Half Truths Don’t Make for Good Open Source Advocacy

Here’s an example of the kind of thing that doesn’t help Linux advocates. It’s a list of things a user says he can do in Linux. Problem is, I do them almost all in Windows as easily as I do them in FreeBSD and Linux. It’s not personal, it’s just all too typical. I’m not picking on this particular person’s choice, I’m just picking apart the argument he presents.

Things I can do in Linux:

1. Update every single piece of software on my system with a single action. This is one of the main reasons I run Linux. For every Linux distribution I’ve used (Gentoo, Red Hat, Suse, Ubuntu,Fedora, Mandriva), updating is simple. When you update, you have every application, every library, every script – every single piece of software upgraded automatically for you. And on most of them, they will check for updates automatically and notify you. This is great for security, fixing bugs quickly, and getting the latest in features.

That sounds almost like Windows Updates. There’s a qualitative difference, though, between security updates and “latest features” — what I call the bleeding edge. That’s especially true when comparing updates between commercial vendors and those from open source projects, and it boils down to user threshold for instability. Projects like Ubuntu aren’t suitable for enterprise, in my opinion, because their six-month arbitrary release cycle is tied less to stability (and security!) than similar offerings from, e.g., Debian. Or Windows.

Moreover, software I use in Windows, like Firefox and Thunderbird, will prompt me when there are new versions for me to download. Or I can set them up to update automatically. I prefer a hands-on approach to see what’s fixed before I install something. I do that whether I’m using Windows or Linux or FreeBSD.

2. Update nearly everything on my computer without a reboot. On Linux, there is only one thing that requires a reboot after updates. The kernel. And even then you can continue to run on the previous kernel. You just need to reboot to get the benefit of using the new kernel (say, if it has a bug fix or a new feature).

Most Linux users I know shutdown and/or reboot their systems at least daily. I know many Windows users who leave their computers on 24/7 and don’t shutdown — their computers stay on until they make a system change that requires a reboot. You can do that. Windows doesn’t require daily or even weekly rebooting. This is hardly a reason to adopt one operating system over another unless there’s a pressing need for uptime, such as in a server setting. And that really doesn’t affect most desktop users.

3. Keep my system secure without software that consumes my system resources, requires my time, and frequently nags me.

Oh, so you don’t run Gnome or KDE or Sunbird or Open Office? Hahaha.

You don’t need a. Antivirus protection. AV software consumes resources and requires routine scans.

That’s not entirely true. There are rootkits and other malware that affect Unix-like operating systems — not to mention keyloggers, cross-scripting vulnerabilities, phishing, etc. The Internet is a dangerous place regardless which OS you choose to run. The resources of my Windows AV and firewall software combined run in less than 10 MB (8.3 to be precise). That’s not a high price to pay for security on a modern computer.

b. A software firewall like ZoneAlarm or the one built into Vista that constantly asks you if you want to allow software to contact the Internet. More time on your part.

Time?! It only constantly asks you such things if you don’t know how to configure it properly. How much time do you waste setting backgrounds and icons compared to properly setting up firewall rules?

c. Adblock Adaware and/or Spybot Search & Destroy on a routine basis, consuming your time, and requiring your manual intervention. People often forget or don’t “get around to it”.

Ever set up such things in Scheduled Tasks (Start-All Programs-Accessories-System Utilities)? It’s a lot like cron. It helps if you actually know what the tools are across platforms, not to mention how to use them. It’s also a lot more intuitive to set up than cron. Users who DO know how to use their tools can take care of such tasks without much “manual intervention” — even run them while their computers aren’t being used, just like scheduling system cron jobs in Linux and FreeBSD.

d. Never trusting software. You have to go through life assuming every bit of software and every website on the Internet is going to screw you over. What a sorry state of affairs that is.

Do you trust everything you use in Linux? Perhaps you should check out secunia and other security-related sites for examples of why you shouldn’t. Not all open source is safe. Only fools trust things implicitly regardless of operating system choice.

All of this requires your attention, slows your computer, and ruins the open experience of the Internet. None of this is necessary in Linux.

Bullshit. Total bullshit. The weakest link in any situation is the user, not the OS. The OS can make things easier or harder, but it comes down to the user knowing how to secure his computer and how to avoid compromising it by careless downloads, visiting untrusted sites, clicking on links in e-mails, etc. There are dumbasses using Linux who think they’re immune, there are Windows users who practice safe computing. It’s the USER, not the OS, that makes computing safe.

