The cost of free software

What you win and lose with Linux.

Dan Frost

Topics Politics

Linux, the free operating system billed as a serious alternative to Microsoft’s Windows, is becoming increasingly well-known. As this takes place, advocacy of Linux by technology commentators increasingly gives way to acid scepticism.

The sceptics have little or no time for the weak organisation and geeky hostility of the Linux world. They point out that while some of the bigger players are supporting Linux – Sun Microsystems, Dell and Compaq, for instance – people aren’t lapping up Linux as rapidly as predicted.

Linux’s most appealing quality is that it’s free. Anybody can try it out, chuck it aside, or embrace it for nil. This leads to the misconception that Linux is just like normal software, except that it’s free. But it’s often up to you to make Linux work, because you’re not paying anyone else to. The financial saving comes at the expense of your effort.

Most computer users don’t want to put the effort in. According to Tony Procos, director of Ithaca Solutions – a company that specialises in migrating companies between computer systems – this is forcing the Linux community to realise that ‘if it’s free, it doesn’t mean people will necessarily use it’ (1).

But even those who can put the effort in – larger companies with large IT support – don’t always want Linux, because it isn’t ‘real’ enough. Linux is seen as not being real software, because of the open source way in which it is developed. Open source software is developed by programmers around the world who work on it for nothing, bar the satisfaction of making something work and the respect of peers. Development is, to a certain extent, democratic – many people have to agree on changes to the software.

This is what holds Linux back from developing like proprietary software. ‘Innovation happens around a core. To try to improve that core is very difficult with open source’, explains Tony Procos. Compare Linux to proprietary software, where a single person in a single company can say ‘we’re doing this’, and it gets done. Old versions become obsolete, and new versions become the norm. But with open source software, old versions become different versions, splintering into slightly different pieces of software maintained by different groups of people.

Another factor is the speed with which open source software develops. Open source developers around the world work on projects day and night. As such, updates for more active projects occur at least daily. Keeping up with these updates is an unattractive prospect, for all but the most faithful.

And then there is the perception of open source developers. ‘Businesses are worried about putting their business in the hands of these people’, says Procos. ‘It’s helping now that some of the big players are getting into it, but it’s often worrying businesses that this is the latest fad to come out of universities.’ The real question is, why is anyone using this uncoordinated, splintering software, make by geeks in sandals?

For one thing, open source software can give projects a kick start. Smaller and more obscure projects can benefit by adopting ready-made, customisable, open source software. As Procos explains, ‘it allows you to spend the bucks where you’ll actually get more bang for it’. Projects that invest in proprietary development, when an open source equivalent exists, may be throwing their budget down the pan – assuming, of course, that they can afford to invest time in customising open source software.

Another advantage of open source software is that its rapid development can help solve problems quickly. For example, security holes in Apache – one of the world’s most popular web servers – are spotted and fixed all the time. Once again, though, you have to have the time to follow all the updates.

Finally, the community that surrounds Linux can be a benefit. Millions of articles, FAQs and forums exist all over the internet, detailing Linux problems and their solutions. Because the software is developed for free, however, support depends upon goodwill and the whim of the community. New users are commonly flamed for asking ‘what’s wrong with my computer?’. Some members of the community consider such questions a waste of their time, and won’t hesitate to say so.

Spot anything that the advantages of Linux have in common? They apply to those who work in computing. Spot anything that the disadvantages of Linux have in common? They apply to the rest of us.

As the supporters and critics of Linux notch up column inches in their slagging match, it is important to be able to balance the pros and cons of Linux and other open source software, with those of Microsoft and other proprietary software.

If you want to plug in and get on with it, proprietary software is the best bet. This way, responsibility for the software stays with the supplier, and the user needs to know nothing other than how to use it. The advantage of Linux is that it’s flexible – you can make it do what you want it to. But learning Linux takes a long, long time, and your manual will be thumbed for months after you get the computer running.

The crux of the matter is that software isn’t ever free. Either you pay money, and someone else looks after it; or you put effort in, and look after it yourself.

Read on:

A line on Linux, by Fiona Harvey

(1) See the Ithaca Solutions website

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Topics Politics


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