No Free Beer: Few words on Free software & their relevance


Free Speech, not Free Beer

Free Speech, not Free beer

What do you think? I’ll tell you how to get beer for free? Forget it, even tea doesn’t come for free these days. That was just being catchy to grab your attention. Through the next unending stream of words we will get to know what actually is this fuss about Open-Source/Free soft-wares. Open-Source or not, if there is a general question, ‘how many of you know what Linux is?’, about 80% of you give blank stares, some 15% say they heard the name before, and rest might tell you what Linux is just like the 5 blind men described the elephant. Just to interest you un-informed lot, Linux related jobs have had a steady upward demand over the last few decades as compared to most other jobs (for satisfaction checkout the ukjobs website), besides you have got to believe me that the Internet rests it’s backbone on Linux(We are not going to talk about that today).

History is a chain of connected events so is Computer-Science ( there’s no magic, only hard logic). Linux with it’s inception in 1991 is no exception either!( A fun fact: Linux is as old as, or maybe just younger than most of my target readers)Being a B.Tech student I have seen a general grievance–‘ Why do we have to study Linux when we are taking the Operating systems paper?’. Actually the fact is Linux is a developing OS, if you are using it you are actually using a hot-served preparation unlike with the counter-parts which are generally once developed and retouched after 4-6 years! With Linux we refer to Bleeding-edge development… transformations take place overnight, everyday! Nice testing ground for your OS course, isn’t it? And newer kernel (OS core) release occurs regularly in months or less intervals. So if you have the funda & an idea (that you consider superb), get down, get your hands dirty, implement the change and see it live on the OS! In a sense Linux was the last step in de-materialising the software market which otherwise was becoming a money guzzling machine out of reach of mortal programmers and civilians.

Consider Microsoft(R) Windows, a property of the Microsoft, which comes with the Notice (Software License/ EULA)–‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’, well not exactly the same words but some thing like–‘No part of this software maybe copied, redistributed etc. etc., without prior permission from Microsoft’. This was what I was talking about… materialising the market, monopolising it! Microsoft was not the only one though, but only the most popular. So around the 90’s a messiah of a software group formed, called FSF –Free Software Foundation, which was actually a starry bunch of Computer-scientists & hackers alike bickering together for the liberation of soft-ware.(Another Fun fact: Check the xkcd.com website for lots of Linux related informative & funny comics). ‘Liberation???” oh yes..liberation!’ Didn’t I tell you about the selfish-giant’s notice just now? So it came down to modifying the software license. Another crucial point here was piracy, say for ms windows more than 80% home PC’s run on it but less than say 20% are original, according to the Microsoft EULA the rest are un-lawfully copied! This stems from the fact that none will shell some extra thousands for a piece of software that they can get for Rs.10 (the blank disk cost), and the fact that there’s no valid method that might track them. Just as an exercise, rest your hand on your heart and tell me the number of times you have clicked on the “report to Microsoft” on the event of a software crash? I’ll tell you– the general answer is “never”. Now I don’t need to ask why, for I know that each of my readers know they have a pirated copy and also a very clear conscience. All in all you are saving your pocket but burning a hole in Mr. Bill Gates’s and also disregarding the efforts of the programmers at Microsoft, denying them their credit!

FSF revolutionised the concept through GNU General Public License ( & it’s variants). The GPL relies on the clear conscience of the users and programmers and their desire to share. Any piece of software released with GPL makes it mandatory for the programmer to make the program codes available to interested people either for money or for free, in any case the code should be available not just the simple compiled binary– which is the root of all evil. So free software does not mean you get the software for free and it’s all ‘wild wild west’, but rather it means you have access to the source code of the soft-wares you buy or are just gifted to you. You can modify the codes, debug them, customise them and share them with no constraints. This creates a harmonic balance between hobbyist hackers, contributors, users and developers and it only serves the betterment and growth of the original software, biggest example being Linux itself! So as the great bearded messiah of FSF… Richard Stallman said FSF was about “Free speech not free beer!”. That you get the benefits out of freedom of sharing and it’s not simply unbridled usage of any software for free! In that case programers would become a poor and hungry lot! Biggest point here is de-monopolising the software market, no more hiding the source code to ensure people will buy my goods and come to me for help!

Linux was christened GNU/Linux when Richard Stallman made Linux as the face of the Open-source movement after the GNU failed to make a head way with the GNU/Hurd project due to the ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ effect from the huge conglomeration of elite hackers that joined the Open-source movement. And the Penguin-Bull partnership has been going great guns since then. There’s a lot of opinion of supposed non-user-friendliness of the Linux which I personally take with a pinch of salt and say that case is same as a Bengali/Bihari/Marathi learning Spanish/Greek/Hebrew or vice-versa. Each say the assigned language is the toughest while the mother-tongue is the easiest, so difficulty is all about familiarity and is highly relative! So fear not, take the plunge, experience will be rewarding! For a country like our’s where we spend approx. 1000 crores on MP’s and not even that much on educational budget,we cannot afford to shell out piles of crores buying soft-wares from the likes of Apple or Microsoft. Open-Source Soft-wares are the only resounding replies to the problem at hand… now it’s your call.

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