receive patches from the community or develop a solution ourselves. This patch is then validated (or not) very quickly so an update can be released in record time. This extremely efficient process is strictly impossible in the proprietary/closed software model; it’s simply the nature of that beast.
He couldn’t do much because he only had DOS/Windows installed on his computer; he was very saddened to realize he had to buy additional software to actually do anything with his new pride and joy. But since he had already spent most of his money on the PC, he unfortunately had to copy some proprietary software. And this wasn’t an ideal solution because then he couldn’t get the documentation for the software. This was extremely unfortunate because he was very interested in learning programming but couldn’t find any information about the libraries that were shipped with the C compiler that a friend had copied for him. The operating-system calls were undocumented and there wasn’t even an assembler provided with the system. He really couldn’t understand why he didn’t have the opportunity to create his own software for this computer and operating system that he already paid for.
That was 1990. Five years later this young boy discovered he could run Linux on that 386 – and it was free! Well… he just had to buy 50 diskettes and he was with his new OS. This operating system provided several full-featured compilers and all the documentation he needed to enable him to program anything for his computer. It was then that he realized how limiting Windows had been for him all that previous time and how it stifled his personal desire to create. He realized how Linux couldn’t even be compared to that other operating system.
Linux provided the freedom this young man needed, the freedom to control the technology at hand and also his own future. Linux provides the opportunity to express one’s self through creating code and empowers the individual, which is where power best belongs.
People know about icebergs. They know that unless they’re swimming underwater in that sea, they’re seeing just a little bit of the iceberg. That’s similar to how it is with Linux companies and the Open Source model. Linux companies won’t ever be as rich as traditional software companies because they offer much more than proprietary software does, and nearly for free. This doesn’t mean we can’t all make a living with Open Source software and live well.
MandrakeSoft, Red Hat, Caldera, SuSE, Turbo Linux… all these companies will tell you that they grew much this year, they also grew the previous year and will grow again the next because there are ever increasing numbers of people having their own personal discovery with Linux. These people will buy a Linux pack, then their friends will purchase a pack, as will more and more enterprises that will also require services and support. These Linux companies and this wonderful community that we’re all a part of are helping change the way people use software and they are directly affecting people’s lives and how we all work.
So to potential new Linux users, just tell them they can have a full operating system for their PC that contains an office suite, a web browser, just about everything they could want – for free. This is the first step to entering the Linux world. This will put them on the road to discover for themselves what the “Free” really means in Free Software. With time they’ll also come to know what we already do: the same way your mind evolved between the first day you decided to get Internet access – no matter whether the reasoning was because it was a “fashionable” thing to do or if you really wanted to know what it was – and the day when you first browsed those personal web pages to the day of posting your first words in a forum.