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TECHNOLOGY: There’s Life after Microsoft – Free Software Advocates

By Johanna Son

MUMBAI, India, Jan 24 2004 (IPS) - Vicente Ruiz, a Spanish advocate of the use of free software, feigned displeasure as he sat down to help a journalist working at the World Social Forum (WSF) in January. ”Aghh, Windows!” he quipped.

”Working with Windows is like being in prison,” fellow technical expert and free software campaigner, Juan Carlos Gentile of the free software group Hipatia, told IPS.

They are but two of the many experts who set out to prove at the Jan. 16-21, 2004 WSF – and hopefully beyond – that just as the forum’s slogan is ‘Another World is Possible’, another operating system – GNU/Linux – is also possible.

Thus, the desktop computers provided by the WSF in the media centre and other places all ran on the free operating system GNU/Linux. Microsoft Corp.’s Windows was almost a bad word here.

WSF media rules included a bar on news organisations bringing in Windows-based desktops, although personal notebooks were allowed in the media centre.

For free software advocates – including those from groups like Hipatia,, and the U.S.-based Free Software Foundation – said that the WSF was the right venue to mix technology and advocacy.

This also fit with the WSF organisers’ decision to choose what to make available on its grounds here – and what not to, such as products like Pepsi-Cola and Coke, produced by multinationals criticised by activists who gathered here to oppose capitalist-led globalisation.

Thus, this past week, users of computers provided at the WSF sat down to find desktop interfaces that were similar to Windows and allowed users to do things like word processing to image editing to Internet browsing – done through the Mozilla Firebird programme instead of Explorer – but were not quite Windows.

Looking back, the founder of GNU/Linux and the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, says he hopes the WSF experience showed many users – including journalists – that one ”does not have to be in Microsoft’s grip”.

In an interview with IPS, Stallman says that users and consumers must be able to have choices in products, including access to free and open-source software, in an environment where Microsoft systems remain ubiquitous and maintains the bulk of market share.

Shifting operating systems, he says, should be apt for those who question the profit-driven economic order and the high cost of proprietary software, be it Microsoft, Macintosh or others.

”Proprietary software has many people by the neck,” said Stallman, who launched the GNU project in 1984 and whose work stemmed from the years he spent at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the seventies. ”You spend a lot of money on software and you think you’re doing great,” quipped Prof. Jitendra Shah, a mechanical engineer providing technical support at WSF.

GNU is the software application that uses the Linux kernel to come up with this operating system, thus the name GNU/Linux (short for GNU’s NotLinux). There are now 15 ”distributions” of GNU/Linux systems to choose from, among the most popular being Debian and Knoppix, also used at WSF.

For Stallman and others, ‘free software’ does not mean zero-cost software as much as software that brings with it freedom from proprietary software, which is more expensive and whose source codes are bound by non-disclosure agreements.

Experts say a major shift is already underway. Data from Netcraft, which covers 46 million Internet sites, shows that the Apache web hosting system, which is based on Linux, holds 67.38 percent market share of top servers across all domains as January 2004. Microsoft had 21 percent market share.

The government of Munich in Germany now uses open-source software and the British government last year decided to pilot-test it. International Business Machines (IBM) also promotes it these days.

”About a year ago, things started to change. The cries that Linux would dethrone Microsoft remained the same, but there was a shift in the corporate reaction to those cries,” writer Charlie Demerjian said in a December article in on information technology. ”CEOs started to say ‘tell me about it’. In a down economy, free is much cheaper than hundreds of dollars, and infinitely more attractive. Linux started gaining ground with real paying customers using it for real work in the real world, really,” he said.

A study on ‘Linux vs. Windows’ by the Australia-based information technology firm Cybersource Pty Ltd reports that a total cost comparison over three years showed a 24.69 percent savings if Linux is used with if new hardware and infrastructure, compared to a Microsoft Windows system, and 34.26 percent savings if existing hardware and infrastructure is used.

Back at the WSF – which became a laboratory of sorts for this – journalists say they welcomed the opportunity to try out GNU/Linux, but said they would have preferred not to have been surprised by it in Mumbai.

Many told IPS that getting used to the different commands of non-proprietary software running on GNU/Linux, like openoffice – which carries out functions similar to Microsoft Office – requires a bit of time and cannot be done on the spot. Others had to remind themselves to save a document on openoffice with a ‘.doc’ extension for it to be readable if sent or e-mailed to a Windows machine.

”It’s good, but I could not afford to miss a deadline because of this so it was handier for me to use my Windows-based notebook,” said Agnes Aristiarini of the Jakarta-based ‘Kompas Daily’.

Hardware compatibility is not perfect either, something that GNU/Linux websites acknowledge. Hardware usually contains drivers for Windows and Macintosh systems, although this is slowly changing.

Babu Subramaniam, a layout designer, says that in the end, software is a tool that people should have a choice over – including using Microsoft or Macintosh programmes if this works best for them.

For all of the criticism of the Microsoft empire, the fact remains, he says, that Microsoft played a key role in making personal computers accessible to people all over the world.

Stallman, however, sees it differently. He encourages users to think about why they should use non-proprietary software, saying that not to care about the profits that proprietary software giants are making is akin to wearing shirts without caring if they were made in sweatshops or not.

Bruce Perens, well-known campaigner for the open source movement, told the British Broadcasting Corp this week that ”we have all of the Linux-based software we need for 80% of the people in the world. . . and when I say 80%, that’s all free software”.

Technical experts at WSF also explained that the fact that the source codes of GNU/Linux are open to everybody makes the system sturdier. Open source and free software can be installed on unlimited machines, unlike proprietary ones that require one copy for each computer.

One WSF media staffer says that after getting used to the operating system, ”I switched my computer at home too – it’s been fine. I’ve never had a virus.”

As for remarks that switching may not be easy for some, Ruiz compared getting used to GNU/Linux to going to a country for the first time and spending the usual few days to find one’s way around.

For his part, Stallman uses just one word to refer to the switch away from proprietary software: ”Escape”.

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