Getting to the source

Last month I said the government needn’t have spent $10 million on software for the country’s schools when they could have done it for $75. Actually, I exaggerated. It could be less.

Last month I said the government needn’t have spent $10 million on software for the country’s schools when they could have done it for $75. Actually, I exaggerated. It could be less.

This month’s column comes to you from a free word processor running on a free operating system. In fact, the entire office suite on my PC was free including the graphics package, the games, the internet mail, the browsing software and the firewall. And if I want to write my own programs or turn my machine into a web server, they’re here for nix. Updates are free and so are the latest programs. If I want to see how it all works and look at the lines of programming code that make this magic happen, that’s free too.

Well, it wasn’t quite free. The three-CD package and 350-page manual cost $75, and I’ve since installed it on my desktop and laptop as well as loaned the CDs to friends. So far there’s been half-a-dozen systems set up from those disks. But don’t call the software police. I could install this stuff on every PC in the country, all from the one package — legally.

The phenomenon is known as Linux. It started a little over 10 years ago when Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student, posted a message on the internet seeking help with a new operating system he was writing. Based on a much older and fiercely robust mainframe operating system called Unix, the project snowballed because, from the start, Linux was open source.

Mother tongue

Computer programs are written in special English-like languages that are converted into a format that computer chips understand. These statements are known as a program’s source code. The result of the conversion and what runs on your computer is known as executable code.

A program is easier to understand and alter if you can look at its source. But most programs are closed source, in that they’re developed by a handful of people within one private company, and only they have access to it. Open source programs, on the other hand, are freely available to everyone. You can copy them, change them and give them to your friends without paying fees or royalties.

That combination of open source and the internet have allowed tens of thousands of people from all over the world to freely contribute to Linux. But it’s a labour of love, not slave labour, and most of them do it for fun.

Linux’s biggest problem is that people don’t understand it. It doesn’t have a corporate image, a PR company, a sales manager or a marketing division. Lacking the supposed essentials of the modern business world, it tends to get overlooked, in spite of it forming much of the internet’s backbone. Still, many of the computer industry’s biggest companies support it, including IBM, Oracle, HP and SAP.

Software trap

If Linux is so good (and cheap!), why aren’t we using it in schools? Earlier this year the Korean government switched to Linux and HancomOffice, expecting savings of around 80% compared with using Microsoft products. The software now has a foot in the door of the European Commission’s e-Europe initiative, the German Bundestag, and open source office applications are now an upgrade option on many of the UK government’s two million desktops.

I think our government’s spend-up is misguided for several reasons. One is the cost; ten million bucks will buy a lot of books or buildings or sports equipment or teachers. And then there’s the new software/new hardware trap. Microsoft doesn’t sell software for old PCs. If you have a 386, 486 or early Pentium and no operating system, it’s tip material. The minimum requirements for Windows XP are a 300MHz PC with 128MB of RAM and 1.5GB of free disk space. If you want to do anything useful with it, you should at least double those demands. So the software deal means schools can’t take advantage of older, cheap but still perfectly serviceable equipment disposed of by businesses. If they want more PCs, they’ll have to buy new ones.

Linux will run on a 386 with 12MB of memory. You won’t get fancy graphics in that configuration as it’s text only, but you will get a fully networked, fully multi-tasking machine with a huge range of editors, applications, programming tools and, of course, internet software.

The cost of equipment is the most frequently mentioned obstacle in factors hindering technology use in schools.

Independent operators

Technology is merely a tool for finding answers. Teacher knowledge was the second-biggest inhibitor to technology uptake, according to the aforementioned report. Wouldn’t it be better to spend money training teachers how to use computer gear effectively?

Then there’s the security question. Schools face a big problem with kids bringing programs in from home. But Linux won’t run a Windows program without special (commercial) software. You can exhange documents and graphics quite freely, but you won’t get a Windows virus, Trojan horse or worm. And if students want to know how a program works or change it by adding features, with Linux you can give them the source code and tools to turn it into executable code. Instead of merely consuming software, they could start producing their own.

The usual argument against Linux is that it’s different. It’s not. It works the same as BeOS, Macintosh, Windows and countless other graphical systems that have emerged over the years. Is the aim to teach children how to use software, or how to use one brand of software? Let me use this analogy. How many types of car can you drive? Whether they’re diesel, petrol, manual, automatic, left or right-hand drive, a couple of seconds familiarity and you’re away. Software’s the same.

Install Geoff’s selection of free software from our CD.

Linux myths

1. If it’s free it must be nasty, inferior or flaky. On the contrary, Linux is leading edge. Its open nature means new features are continually being added.

2. It’s not robust. Bzzzt! Wrong. Linux’s stability is legendary, much more so than Windows.

3. Free software’s full of viruses. Wrong again. Can you name one Linux virus?

4. Open source means open access. That can’t be secure.

Security through obscurity doesn’t work. Open source means thousands of eyeballs are on the code, looking for weaknesses. That actually makes it stronger. While Microsoft internet servers were collapsing under the Code Red worm last year, Linux servers running Apache steamed on regardless.

5. Free software’s anti-business. No. Forking out thousands each year for insignificant improvements and never-used features is actually anti-business. Wouldn’t the money be better spent elsewhere?

6. Linux is different. No, it isn’t. It works the same as any other operating system. Sit most users in front of a Linux PC and they wouldn’t know the difference.

7. It’s not compatible with Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc. That depends on what package you use. OpenOffice and StarOffice, for example, can both read and write in those and many other formats. (Both, incidentally, are available for Windows.)

Should I try Linux?

Why not? If you want to know more about what you need and the problems you might face, read my column “Tux moves in”.

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