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WHY I USE LINUX


By Sam Varghese (sambo@goldensun.com)

At the outset let me make one thing clear: I am not a techie. I dislike people who use complicated acronyms in order to appear more computer literate than their neighbours and friends and, as a journalist, I am involved in a constant battle to translate techno-babble into language that is understood by the common man.

I use Linux. In fact, I like it very much and am slowly migrating over from that horror story called Windows. It takes time to find and install software that can take over all the tasks that one was painfully carrying out under Windows, tasks that were interrupted a dozen times in a day by that incomprehensible "fatal error" dialogue box. More so when one has been chained to the most mediocre of operating systems for nearly four years.

Let me use a couple of simple analogies to explain the philosophy behind Linux. Think of a person who has a recipe for a dish that tastes great. This person is more than willing to reveal the recipe to all and sundry so that improvements can be made, no matter the culture from which the improvements come. There is every chance that, given the input of a dozen cultures or more, the recipe would be modified in such a way as to be much better than the original. And everybody shares in the outcome, everybody is richer for the experience. That's the Linux way.

Of course, nobody prevents a person from profiting from the recipe if they make some constructive changes; the only condition is that the new recipe be released to everybody for further modification if people are so inclined or for everybody to benefit from the changes that have already been made.

On the other hand, think of a restaurant where they are secretive about their recipes. If you question whether they can vary the taste of adish, they tell you that you can either eat it the way they make it or else go away. You have to pay and also take the stuff they dish out in the way they do it. Given these two choices, which one would you choose?

The first scenario is a difficult one for the ones who make modifications are not guaranteed any profit. They often do it because the job is its own reward; nobody can quantify the pleasure that producing a beautiful work of art brings. And they are more than willing to share it around.

The other analogy I use is that of the old man who, while on his deathbed, called his sons around and gave them a stick apiece. He asked them to try and break the sticks. Each boy was able to do it with ease. Then he asked one boy to collect all the sticks and try to break them together. The boy could not. The lesson was simple -- unity is strength. If you have a problem with a commercial operating system and call the manufacturer, he or she is not going to write a driver or modify anything to solve your problem. If it happens to be a bug (and most of the time it is with Windows), then you have to wait until the next release or service pack to get a fix. Linux works differently -- you ventilate your problem on your user group's mailing list (there are mailing lists all over the world) and somebody or the other always gives you a fix. You learn collectively. I've learnt a lot this way.

Linux poses a challenge to me. I need to get a little closer to the guts of my computer to get the maximum mileage out of it but the rewards are great: my machine rarely hangs, I can start and restart individual processes without having to restart my computer, and I can download and use software which was written for one reason -- to produce stuff that is lean, mean and does the job well. How else can one account for Samba which is now a standard package used for file and print sharing between a Linux box and Windows boxes?

Linux isn't difficult to use. But like any new operating system which one attempts to learn, it takes time. Most people who migrate to Linux are impatient because they want to it to work (?) the way Windows does. It is a mighty good thing that Linux works differently, that's for sure! Nobody wants all the errors and mess that Windows creates, the instability, the inability to run third-party applications as well (or badly) as Microsoft products or the famous "fatal error" messages. Those are some of the reasons for looking for an alternative. Indeed, I would ask these people -- did you know how to use Windows right away? No, you had to learn, painfully. The learning process takes time, no matter what the package.

Linux standards are slowly evolving. There are many different flavours of Linux -- Red Hat, OpenLinux, SuSE, Debian, FreeBSD, Slackware, Linux Mandrake etc. There are common elements to all distributions and the graphic user interfaces offered are a delight. One can use this or that; some swear by Red Hat, others by Debian. And there are those who will not touch anything other than Linux-Mandrake.

You can take your pick. I use Red Hat and find it more than adequate for my needs. I particularly like the way software is managed by an installation manager called the Red Hat Package Manager which installs programs, uninstalls (and does not leave any bits lying around), and tracks all dependencies. It is a sobering thought that the one little CD which I bought for 15 Australian dollars at a local newsagent contains all the software that can run a whole network or an Internet service!

I like to work uninterrupted, switch between applications as I wish and sometimes forget to off my computer and leave it on for days on end. Linux gives me the freedom to do all this and more. It is not a hog on resources. Memory is managed efficiently. I do not have to worry about upgrading my hardware; in fact, I can buy an old 386 and still run the same operating system. Basically, it is a question of picking a good operating system which allows me to do things my way (and will allow everybody who uses it to customise it their way as well). As one would when trying to pick a winner in a race, one chooses the best horse. One does not pick a donkey. I rest my case.

Note :   Sam Verghese is a  Journalist based in   Australia .  He is a friend and a wellwisher of GoldenSun. He has agreed to   write for this   page whenever he finds time .

 


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