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Free as in Freedom: Part Two: Linux for the "Rest of Us"

By Adam Engel

[NOTE: all dialog is culled from email conversations unless otherwise noted --AE].

I was fortunate to have found the perfect guide for my journey through the politics of GNU/Linux past and present, Ben Okopnik, Editor-in-Chief of the Linux Gazette (LG). Yoga instructor and practitioner, Unix instructor and practitioner, writer, editor and Linux aficionado, Ben was both open to new ideas, familiar with "old" ones, and willing and able to point me in the various directions I needed to go to "explain the GNU/Linux model" to mostly non-technical "left" and "progressive" readers.

Okopnik wrote, "Linux is inextricably political - and deliberately so, from its very inception. The OS itself is a tool, as sharp, bright, and beautiful as it may be; creating a better world, in which human beings cooperate rather than fight each other 'to achieve the same exact ends' is, from my perspective, the goal."

It was Okopnik who urged me to publish this article under a GPL-like license and pointed me to the website where this could be done in minutes.

Okopnik wrote,"Please consider releasing this interview under the Open Publication License (the OPL is available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/), or something similar. It's not a condition of the interview, but I'd strongly prefer it. This license respects your commercial rights and can be "adjusted" to suit your exact purposes; it's the license under which all LG articles are published," he wrote.

[ This interview was originally slated for publication in political venues rather than LG; however, I found the end result interesting enough that I asked Adam to release it here as well. Besides, I've never seen my name in print before, and wanted to seize a unique opportunity. :) -- Ben ]

"If you release this interview under the OPL, you can define whatever restrictions on distribution you choose; as an example, Cory Doctorow, an excellent and highly-popular writer (see http://craphound.com/) recently released several of his books under the OPL. He talks about his experience on the site, and as a result of that experience has actually eased off on the restrictions he originally imposed. Nor is he the first by far; take a look at, e.g., MIT's OpenCourseWare site: http://ocw.mit.edu/index.html. (Good resource to bookmark in any case.)"

"In order to license this article, I just have to declare it?" I asked.

"Yep, " wrote Okopnik. "Do a run-through of the 'wizard' at http://creativecommons.org/license/ to make sure that you have exactly the license you want - it only takes a few seconds - and it'll generate the legal notice you need. Nice and neat."

I wrote, "I don't have to apply to anyone for approval?"

Okopnik wrote, "Nope; you're The Boss when it comes to licensing your own stuff. Isn't that nice?"

Okopnik also gave me another perspective on the GNU revolution and its major and minor aspects. For instance, the FSF's insistence on calling "Linux" GNU/Linux though valid, violates the peoples' tendency to abbreviate (hence the many abbreviations and acronyms in the Unix/GNU/Linux operating systems themselves), and according to Software Developer and Systems Designer Paul Ford (author of the popular Ftrain website), the 'GNU/' prefix came too late in the game. All the "Linux" books and CDs had gone to print; the word "Linux" came to mean both the kernel and operating system, though Linus Torvalds and supporters developed the kernel and GNU the other essentials of the OS.

"Looking through my 55 MB 'sent mail' archive (gads, but I do a lot of writing! :), I find myself using the term 'GNU/Linux' exactly once, back in 2000," wrote Okopnik.

Ford wrote, "Everyone I know calls it 'Linux.' Everyone appreciates Richard Stallman's extraordinary contributions. He's a genius, and has a MacArthur genius grant to prove it. But the 'GNU/' prefix was added a few years too late. I'll call it GNU/Linux in writing, sometimes, though. Honestly, I don't care what people call it. That entire debate seemed anathema to the open source ethos, too similar to someone protecting their registered trademark."

Regardless of what it's called -- I'll call it GNU/Linux out of respect for its GNU origins -- GNU/Linux is a political phenomenon, the creation of user/developers for its own sake, or rather, for their own sake. Rather than succumb to the Microsoft Monopoly, which places Windows on virtually every PC sold in America, they created their own free system and licensed it not for the benefit of an elite few, but for anyone with the capability to alter the code, or learn how to alter it (admittedly an elite group, but one based on merit and intellectual, rather than corporate, "capital").