You get your software through your distribution. As long as you can trust your distribution, you can trust the software available.

Software distribution is something of an irony: I tend to use the same software in Windows that I use in FreeBSD and that I also used in Linux. Firefox, Thunderbird, vim, python, ruby, etc. It’s a comfort factor.

Having a firewall is a good thing even in Linux, but most of us have a firewall built into our Cable and DSL modems, or our wi-fi router.

A cable bridge isn’t a suitable firewall. Firewall software isn’t bloatware regardless of OS.

4. Run an entire operating system for free without pirating software, and without breaking the law..

I can also run Windows without resorting to piracy. I have multiple licenses. I happen to think the convenience of Windows — having something that works without the hoops Linux users have to jump through to get various drivers or wifi working — is well worth the cost of a license. I also don’t buy the FUD that Windows authentication is a hassle or invasion of privacy.

While unlikely, the potential is there for software companies to come after you just like the RIAA has come after countless people. With Linux, this isn’t necessary.

First, the people RIAA have gone after can actually be counted. Second, this is more bullshit especially when making points about running IE — proprietary software — in an emulator. Moreover, it depends how you intend to use open source software. The FSF and other groups do go after people they believe violate open source licenses, such as the case today with the lawsuit against Monsoon Multimedia. The point remains that you can run Windows legally without paying a lot of money: nearly all the same open source applications you run in Linux are available for Windows.

You can run the software you need without paying for it, and without breaking the law. I know I sleep better at night.

That’s nice. So you broke the law before you switched to Linux? In any event, someone with a Windows license can run many of the same open source applications without ever having to learn how Linux works.

5. Take my settings with me where ever I go.

So do I. See my pages on PortableApps. Since I use the same apps in Windows, FreeBSD, and Linux, I’m never without an excuse for not having my files or apps with me.

In Linux, all your personal settings are stored in your Home folder, most in folders that begin with a period (like .gaim). So, I can copy all these settings from one computer to another. I can put these settings on a USB drive. When I switched from Gentoo to Ubuntu, I kept all my settings.

Maybe you didn’t realize it, but you also have a similar file structure in Windows and it’s just as portable. Some of the same open source synchronization apps — look here — you use in Linux also run in Windows. And since that one I linked to is samba, it can work between Linux/BSD and Windows (with permissions issues since Unix-like differs from Windows; same issues when using CDs, DVDs, and USB storage).

6. Run Internet Explorer 5.0, 5.5, 6.0, and 7.0 on the same desktop. I have all installed thanks to the wonderful IEs4Linux project. I can even run them side-by-side if I want. For a web developer, that’s huge. Testing browser compatibility to that level on Windows requires multiple machines or something like VMWare. Further, when I run IE under Linux, I don’t have to worry about any malware or virus getting onto my system.

This kind of gullibility can only get people in big trouble. You run a browser in Linux that I don’t run in Windows. I run a browser in Windows that you can run in Linux. That doesn’t explain why anyone should run Linux instead of Windows or even OSX.

7. Understand everything that is going on in my computer. Linux is not a black box where you can see the outside, but you have no idea what is going on inside. Under Linux, you can look at the system logs, where you can see most issues.

Same is true for Windows — and its logs are just as useful in troubleshooting. Most distros are increasingly covering up boot processes just like Windows does (at least by default — you can set it up to boot without splash and see everything in its glory, like I do). I don’t think, though, you “understand everything” going on in your computer regardless of which OS you run.

You can search for the log messages on Google, and can usually track the cause and often find a fix.

Windows users do the same thing.

If not, I can even go look at the source code to find the offending problem. Granted, most people aren’t capable or don’t have the time to look at the source code.

Counting yourself. How well do you know C and the Linux kernel?

But the fact that tens-of-thousands of geeks do is often very, very helpful. And if you do spend the time filling out a bug report, you are helping other people just like yourself, not contributing your time to a rich software company.

That presumes that by “rich software company” you mean a software company that oversees fixing bugs that affect over 90% of computer users. That’s selfish of you. But that also suggests that all bugs are OS-specific and the purview of only one company (singular). Most issues and bugs are related to specific applications, not the OS itself. Microsoft doesn’t fix bugs that affect Firefox. Firefox users and maintainers do. Windows users participate in such bug-fixing, too. Because it benefits other users. Same as in the Linux world.

