Lifestyle Technology

Forget Windows: Get Linux, BSD

Open Source Software,. Free, secure software with social integrity
Written by Ryan Walker

What are some general characteristics of homesteaders? We like freedom. We like self sufficiency. We like privacy. We don’t like being told what to do.

When it comes to technology, one must take great care if one is to choose products that meet the above criteria. Microsoft, for example, is about the opposite of freedom. Google is the opposite of privacy. Apple loves to tell you how to do things “The Apple Way.” All of these organizations go out of their way to “hose the little guy”, the little guy using the software and the little guy trying to build software that works with theirs. Whether they are stealing your data, copying your software or gate keeping your content, these organizations are not your friend.  A lot of people don’t realize that there is a better option available to them known as Open source software.

Have you ever had your computer refuse to play a media file because it thought it was pirated? I have, and you know, the computer has no business evaluating MY video. It’s job is to PLAY the video, not decide whether or not I am allowed to play it! The idea that Microsoft and Apple think they have the right to police MY content is just laughable.

Have you ever had an iPhone that worked great, and then slowed right down, just as a new model of iPhone was being released? There is rampant speculation that Apple intentionally tweaks the OS to slow down old devices. Google trends shows clear evidence that when new phone models are released, searches for “slow iPhone” increase significantly. There is probably something to it. I know Apple plays all kinds of games with artificially obsoleting hardware. I have a beautiful octa core (!!) machine with an upgraded video card that is MORE than capable of running the latest and greatest stuff, but Apple makes it very difficult by making their modern operating systems refuse to install on older hardware. Their argument would be “the hardware is too slow” but the argument is absolutely ridiculous. Old machines could easily be supported, and yet apple tries to make it so that you have to run out and buy a new machine ever few iterations of the operating system.  Apple really pisses me off here, as they deprecate hardware that is still very powerful and useful.  They absolutely go out of their way to make you buy more Apple product.

Have you ever had your machine just reboot on you, because it decided it wanted to? Have you ever had terrible Internet connectivity, only to realize your computer decided to download a huge update, without telling you? Heck, have you ever gone to sleep with one version of Windows and woken up to another?! This has happened to people, during Microsoft’s “at gunpoint” roll-out of Windows 10. It has always blown my mind, and continues to blow my mind that (A) Microsoft would build software with such a shitty attitude, and (B) people would continue to line up to buy it! Microsoft is who decides what I get to watch? Microsoft is who decides when my computer reboots? What’s next, a retracting hand that extends from the screen and slaps me when I do something Microsoft doesn’t like? How about an automatic needle that can extend and inject me with whatever Bill’s latest vaccine is?

I don’t think so.
It’s my computer.
It will do what I say, when I say.

Open Source – The Alternative

Open source refers, broadly, to a software model under which the source code of the application is available for all to see.  The term “open source” is often used to refer to a specific subset of open source software, the Operating System.  When you hear the term “running open source software”, it will often refer to someone who is running an open source application on an open source operating system.

For example, in the closed source world, you would run Microsoft Windows with Microsoft Word, or Apple OS X with Microsoft Word for OS X.  In the open source world, you would run Debian Linux with LibreOffice, or maybe OpenBSD with Lyx.  Your operating system is different, and your software is different.  You can do the same things as you can do in windows, and often much more, but the applications are different, the file formats vary, etc.

There is another meaning for “open source”, and it refers to the code itself:  some applications are released as binary, and others as source (and often binary as well.)  For software released under the open source model, it means you can see everything the programmer did to make the program.  Line by line, you can see exactly what the code does.  Closed source, on the other hand, removes that ability. You only get the binary, meaning you can run the application, but you can’t really see what’s under the hood.  This provides guys like Microsoft and Apple with the opportunity to sneak in what is technically referred to as “whatever the F&$* they want”.

Let’s take a quick look at some computer code. Say, for example, I want to write a program, in the C programming language, that prints out the statement “Hello.” It would look like this, especially if you are a hack programmer like me:

#include <stdio.h>

void main () {
printf (“Hello.”);
return 0;
}

Now, to you, that may look like gibberish, but to a programmer, it is very, very basic. The first line includes an input/output library, which enables us to use the printf function. The remainder of the code is a function to print out “Hello.”, and then end.