Okopnik describes the "typical" Linux user thus:

"I don't want to idealize Linuxers in my answers; none of us humans are perfect saints, and the wild bunch who cleave to this OS and this community are little different in that respect. However, just as exaggeration in teaching is used to emphasize a point, isolating or highlighting the common trends and traits in this case can provide an interesting introduction. Keeping that in mind -

"The average Linux user, in my experience, is a product of a filtering process - several of them, in fact. As in Darwin's description, the selective pressure is not necessarily powerful, but is eventually definitive; those who have, and propagate, the more effective traits are better equipped to survive in a given environment.

"The first, and key, characteristic evident in Joe Linuxer is that he's a maverick (Jane Linuxer is arguably even more so) - perhaps even somewhat of a rebel; in any case, an individualist. The desire to not be one of the herd, to not have to put up with chewing the same stale cud as everyone else, often propels these people into experimentation with various facets of their lives. Their computer-usage experience is just one of those facets. Linux users tend strongly toward the non-usual - for all the good and bad that this implies.

"Secondly, they tend to be capable -- not necessarily able to build a spaceship out of a bicycle and cook a seven-course meal out of cupboard scrapings, but willing to assume that they can do, build, repair, "handle" things. (As a closely-coupled trait, they're often tinkerers, always trying to unscrew the inscrutable. May the Great Ghu help the Universe if one of us gets hold of the master key.) Larry Wall, the creator of the Perl programming language, spoke of the three great virtues of a programmer (Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris); impatience, by Larry's definition, is the anger a programmer feels when the computer is being lazy, which causes him to create long-term solutions rather than short-term Band-Aids. Linuxers are often excellent examples of this laudable kind of impatience - and Linux provides the opportunity to exercise it effectively.

"As a result, Linuxers tend to feel a sense of ownership of their system; they have not only gone out of the common path to install a different OS but have tinkered with it, tweaked it, made it uniquely "theirs" - and just as, e.g., long-distance sailors grant each other the respect due to those who face the challenges of the ocean, Linuxers gather in communities in which respect (specifically, respect for knowledge, competence, and contribution to the community - but several other flavors coexist as well) is the common thread as well as the coin of the realm."

KDE and GNOME: Linux for "The Rest of Us"

I first came to GNU/Linux in 1996, when it was already a world-wide phenomenon, but still a 'techie/hacker' thing. I was on the command-line for six months before I installed X-windows; nevertheless, I was surprised at the number of alternatives a Unix-type system gave me, especially as a writer in terms of text formatting, manipulation, etc.; Emacs, Vim and though I didn't get into Tex or nroff, I used Applixware to do the formatting one does in a WYSIWYG word-processor.

I wrote to Okopnik, "Because of various jobs I took as both a free-lance and cubicle-bound ad-man and copywriter, I had to install Windows merely to run 'Word' and 'Powerpoint' and gradually moved away from Linux for about four years. When I came back to it with SuSE 9.0 in December of 2003 I was astonished. KDE (KDE.org's free desktop environment), GNOME (GNU's free desktop environment), Open Office (OpenOffice.org's free office suite), the whole new GUI interface floored me.

Okopnik wrote, "This is not an uncommon reaction in this venue. The rates of growth and development in Linux are simply phenomenal - and still accelerating."

I wrote to Okopnik, "KDE and GNOME, especially KDE 3.1x, worked as well as or better than the Win2000 I had installed four years ago, and I've yet to experience a full crash -- that's par for the daily use of Windows 2000. More significantly, I was turned onto the 'New Linux' by someone who knew about as much about the GNU/Linux command-line as the typical Windows user knows about Unix's retarded younger brother, DOS.

"Similarly, I turned someone else who was sick of Microsoft's shoddy but expensive products to the mind-boggling array of free software programs that run under GNU/Linux, though he had neither the time nor the inclination to learn about the operating system. Like many users, all he wanted and needed was a word-processor, a browser, a mail program, some games, and as little trouble as possible. SuSE 9.0 provided him with all of these things, and now, after a year on GNU/Linux, he knows slightly more about the command-line than he did DOS. But no desire to go back to Windows.

"Have you noticed more of an interest in Linux or an enhanced readership for the Linux Gazette since Linux became both market and user friendly? If so, are these new users less interested in the 'technical' aspects than in having a stable GUI-based system to use for work and email and net-surfing?"

