WHY LINUX IS BETTER III part


No backdoors in your software.

The difference between “closed source” (proprietary) and “open source” software is (how did you guess?) that their “source” is open. Huh, okay, why do I care? Well, the “source”, or “source code”, is like the secret recipe of every software, like the recipe of a cake. When you buy a cake, there’s no way you can figure out the exact recipe (although you can guess bits and pieces, “there’s some coconut in here”). If a bakery gave out the recipe for its super-sucessful cheesecake, it would soon go out of business because people would bake it for themselves, at home, and stop buying it. Likewise, Microsoft does not give out the recipe, or “source code”, of their software, like Windows, and rightly so because that’s what they make their money from.

The problem is they can put whatever they want in their recipe, without us knowing. If they want to add a bit of code saying “every 12th of the month, if the computer is online, create a list of all the files that have been downloaded in this computer since last month, and send it back to Microsoft through the network”. Microsoft probably doesn’t do that, but how would you know, since everything is closed, invisible, secret?

A little while ago (October 2008) a lot of Chinese Windows users (most of them buy pirated copies of Windows) saw something strange happen with their computer: every hour, their screen would go black for a few seconds. Nothing to really prevent you from working, but it can easily make you go nuts. Microsoft had added a bit of code (an ingredient to the recipe) saying “if this is detected as a pirated copy of Windows, make the screen black for a few seconds, every hour”. Now the point is not that the software was pirated: pirating software is bad, period. The point is that these users got an automatic update for Windows (updates usually fix bugs and add new features) without knowing how it would affect their system. No one knew.

Changing the source code of open source software is a much more open process. By definition, all the recipes are public. It doesn’t matter to you since you won’t be able to understand the code anyway, but people who understand it can read it, and speak out. And they often do. Every time someone wants to change the source code, all other developers are able to see the change (“hey man, why did you add this code spying on the user’s keyboard input, are you out of your mind?”). And even if the whole team of maintainers for a piece of software go crazy and start adding puppy-killing features all over their source code, someone outside the team can very well take the code, remove all the bad bits, create a whole new version of it, and let the world know what the difference is. It’s open.

That’s why you can be sure open source software doesn’t do bad things behind your back: the community keeps a close eye on all the recipes.

 

Enjoy free and unlimited support

One of the great assets of the Open Source community (and Linux in particular), is that it’s a real community. Users and developers really are out there, on web forums, on mailing lists, on IRC channels, helping out new users. They’re all happy to see more and more people switch to Linux, and they’re happy to help them get a grip on their new system.

So if there’s something you don’t understand, a program that doesn’t behave the way you would expect, or a feature that you can’t seem to find, don’t hesitate to go and ask for help. If there’s somebody near you (family? co-workers?) who is using Linux, he or she will probably be happy to help you out. Otherwise, just go online and you’ll find literally thousands of places where nice people will answer you and walk you out of your problem most of the time: geeks actually are very nice people, if you ask your question politely. Just type “linux help” (or replace “linux” with whatever distribution you chose — see the install section) in Google and you’ll undoubtedly find everything you need.

 

Too many windows? Use workspaces.

I never was a Windows user and there is something I just cannot understand: once you have your word processor, your web browser, your email application, your instant messenger software and some windows open to explore your files, how do Windows users manage not to get lost in this clutter?

Workspaces is a feature I would never trade for anything else. You probably only have one screen, right? Try Linux, and you have four. Well, you can’t actually look at the four of them at the same time, but this doesn’t matter since your eyes can’t look in two directions at once, right? On the first screen, lets put your word processor. On the second one, your instant messenger software. On the third one, your web browser. So when you’re writing something in your word processor and you want to check out something on the web, no need to review all your windows to find your browser, stacked all the way behind the others. You just switch to your third screen and voilà, here it is.

Take a look at the following screen, and pay particular attention to the bottom right of the screen:

That’s your “workspace switcher”. You can see it has four (virtual) screens, but you can have more than this (I use 12 of them, but some people have many more). The one on the left is highlighted: it’s the current one. To switch to another one, just click on the one you want (each one of them shows a small preview of the windows they contain: in this case the three others are empty), or use a keyboard shortcut.

 

No big mess in your start menu

If you use Windows and have installed quite a few pieces of software on your computer, chances are your Start menu starts to look something like this:

Looks pretty normal to you? Well, you’re probably used to this by now, but isn’t it a bit of a mess? And it gets worse the more you install software.

All installable pieces of software for Linux come with information on what kind of software they contain, so that the user (that would be you!) doesn’t need to do anything to keep applications neatly sorted into categories:

 

Reporting bugs

If you find a bug in Windows, you can basically wait and pray that Microsoft will fix it fast (and if it compromises your system’s security, you would have to pray twice as hard). You might think that reporting that bug to Microsoft (so that they can fix it more quickly) must be easy. Well, think again. Here is an interesting article about this. What if Microsoft doesn’t even notice the bug? Well then, let’s hope the next version of Windows will fix it (but you’ll need to pay another few hundred bucks).