8. Customize every aspect of my desktop.

This can also be done in Windows. My Windows desktop looks more like NeXT than XP, squarish icons and auto-hide taskbar on the right side (and apps on a separate always-on-top bar across the top). There are plenty of options available to customize Windows XP and Vista appearances. Some are sold, some are free. The only thing it takes is creativity.

I can choose the window manager, the desktop environment, the theme, the GTK engine, the icon theme, the special effects (see Beryl or Compiz), the file system browser, and so on.

Ironic, so can I. Right down to choosing Crux for my GTK2 apps in Windows. I can also choose file managers, same as I can in FreeBSD or Linux. I’m not limited to what I have in my ports collection, what’s in apt pools, or what Ubuntu has in their repository. I can go buy one if it suits my needs. Wow.

Nearly every aspect of the system has competitive options. If you look around the internet at screenshots of various Linux desktops, you rarely see two that look the same.

Same with Windows. Look at the gallery above. I see as many bland Ubuntu desktops as I see bland default Windows desktops. The only thing that tells me is that the people using those computers have something to do, are go-getters, and aren’t time-wasters who can’t decide if they need 10% more transparency in their menus. Do you actually use your computer or sit around and admire your most recent screenshots?

9. Benefit from competition between projects for each system on my computer.

Windows users likewise benefit from competition. If you don’t like Norton, you can use Macaffee. There are also free and open source alternatives for Windows users. So Windows users have even more competition to benefit them.

As I mention in point 8, there are options for every aspect of the Linux desktop. Not only is it fun to try the various options,

Most Windows users are practical and want something that works rather than fiddling for weeks on end for something that fits their needs and without a list of half-assed or completely missing things in a project’s “to do” wiki.

but it leads to better software as multiple projects compete against each other to be the best.

How is that any different than in proprietary settings where companies have a vested interest in putting out the best possible product? This isn’t a selling point exclusive to open source, it’s one of the barriers to adoption of open source because there is often more than one fully functional proprietary option available to users. And if there isn’t and it’s a level playing field, there are perceptions that you get what you pay for.

Can you imagine competing printing backends, competing desktop environments, or competing USB mounting systems.

I can imagine connecting my webcam and printer in Windows and both working without any further interaction. I can also imagine trying to configure them both with certain distros, including one that’s supposedly among the best at automagic set up, and still not getting the webcam to work right. Not only can I imagine these scenarios, they’ve actually happened to me.

10. Learn about, support, and appreciate the value of free software.

Firefox. Thunderbird. Open Office. Abiword. Apache. Ruby. Python. Perl. Emacs. Vim. Pidgin. Ogg vorbis.

All of the above are open source. All of them are free. All of them will run on Windows.

I believe free software is important to us all.

So do I. I also believe there’s room for proprietary systems. People should be free to choose between systems that suit their own levels of comfort, their own needs, and have accurate information about their options. Unfortunately, those who are the most vocal proponents of Linux adoption are the least accurate about reasons why people should switch.

Even if you use non-free software, the free software movement ensures checks and balances on non-free software by offering an alternative. By running a free operating system and becoming involved in the community, I’ve contributed to free software, even if only in a small way.

I view competition favorably. There are some excellent open source software projects. There are also many half-assed projects up on SourceForge. They serve as a reminder for why there should always be proprietary software — because there are people are willing to pay for software development if it means the software is useful, usable, and fills needs.

I think that includes Windows. Windows fills a need that Linux doesn’t. It’s useful, it’s usable. It doesn’t have as steep a learning curve as Linux. It can be nailed down tighter than some Linux distros — Puppy and Dynebolic run as root-only, something Windows hasn’t done since the mid-90s — and adequately maintained by both free (as in beer) and open source projects.

I also think imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The increased prevalence by distros like PCLOS and Ubuntu of hiding boot processes, point and click management, automagic hardware detection and set up, and other things that make Linux look and “feel” more like Windows is why those distros are more popular with Windows refugees. I don’t think that’s enough in the long run, though, to win over the masses. Linux desktop adoption has plateaued and it’s below 5%. Windows still rules the desktop world.

And it’ll take much more convincing arguments — and much more accurate arguments — than those above if that’s ever going to change.

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