Okopnik responded, "Actually, this is an issue that I brought up in an involved discussion with the LG staff and the Answer Gangsters (The Answer Gang answers Linux questions sent to us by our readers, and the discussions and the answers become part of LG.) My viewpoint here is that it's actually a very good thing - modulo the awareness that the command-line (CLI) exists. That is, people are perfectly welcome to come to Linux and use only its GUI capabilities as long as this serves their needs - but when the GUI proves insufficient, the capabilities of the CLI are there, just underneath, providing the perfect security blanket.

"In an article I wrote for Java Developers Journal, I related an example of this. I had a client whose Web developer left them in the lurch with several hundred HTML files without the '.html' extensions. This wouldn't be too bad by itself - renaming a group of files isn't difficult - but the thousands of HTML links within the files referred to those extensionless names as well. With GUI-only tools, this is a nearly-unsolvable disaster. From the CLI, it was a matter of a single short line of code:

perl -i -wpe 's/(<a href="[^"]+)/$1.html/g' *
The readership of The Linux Gazette (LG) has certainly changed over time. Where we used to get dozens of questions on fairly technical topics in The Answer Gang, we now get only a few - and they tend to be simpler, less technical. The email I get from our readers indicates that there has indeed been a definite shift in the user base; the old Linuxer who would bang on a problem for hours so that it could be reported (and quickly fixed) is being... well, not replaced, but reduced, percentage-wise, as the mainstay of the population. The new user is often just that - a computer user who just wants that email/web/document/spreadsheet processor and maybe a few games on the side. There is, however, a cultural shift that occurs even in those users after a while: you cannot live in a society based on a given moral premise and ignore that premise, or even stop it from penetrating into your life (even if you try to prevent it.) The original "hacker ethic" of Linux lives on, strong as ever in those who use the full extent of this OS, and inherent (and growing, however slowly) in those who use it even without that full knowledge."

Paul Ford wrote, "I used to think there was too much emphasis in the community on claiming the desktop, trying to compete with Windows, but the latest GNOME is attractive and elegant, and works great, looks as good as MacOS X, and doesn't feel like a thin skin over Unix at all. It's an environment I could use every day. So I was wrong--the desktop was a good aim, it just took a while to get things to a good point."

According to George Staikos, a KDE developer and spokesperson, "The KDE project was formed by a small group of computer programmers and Linux and UNIX users who were fed up with the lousy state of user interfaces available for their operating systems. They wanted something that was fast, powerful, featureful, and looked good. Notice that making money was not one of the requirements. They set out to accomplish this task in the most effective manner possible, which was to use the Qt toolkit (at the time distributed free of charge for non-commercial use under a restrictive license, but now distributed under the free GPL license for non-commercial use). Because there were very many people around the world with similar desires and compatible skills, because there was no risk of someone hijacking the project and turning it into a business, and because there was actually proof-of-concept working code already being produced, the project quickly grew. After a few years, the core of the system was very solid and new programmers could easily find a niche to work in, implementing that feature they always wanted or fixing that bug that has bothered them for so long. These individuals are what makes KDE work. They keep the project evolving, bringing new ideas and new manpower. There is relatively no risk involved in contributing, and the rewards are plenty. Developers (including coders, translators, documenters, artists, and more) can contribute whatever they have time for.

"Of course there are other requirements to keeping such a project going. We need bandwidth, servers, funds for promotion and travel, and more. This tends to come from corporate users who are kind enough to contribute back to ensure the progress of the project, and from home users who perhaps can't contribute in other ways. Some people also contribute system administration time. This is all very vital to the success of KDE.

"It's important to note, however, that KDE is indeed paid for, as much as any other software is. KDE is paid for by individuals, and paid for in a distributed manner. Our time, as KDE developers, is worth as much money as any other software developer (More, if you ask me. KDE developers tend to be one smart bunch!). KDE is indeed a very costly project, and is paid for by society itself, as much as a result of the lack of momentum of the commercial sector to create a useful solution to existing problems.

"What is KDE 'worth'? The freely available SLOCCount tool gives me an estimate of $22.6 million just for the KDE libraries alone, a small fraction of what is KDE. Most of the code in the KDE libraries was developed from 1999 through 2004, almost 6 years in total. Not including the Qt toolkit, KDE must be worth well over $250 million. This also doesn't include artwork, documentation and language translations, which KDE is well known for.