Nearly all open source software (including Linux distributions) have a bug tracking system. You can not only file bug reports (and you’re encouraged to do so!) explaining what the problem is, but you can see what happens next : everything is open and clear for everyone. Developers will answer, they also might ask a little extra information to help them fix the bug. You will know when the bug has been fixed, and you will know how to get the new version (still for free, needless to say). So here you have people taking care of your problems, keeping you informed about it, and all that for free! If the problem is solved on your system, it will be on everyone else’s : it’s in everyone’s interest to work together to make software better. This is how open source works.

 

Are your tired of restarting your computer all the time?

Have you just upgraded one or two little things on your Windows system with “Windows update”? Please reboot. Have you just installed some new software? Please reboot. Does your system seem unstable? Try to reboot, everything will probably work better after that.

Windows always asks you to restart your computer, and that can be annoying (maybe you happen to have a long download going on, and you don’t want to interrupt it just because you updated a few pieces of your system). But even if you click “Restart later”, Windows still keeps bothering you every ten minutes to let you know that you really should restart the computer. And if you happen to be away from your computer and you didn’t see the question, it will happily reboot automatically. Bye bye long download.

Linux basically doesn’t need to restart. Whether you install new software (even very big programs) or perform routine upgrades for your system, you will not be asked to restart the computer. It is only necessary when a part from the heart of the system has been updated, and that only happens once every several weeks.

Do you know Internet servers? They’re the big computers that answer you when you ask for a web page, and send the information to your browser. Most of them run Linux, and since they need to always be available (a visitor could come anytime), they aren’t restarted very often (services aren’t available while the system is starting). Actually, many of them haven’t restarted for several years. Linux is stable, it runs perfectly well without restarting all the time.

You’ll probably not let your computer stay on for several weeks but the point is: the system won’t bother you with restarting all the time.

 

Let your old computer have a second life

Windows requires more and more hardware power as its version number increases (95, 98, 2000, Me, XP, etc.). So if you want to keep running Windows, you need to constantly buy new hardware. But I can’t see any good reason for so fast an evolution. Of course, many people need a lot of computer power and new hardware and technologies are really helping them. But for most users, who surf the web, read and write emails, write text files and slides, what’s the point of buying a new computer every 2, 3 or 4 years, apart from letting computer vendors earn more money? What is exactly the profound reason why your computer can’t do any more of what it did perfectly well 5 years ago?

Linux runs perfectly well on older hardware, on which Windows 7 would probably even refuse to install, or leave you waiting for 20 seconds after each click. Of course, Linux won’t make a race-winner out of your 12-year old computer, but it will run very well on it and allow you to perform usual tasks (surfing the web, writing documents, etc.) just fine. The very computer that delivers this page to you is not very young and runs Linux: if you can read this, then it is up and running (and if the website loads slowly, blame my Internet connection only).

 

Help other countries, and your own

(Thanks to Gabriel E. Patiño — gepatino {at}gmail {dot} com — for the idea and first version of the text)

Microsoft is an USA company, and its success is great for the American economy.

But if you don’t live in the USA, when you buy propietary software (eg Windows), about a half of the money goes directly to the software company’s HQ (eg Microsoft’s): that money leaves your country, while the other half stays in (sales commissions, etc.: no technical benefits). Your country is not producing anything, and you don’t even need qualified people to sell boxes. That leads to IT professionals with no high level knowledge who only install and configure proprietary software without the option of modifying/learning/customizing it.

With Free Software (eg Linux), the economy (and IT professionals’ knowledge) of your country could improve, since there could be a lot of small/medium companies customizing solutions, providing support, consulting, etc.

People who know how to do things and retain money in your country will benefit from it, rather than people who just sell boxes with a predefined sales pitch, sending your money offshore, leaving IT professionals without real knowledge about how things work.

 

Use MSN, AIM, ICQ, Jabber, with a single program

You may have accounts for several instant messaging services, such as MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Jabber, AIM, etc. While running Windows or Mac OS X, you probably need one program to connect to each one of those : MSN Messenger for MSN, ICQ for ICQ, etc.

With Pidgin, the instant messenger for Linux (it exists for Windows as well, and for Mac OS X with the name “Adium”), you can connect to all these services at once, with this one program, and see all your buddies at the same time.

 

 

Get a great music player

Linux has many music players (including AmaroK, Rhythmbox, Banshee, etc.), and some of them are great. Check out AmaroK for example (see the screenshot): it manages and plays your music perfectly, learns which tunes you prefer, automatically fetches their title (and lyrics) on the Internet, and even gets the CD covers for you!

 

 

Keep an eye on the weather.

Are you tired of having a thermometer outside your window and go check it before getting out? Just take a look at your Linux screen and keep an eye on the weather :

Of course, Linux doesn’t force you to do anything, so you can place this anywhere you want on your screen, or just not have it at all (after all, isn’t it nicer to have a look through your window?). You can select the place where you live (or anywhere else) in a complete list of locations (OK, I cheated, I chose Honolulu for the screen capture, it’s 2°C right now in Paris!).

 

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