In order to be executed, this code must be compiled, or turned into machine language. Machine code (binary code, executable code) looks something like this:

f789asdfa3lwfh78sdf678a3yfh7hwhcsd78af6sd78ay6f
78afwydf78sdyf78asdfyao87f3ioja;[-fd0sag-au89fd
faj89sdfuas9d8fjasflwiefja89sdfjsd98fjsd89afj89

Now, no programmer in the world can make sense of the above. When you use Microsoft or Apple products, that is all you get,  the machine code, the executable. You DO NOT get the human readable source code, as above, so you have NO IDEA what the program really does. Does it do what it says, or does it send all of your keystrokes to some marketing corporation? You have no way of knowing, because you cannot look at the code. Now, you as an individual probably couldn’t make sense of the code anyways. But others can! And do! Some people spend their whole days going through code, line by line, looking for problems, looking for exploits. It is impossible to do this with closed source software. You really have no idea what you are getting.

If one were to use the car analogy, the open source car would be a ’57 Chevy, and the closed source car would have all major components encased in steel: you couldn’t work on the engine, the tranny, heck: not even the wheels. Which one would you rather own?

I previously worked in telecom and one of our major, major strategic advantages was our use of open source software. Our competitors would spend tens or hundreds of thousand of dollars a year on Microsoft software: we would spend zero. For us, software customizations could be done instantly. We had access to the code, though I don’t think we ever even needed to do much code customization! Our competitors did not have this advantage. Also, the hardware requirements for open source software were lower, yet the performance was generally better. We used lower power servers with less powerful hardware and still had performance levels that met or exceeded what others were doing. For a time, for example, we routed Internet traffic for about a thousand people using a $1000 Pentium 75 and three ethernet network cards, where a non open source solution (say from Cisco) would have cost five or ten times more.  Firewalls?  Mail servers?  File servers?  Free, free, free.  For us at least, and everyone else using open source.

Linux: Free Software ~ A Platform for Everyone

You might have heard of something called “Linux.” Linux gives you, for free, almost everything Microsoft Windows (or Apple OS X) give you, and in many cases, a lot more. Basically you download it, burn it to a CD, reboot your computer, install it, and from then on, you run Linux instead of Microsoft/Apple.  If you want to try before committing, you can install to a USB key first, to ensure you’re ready to make the jump.

Linux and Microsoft are not directly compatible, however there is excellent emulation software available on Linux that will run many, many Windows apps. It’s walled “Wine.”  It used to be the case that if you ran linux, you could not run Microsoft software. That is no longer true and although compatibility is not 100%, it is quite good. Gaming is the exception: if you want to play the latest and greatest games, Linux is not a good option.  Even there though, support is good for slightly older games.  If you’re playing stuff that is five or ten years old, it may very well work without issue.  Gamers will be familiar with the game streaming service Steam: the Steambox is linux-based and supports a tonne of games.

The list of Linux-only applications is extensive. In fact, I suspect there are now more applications available for Linux than there are for Windows. If not, it must be very comparable at this point.

What are the benefits of running Linux?

  • It’s Free
  • It’s far more secure, especially when efforts are made
  • It’s far more private, if you do your part (and even if you don’t)
  • Helps erode MS/Apple market share. Fight the power
  • Ultimately, do more in less time, as you stop having to fight your OS

I am not sure if people fully realize the capabilities of open source software. You can do almost ANYTHING with free software and many of the worlds largest corporations use it for mission critical tasks, every second of every day.  We have a tendency to think of “free” as “cheap” in some way, and that is absolutely not the case here.  UNIX based operating systems outrank Microsoft systems in almost every way, and true Unix experts command a much greater premium than their Microsoft counterparts.

Free Software: Speciality Applications for Every Need

Make a movie. Run a telecommunications company. Write a novel. Program a game. Control a robot. Or just check your email and surf the web. Software options and platforms are VAST, and open source is a huge world. There are distributions for every interest. Forget about just applications: entire specialist operating environments have been developed, and they are GREAT. Are you an artist? Security wannabe? Do you want to set up a phone system? How about a secret whistleblower platform? All of these things, and many more, exist! They can be downloaded and installed in minutes.  You may want to hold off on the whistleblower software until you have a wee bit more experience, by the way. 😉

Aside from the software itself, there is a certain philosophy that goes along with running it. Media is a great example. Maybe you have an itunes account, or whatever the google equivalent is. Maybe you have a netflix account. Chances are, your content is locked to your account, meaning you can’t take your netflix movies with you, and you can’t play your itunes files (or maybe only some of them) from another application. There is all kinds of digital rights management you have to be concerned about.

