Age of Darkness
Operating System — mankind has fought many religious wars over this topic in its brief history. Before I was a silent observer to many of such bloodshed, before I myself occasionally partook in such battles, before I even learnt that such holy crusades had happened, I was a happy Windows user. It was a time when nobody ever compared Windows to any other operating system. This was mostly because we never knew that such systems existed (I live in India, a place where Apple’s influence is still not as powerful as it is in the West). I lived in a Windows world without knowing it. So did I love Windows? To this, I ask you: do you love your toothbrush? Because I neither love it nor hate it. I don’t think anybody even thinks about their toothbrush when they mechanically brush their teeth without giving it a thought. The only time we think about our toothbrush is when we want to buy a new one. Windows was like that — I neither loved it, nor hated it. It was a tool that I needed to browse the web, watch a movie, program, play games, and so on. It was a tool for me to do things and I didn’t think about it much. But all this changed on that fateful Sunday in the year 2011.
Age of Enlightenment
It was sometime during the last quarter of that year, and I was lying on my bed on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I was feeling bored and suddenly the word Linux popped into my head. ‘Linux,’ I thought. ‘What exactly is it?’ I got up and logged into my desktop and googled. What followed was enlightenment. There are hundreds of Linux operating systems out there and we could choose the one that best suits our needs and tastes, I learnt. It was a mind-blowing moment. ‘There are hundreds of operating systems out there?’ All I knew was Windows and an operating system that runs on Apple computers. And the best part: it’s all FREE!
The desktop of an operating system, in the Linux world, is extremely customizable, and if you still don’t like it, you can install a new desktop and get rid of the default one — WOW! And all these years I was stuck with the same boring desktop. I decided to install a Linux system in my computer and I was spoiled for choice. I couldn’t decide which Linux system to install. Then I googled, ‘the best Linux distribution for beginners’ (in the Linux world, an operating system is usually referred to as distribution). All the roads led to a Linux distribution called Ubuntu. I wasted no time in downloading Ubuntu, followed some online instructions to install and dual-boot it alongside Windows. It was simple (although I did end up accidentally formatting the entire D drive when I tried this the second time). I loved Ubuntu. I spent many months, downloading and installing various software, and customizing the desktop environment to my heart’s content. It was a period of great enlightenment and empowerment. I felt so happy with my new-found powers and control. As days passed, I learnt that I could rip apart the whole Linux operating system and put it back together! This was too much power and fun for me. I learnt that I could even touch and manipulate the brain of the operating system — the kernel (Each operating system, at its core, has a kernel. Windows NT, is the name of the kernel used in Windows operating systems, Darwin is the name of kernel used in Apple’s Mac OS X, and Linux is the name of the kernel used in Linux distributions. In fact, it is the Linux kernel that gives Linux its name). I could manipulate the kernel itself? That is exactly what I did after learning this fact. I followed an online tutorial and made some minor edits to the kernel. I felt like a mad scientist. This is how computers should be used, I realized. We’ve been using computers wrong! We’ve been doing computers and ourselves a great injustice!
Age of Enlightenment Redefined
A couple of months rolled by, and it was February 2012. A wandering wizard from the West visited India, and he traveled all the way down south to Chennai. It was someone called Richard Stallman, a name hitherto unheard of in these parts. He gave a speech to a packed auditorium of 3000 students at IIT Madras. On the next day’s newspaper, I read about him and his entire speech. It was mind-blowing. Never in my life has any speech altered my mind so quickly and deeply. It was a call to war. Here was a man of such greatness, here was a man of such courage, here was a man of great character, will power, and self-discipline. If the science of computers is a religion, then Richard Stallman is certainly one of its Gods. Suddenly, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs appeared as little children in front of his greatness. We are looking at the wrong people for inspiration, I realized. As I started learning more and more about Stallman and his principles, I started loving him more and more. When I learnt about the pain and hardships that he had undergone, I could deeply connect and empathize with him. Richard Stallman is an American software activist, creator of the GNU operating system, which along with the Linux kernel, is now called as Linux, the Founder and President of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), and he is the giant upon whose shoulders the entire Open Source movement stands.
OKAY, what exactly are Mr.Stallman’s principles that I am praising so much?
