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Why GNU/Linux?

GNU operating system

GNU operating system

Linux kernel

Linux kernel

Once upon a time, I was exclusively a Windows user.  Basically, at the time there was nothing else readily available that fit my needs.  But I soon got tired of the constant gaping security holes, and constant interruptions of what I was doing to stop and install Windows hotfixes, antivirus updates, antispyware updates, or massive 100+ MB Windows service packs starting to download when I was in a hurry and just trying to grab something quickly off the web. I got frustrated with Windows imploding in on itself over time and having to reinstall it again and again… having to type in ridiculously long activation keys each time.  (Doing all of the above for an additional 8 or more hours a day in the course of fixing customers’ systems wore my patience even thinner.) I was uncomfortable with having to agree to lengthy licence agreements, where nobody but a lawyer could properly understand what rights and freedoms they’re signing away.

I didn’t like being forced to stick with crummy software or crummy customer service by having my data locked in to proprietary formats no other piece of software can understand.  There are other major drawbacks associated with this.  Companies could effectively use licensing and incompatibilities to force me to upgrade from a version that worked perfectly fine to a “new and improved” version that was slower and hogged more hard drive space, just because they felt it was better (or wanted to milk another round of money out of everybody).  Even worse, sometimes they’d “sunset” it (put it out of commission) altogether, and I’d be forced to find another piece of software to replace it… but because of the aforementioned proprietary formats, I couldn’t import my data and would have to copy everything over by hand.  (After that happens a time or two, trust me, you’ll have a new appreciation for open formats.)  I felt outraged that companies could, on a whim, hold my data hostage and force me into a difficult, time-consuming situation at an inconvenient time.

I didn’t appreciate software that violated my privacy by sending my personal information to the company, with or without my knowledge, especially since there was no way of knowing just what information was being sent, whether it was being properly encrypted, who it was going to, etc.  I did not want software that violated my right to control what’s on my own computer by automatically updating and altering itself without my knowledge or permission.  I desperately wished for an alternative to Windows and my proprietary applications so I could dump them off my system once and for all.

My resentment of these proprietary software companies grew over time.  I felt that unless they’re going to start paying for my computers, they have no business telling me what to run on them and how and when to run it, restricting us the users from inspecting it for bugs or malicious code and denying us the freedom to fix problems or enhance features as needed.  We the users pay for our computers with our hard-earned money, and then we pay companies for the “privilege” of using software that requires us to give up our right to use those computers and software as we see fit – relinquishing that control to the companies – all while they harvest our personal information for their use, and damage our sense of community by asking us to deny our own friends and relatives a copy of that software if they feel it would be helpful to them.  I decided it’s craziness to pay someone to bully me and the community at large in this way.  It’s the exact opposite of what’s good for us the users, and the IT industry as well.  There are working business models centred around software freedom rather than proprietary restriction, including the sale of free software (which is why it’s important to distinguish between “free” as in freedom vs. “free” as in price).  But champions of the proprietary model will not change until we the users show them that freedom is important enough to us to cause us to stop buying and using their products and seek free (as in freedom) alternatives.  In other words, we need to stop rewarding them for their nasty behaviour.  Hit them hard enough in the pocketbook and they’ll start listening to what we want.  After all, these are our computers – shouldn’t they do what we want them to do?

I believe there is a natural Darwinian process to software – that is, survival of the most useful and freedom-respecting products. But it can only occur in the absence of counterproductive constructs like proprietary formats and antitrust practices that try to force people to stick with something other than what they would freely choose.

It’s also worth noting that I started on PC’s in the days of DOS, and quickly learned to love the straightforward, fast performance of the command line. Contrary to what Microsoft or Apple may tell you, graphical interfaces are not always the best way (and usually not the fastest way) to do things, so I want the freedom to bypass them whenever it suits my needs.  I appreciate an OS that doesn’t try to hide the command line from me or make it difficult to access, either in a misguided effort to “protect” me, or because someone feels it’s not important for me to have.

In short, I want an operating system (OS) that is secure, reliable, customizable, flexible, respects my privacy, does not hijack control of my computer, and operates in the spirit of freedom, community, sharing, and the public good.  That OS is GNU + Linux.

Lastly, you may wonder why I call it GNU/Linux or GNU + Linux when many people just refer to it as “Linux.”  That is to give credit where credit is overdue.  Much of the operating system many people call “Linux” today was actually written by Richard Stallman and the GNU Project (1 2), whose free development tools were used by Linus Torvalds to create Linux and whose GNU General Public License, or GPL, was used to license Linux and make it openly available for community use.  (See Linux and GNU and GNU/Linux FAQ for detailed and eloquent articles on this.) Linux is only one small but very important piece of the whole operating system.  Don’t get me wrong – Linus Torvalds deserves much high praise and admiration for writing Linux and releasing it to the public.  But saying (as people often do) that he started this whole software revolution in 1991 with his vision for a free operating system, and thereby referring to him as “the man who started it all,” is patently incorrect and steals proper credit from many others who worked hard before him on the GNU software, licensing, and programming tools that made his project possible.  The software revolution, and the vision and philosophy behind it, were actually started in 1983 by another brilliant programmer, Richard M. Stallman – founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and GNU Project, and activist who has fought tirelessly for decades to promote software freedom and defend computer users’ rights.  Using the name GNU/Linux is an acknowledgement of Stallman, Torvalds, and countless other individuals who worked with them – selflessly contributing their time, energy, and impressive skills to create the operating system we know today.

hacker emblem

Footnotes:

  1. ^ David A. Wheeler (2002-07-29), More Than a Gigabuck: Estimating GNU/Linux’s Size
    “…many of the largest components of the system are essentially GNU projects: gcc, gdb, emacs, binutils (a set of commands for binary files), and glibc (the C library). Other GNU projects in the system include binutils, bash, gawk, make, textutils, sh-utils, gettext, readline, automake, tar, less, findutils, diffutils, and grep. This is not even counting GNOME, a GNU project. In short, the total of the GNU project’s code is much larger than the Linux kernel’s size. Thus, by comparing the total contributed effort, it’s certainly justifiable to call the entire system ‘GNU/Linux’ and not just ‘Linux’, and using the term GNU/Linux both credits its contributions and eliminates some ambiguity. Thus, I’ve decided to switch to the ‘GNU/Linux’ terminology here.”

  2. ^ Richard M. Stallman (2009-07-16), Linux and the GNU Project
    “One CD-ROM vendor found that in their ‘Linux distribution’, GNU software was the largest single contingent, around 28% of the total source code, and this included some of the essential major components without which there could be no system. Linux itself was about 3%. (The proportions in 2008 are similar: in the ‘main’ repository of gNewSense, Linux is 1.5% and GNU packages are 15%.)”

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