With Linux, you don’t have to play with that stuff at all. You insist that your movie files and your music files are that – FILES, not some gigantic interconnected system of account logins, passwords, and content that may or may not be played depending on the whim of Apple or Microsoft. How do you get them? Well, that’s up to you, but let me assure you: they are out there, and there are both legitimate and shady ways of acquiring any content you want in a convenient format. You can watch all the television you want, watch all the movies you want and listen to all the music you want, at anywhere from zero cost (torrents) to retail cost, in a way that does not make you beholden to content distributors.  Content distribution is so ridiculous these days I refuse to be a part of any of it.  My content is a FILE.  My distribution system is DOUBLE CLICKING A FILE.

Of course, you can do much of the above with a Microsoft or Apple system.  You don’t have to use itunes or netflix, and you can manage your digital content outside of these systems with windows just as easily.  With that said, why be half pregnant: if you’re going to computer like a rebel, you might as well have the right operating system!

There was a case recently I remember reading about, where Amazon deleted a bunch of books that people had already downloaded to their ereaders. They went out of their way to nuke content that people had bought, or otherwise put on their device. Amazon decided “Eh, we don’t think these people should have access to this anymore”, and deleted it. I ask you, do you feel comfortable with such an arrangement, where your content provider can just YANK stuff that is apparently yours?

There was also the case where iTunes did the reverse. They decided to push U2’s newest album on everyone without their consent.  If you had iTunes installed you got that album whether you wanted it or not. It caused huge backlash, people wondered if their account had been hacked, people were really mad. To save face, Apple was forced to release a tool to enable people to remove the album from their account, with a dedicated web page providing step-by-step instructions.

Anything can be done to your account without your permission.  Have you ever actually read those long subscriber agreements that that pop up before you install software, update, or set up an account?  I haven’t.  I just refuse to spend money with those organizations because they refuse to treat me well, as a consumer.

A New World of Computing

If you want to explore a new world of computing, visit distrowatch.org and take a look at what is available. I find it truly staggering, actually. As one who has used this stuff for 20+ years, the operating systems and applications they are coming out with today are just incredible. From a usability/friendliness perspective, it’s to the point where grandmothers can use this stuff. In terms of power and capability, you could probably run a nuclear research laboratory with only free software. Philosophically, this stuff is wonderful. Going open source is a great way to not only drastically improve your computing environment, and integrity, but to send a message to Microsoft, to Apple, and their ilk: we will tolerate no more. Freedom matters. Take your closed source, peeping tom, innovation killing software and stick it where gcc doesn’t shine. (if you don’t know what gcc is – you should!)

Suggested Open Source Operating Systems:

As previously mentioned the choices are vast when it comes to choosing an open source operating system. You would do well to spend some time reading about the various options as there are some key differences between distributions.  Here are some hints:

If you are uncomfortable with technology: Ubuntu
If you are intermediate: Debian, Slackware, FreeBSD
If you want the very best: OpenBSD!

You owe it to yourself, to your computer, and to free computing in general to check out an open source operating system, and the vast amount of free software that is now available.  It is truly amazing how far the technology has come, and if today, in 2017, you are still doddering along with muti-gigabytye updates, data theft, crashes, DRM problems and an operating system that treats you like a child, you are doing it by choice.  Viable options exist, and they are better, in many ways, than the commercial, proprietary options they replace.

Back up your photos, music, documents and movies, delete that spyware you call an operating system and install something (anything!) that respects you, your rights, your privacy and your computer.  As you do so, give thanks to men like Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Theo de Raadt, Jordan Hubbard and many others.  They are the guys toiling away quietly in relative obscurity, giving their work away for free, helping to ensure a computing future that is, at least not entirely, controlled by Darth Vader and his storm troopers.

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