It is Stallman’s grand vision that has made me one of his biggest fans. Being a fan of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs is like being a fan of Alexander the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte. Yes, of course, Alexander and Napoleon were great leaders and geniuses and they both wanted to conquer the known world and did succeed to a certain extent, just like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have. The similarities between Alexander and Bill Gates, and Napoleon and Steve Jobs makes for an interesting study. Alexander conquered more countries than Napoleon, but Napoleon was a better tactician and even during his time, he was that rare person who understood what “being cool” meant and he made sure how the general public perceived him. But in spite of all their brilliance and bravery on the battlefield, who are these people? Men who wanted power, men who wanted money, men who wanted more. And who are Bill Gates and Steve Jobs? Ruthless businessmen who have destroyed competition, even illegally, that came in their way. Both of them even have a dark side, but that is beyond the scope of this article. But if you’d like a taste of it, then read this New York Times article on Jobs: Steve Jobs Defied Convention, and Perhaps the Law. Here’s an interview of Steve Wozniak, the guy who co-founded Apple along with Jobs, and the guy who actually built the first Apple computer explaining how Steve Jobs cheated him of his money: Steve Wozniak: I Cried When Steve Jobs Kept Atari Bonus to Himself.
Remember Netscape Navigator? That friendly browser that we all used more than 10 years ago? Well, Bill Gates played an active role in the illegal destruction of the Netscape company so that Internet Explorer could be a success. Read all about it here. Microsoft was taken to court, but let off the hook and later Microsoft funded George W Bush’s election campaign.
How could these people be our role model?
The thing that I love about Richard Stallman is that he’s above all these politics and this mad rush for money. He sees everything from a God’s standpoint. That’s right, I said God’s standpoint.
Stallman’s Point of View
We have come to a point in time where software is everything. Software runs this world. We need software to travel, software for handling money, software in life saving medical equipment, software to make medicine, to process food, to wash our clothes, to refrigerate our food, and so on. The amount of money in our bank accounts, our life and medical insurances are all regulated by software. Think about it. Our entire destiny is intertwined with software. So why should we allow certain private companies to dictate terms for the usage of software?
Stallman asks: Why is it illegal to share my Windows 7 DVD with my best friend? After all, it’s my best friend and the DVD is mine. I paid money for it! Don’t you think that something is wrong here?
He says that we have every right to get the source code of the software that we buy, to modify the software, and to share it with others. Such software is called FREE software and Dr.Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to spread this truth. Free software means software that respects the users’ freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”. So the “Free” here doesn’t refer to cost. It means Freedom to users and software developers.
But doesn’t Free software sound like Open source?
In many cases Free software can be Open source and Open source software can be Free software, but not in all cases. The Open source model came into existence later and it focuses more on software — it is a software development model. But the Free software movement focuses not on the software, but on the users; it is ethics.
When Human Beings collaborate, rather than fight against each other over patents, great things happen
To prove this point let me give you an example. More than 10 years ago, when a group of people decided to create an Operating System for mobile phones, they thought that instead of reinventing the wheel and wasting time and money, they could use the Linux kernel as the Operating System’s kernel. Today, we call this Operating System Android. Linus Torvalds created the Linux kernel in 1991, and until Android came into existence, the kernel was primarily used in personal computers, servers, and supercomputers. But now, Linux is more widespread, thanks to Android.
You see what happens when people share? Nobody can use the Windows NT kernel because it belongs to Microsoft. But anyone can use the Linux kernel because it’s a Free software. Richard Stallman started this revolution by creating the GNU system and giving it away for free (free as in freedom and also free of cost). Linus Torvalds created the Linux kernel and did the same. Why do you think there are hundreds of Linux operating systems out there? Since it is free, many software developers, without fear of someone accusing them of theft, take the source code, modify it and create their own versions of Linux. This is why there are so many Linux operating systems out there.
It has been more than two years since I stopped using Windows for my personal computing altogether. So far, I have used at least seven or eight Linux distributions and I will be trying out more in the future. So what are you waiting for? Get that external hard disk, backup all your data, and give Linux a try.
If you would like to explore more about this, please follow the links below.
One Man’s Fight for Free Software — a New York Times article that came out in the year 1989.
http://www.gnu.org/ — The GNU website that explains everything about Free Software.
Important Note: When I say Linux, I mean GNU/Linux. Linux is the name of the kernel used in the GNU Operating system. The proper way of calling this system is GNU/Linux (pronounced “Gnoo-slash-Linux” — the G is not silent). For the sake of brevity, people commonly refer to this system as Linux.