Sunday, October 28, 2012

Breaking the Monopoly: Windows Vs. Linux


Note: This is an essay I wrote for my comp class
We all are familiar with the Windows operating system created by Microsoft. It comes pre-built into nearly every new computer one can buy. Virtually all Americans learned on a computer equipped with Windows. All well-known games and programs work on it. Why then, one might wonder, would one want to try any alternative, especially one like Linux that, as everybody knows, requires a PhD in Information Technology to use?  I  intend to put to rest some common myths about Linux and explain why everyone should, at the very least, become familiar with the Linux operating system .
As an amateur aficionado of open source software in general, and Linux in particular, I have used and installed the Linux operating system on my own computers and some of my friends. I have also made a point of learning the theory and history behind the open-source movement.
Before I go any further, let me explain the primary differences between Linux and its more widely-used competitor Windows.  Windows is proprietary, meaning that the Microsoft Corporation alone owns the code and can do whatever it wants with it, whether that be supporting it, dropping it, or withholding it.  Linux is open-source, meaning that everyone has access to the code behind it, and all versions of Linux can be freely supported by programmers within the Linux community. Also Windows costs money; if one buys a computer with Windows pre-loaded, the cost of the Windows operating system is included in the price.  Linux can be downloaded free of charge.
I recently installed Linux on a friend’s computer for her.  Her computer had come installed with Windows Vista Home Premium. Unfortunately, when I had to install a new hard drive, Windows decided that was too big a change in hardware, and refused to accept the product key that came with her computer. Instead it prompted us to buy a new copy of Windows. Yes, for the same computer.  Windows can do this; it’s a monopoly. It’s the only game in town …or at least that’s what most people have been led to believe.
Microsoft can also force a user to buy new upgrades, whether he wants them or not.  It does this by ending support on the old versions. Remember Windows 2000? Many people were perfectly happy with it, but when Microsoft quit supporting it, they had to change.  Without updates from Microsoft, viruses can and will enter a computer, and since Windows is proprietary software, only Microsoft can help people maintain their Windows operating system.  If Microsoft doesn’t want to support an older version anymore, there’s nothing anyone can do about it because Microsoft owns all access to the code.
So say someone decides to upgrade her operating system to something like Vista or Windows 7.  Maybe that old computer can’t handle the shiny new versions of Windows. You see, Windows takes up a lot of space on the hard drive, and uses a great deal of memory and other resources, and the newer the version, the greater the waste.  So she has to buy a new computer.  Then maybe her old scanner, which still works great, has to go because there are no drivers for it that work with the new operating system. Now she’s put out $200 for a new operating system, which will itself be unsupported and obsolete in a few years, plus she’s had to replace her computer, her scanner, her printer and her cameras (and if she hasn’t, she will the next time she upgrades). I’ve been through this process myself, and found the wastefulness of it very depressing.
Regarding my friends computer, she really had no option; she simply couldn’t afford to buy a new Windows product key.  Fortunately I was able to install Linux and educate her enough about its use that she now has a working computer that will last her many years.
Many people, uninformed about alternatives, would have given up on the computer altogether, bought a new one, or purchased a new product key.  Most people either don’t know enough about Linux to consider it, or they have been told many of the myths about Linux that are simply untrue.
The biggest of these myths is, of course, that Linux is hard to use; that one must be a programmer.  My friend thought at first that her computer was going to be nothing more than a terminal and that she’d have to know all kinds of code. She was surprised to find that it had an interface with a start button, and all the links and accessories you’d find on a Windows screen. To help her begin to use Linux, I put a link on her desktop to a beginners’ page on the Ubuntu Linux forums, where she can go to ask questions and get answers from  hundreds of people around the world.
As for installing Linux,  the easiest way – if one just wants to try it out and not replace Windows completely – is to use the Wubi installer (“Introduction,” 2012). This requires no fancy formatting and the instructions are easy to follow.
Another myth is that Linux programs are completely incompatible with Microsoft‘s; that, for instance, it is not possible to write a document on a Linux program that can be read by someone with a conventional Windows computer and Microsoft office.  The truth is, OpenOffice and LibreOffice – two office programs used by Linux – can both save documents in the .docx format which is read by Microsoft Office.  The same goes for spreadsheets and presentations.  Images created in the open-source program GIMP can be saved as the same image formats used by Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Paint.  The biggest difference between the programs used by Linux and those commonly used by Windows users is that they,  like Linux, are free and open source (and as a side note, all of these open source programs will also run on Windows).
One cannot mention operating systems without discussing security.  Thousands of viruses are written every year, and if one keeps up with Microsoft updates, one doesn’t have to worry about most of them. That’s if one remembers to update. Unfortunately most of these viruses are targeted at the Windows operating systems.  As I mentioned earlier, if a Windows version is no longer supported, and a user doesn’t update often enough, that user is a sitting target. 
There are a number of reasons why Linux is more secure than Windows.  One reason is that normal Linux users by default don’t have root access. That means that viruses that get in also don’t have access to anything deeper than the local user files (Noyes, 2010). Another reason is what’s known as “Linus Law,” (after Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux) which states that “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”(Raymond, 2002)  In other words, the fact that the code is available to all means that bugs and exploits are found sooner and corrected. 
In addition to being more secure, Linux is also faster than Windows.  Recently the video game company Valve, which produces Left for Dead II, announced that its game runs faster on Linux Ubuntu 12.4 than on Windows 7 and published the benchmark data to prove it (Kingsley-Hughes, 2012). When a top game manufacturer gets involved in the debate, computer users – gamers or not – are wise to take notice. 
Much has been said about donating old computers for schools and such, but the proprietary nature of Windows means that old computers are virtually worthless, if you consider Windows to be the only practical operating system.  A sixth-grade teacher named Robert Litt proved that it wasn’t when he furnished a computer lab for his school with donated, older computers that had been fitted with Linux (Elizabeth, 2012).  In this way waste can be reduced and old computers kept out of landfills.
Another way that Linux helps the environment is through packaging. Basically, there isn’t any. Whereas Windows comes in a box with all the necessary padding needed to protect one small disc, Linux can be downloaded onto a thumb drive or re-useable DVD, thus keeping more waste out of landfills.
With Windows, Microsoft has a near monopoly, with Apple’s MacOS a distant second.  More choices, or the awareness of more choices, would create more competition and help break up the monopoly Microsoft holds.  Which brings me to the most important reason to try Linux: to become a more informed consumer. The more people know that there is an alternative to Windows, and the more they feel comfortable using it, the more Microsoft will have to compete if they want to remain on top.  That means better operating systems, better value, and better service. Even if a user only tests Linux and never switches to it completely, he is making a statement that they know there’s more than one player in the game, and that statement is phenomenal.
I hope I’ve shown that Linux is easy to install, easy to use, and it’s free: free as in ‘no cost,’ but also free for developers to improve upon.  It is faster and more secure than Windows. It can greatly extend the life of your computer.  Using Linux helps fight monopolization, thus it’s better for democracy. It’s better for the environment.  Finally, the strongest reason for trying Linux is that it will make you a more informed consumer.
Did I mention it’s free?
References
Elizabeth. (2012, August 3). How One Teacher Built a Computer Lab for Free | iFixit. iFixit.org. Retrieved October 20, 2012, from http://ifixit.org/3001/how-one-teacher-built-a-computer-lab-for-free/
Introduction: Wubi Ubuntu Installer. (2012, October 10). Wubigude. Retrieved October 20, 2012, from https://wiki.ubuntu.com/WubiGuide
Kingsley-Hughes, A. (2012, August 2). Valve: Linux runs our games faster than Windows 7 | ZDNet. ZDNet. Retrieved October 20, 2012, from http://www.zdnet.com/valve-linux-runs-our-games-faster-than-windows-7-7000002060/
Noyes, K. (2010, October 3). Why Linux Is More Secure Than Windows | PCWorld. PCWorld. Retrieved October 20, 2012, from http://www.pcworld.com/article/202452/why_linux_is_more_secure_than_windows.htm
Raymond, E. (2002, August 2). The Cathedral and the Bazaar. The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Retrieved October 20, 2012, from http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/index.html

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