"Total Physical Source Lines of Code (SLOC)               = 608,228
Development Effort Estimate, Person-Years (Person-Months) = 167.61 (2,011.32)
   (Basic COCOMO model, Person-Months = 2.4 * (KSLOC**1.05))
Schedule Estimate, Years (Months)                         = 3.75 (45.01)
   (Basic COCOMO model, Months = 2.5 * (person-months**0.38))
Estimated Average Number of Developers (Effort/Schedule)  = 44.69
Total Estimated Cost to Develop                           = $ 22,641,821
   (average salary = $56,286/year, overhead = 2.40)

(this data was  generated using David A. Wheeler's 'SLOCCount' tool)"

I wrote, "Was KDE originally supposed to be free-ware? I remember when I first saw the specs in the late nineties, I thought it seemed too good to believe. Yet it's here and working and continues to grow in functionality and popularity. In fact, the SuSE 9.x package uses KDE as its Graphic base. Can this go on without some serious cash flow?"

Staikos wrote, "Yes, KDE was definitely supposed to be free, both in cost, and in terms of speech. KDE was to be available free of cost to all, and available for modification and learning as desired as long as it was not abused for commercial gain by others who weren't interested in contributing back. That is to say, the licensing prohibits using KDE code in a non-free project, though you may use KDE for that project. For example, you cannot copy source code from KDE and embed it in your commercial, closed-source application. The KDE license actually requires you to release the source for your application as well. However, you may make calls to the KDE libraries from your application. In short, free to use, yes, free to steal from, no.

"Indeed KDE is growing rapidly in popularity. We do need to find new ways to support the project in terms of getting the hardware we need, the administration help we need, the legal work done, and paying for conferences and developer meetings. It's an ongoing struggle.

"Making money is not a bad thing, and I think making money off of KDE is a good thing for KDE. Stealing code from KDE is however not a good thing, and that's what the GPL protects us from. Most of KDE is licensed under the GPL, while the libraries tend to use the LGPL in order to permit commercial KDE applications to be developed. Some portions of KDE are under more liberal licenses such as the Berkely Software Development (BSD) license because the author did not have concerns with others using that code in non-free software. KDE as a project maintains that our software must be compatible with the GPL, but it need not be specifically licensed under the GPL," wrote Staikos.

I wrote, "I know several people who, finally fed up with Windows, and not wanting to deal with getting a new Mac, switched over to GNU/Linux even though they know only the rudiments of command-line arguments and don't plan on learning much more. Like many users, all they use their computers for is word-processing, presentations, a web browser, and email. Since the advent of KDE and GNOME, people can use GNU/Linux the way they use Mac or Windows without spending the time and effort necessary to learn a Unix-like OS. This would have been unthinkable a few years back, even with relatively user-friendly Window Managers like Windowmaker and IceWM. One of the people I'm interviewing for this article, the editor of the Linux Gazette, confirmed this 'trend.' More and more of his readers are concerned with 'typical' user issues rather than the more technical aspects of Linux. Do you think that with the advent of GUI-based Desktop Environments such as KDE that GNU/Linux will appeal to a wider audience who want a choice other than Mac or Windows?"

Staikos wrote, "Most definitely. This was the original goal of KDE, and still remains one. However KDE does not have the resources to provide a real end-user system. We only 'ship' source code, and it is up to the distributors to set their preferred configuration defaults, customize the menus, and determine which applications to add or remove. These things are absolutely vital to creating a valuable end-user experience, and in fact are different for each target market. I think Linux with KDE is already a perfectly suitable solution for the average desktop system. The obstacles in place are more monopolistic in nature. Users are accustomed to the way MS Windows works. They learned this over many years, and expect that all computers work this way, even if it's inefficient or poorly designed. They're impatient to learn a new system, and balk at the idea of using Linux. Furthermore, most commercial applications are designed only for MS Windows. It's hard to justify using Linux when your favorite video game or other software only runs on Windows. Hopefully we will change this over time, as KDE becomes more popular and software developers can justify porting to Linux.

"I think KDE is one of the driving factors that is pushing Linux into the mainstream, and I do hope that it will one day be a serious competitor in terms of user base to MS Windows. The world needs an alternative, and Linux is here to provide it," wrote Staikos.

While GNU/Linux is "inextricably political," both Ford and Okopnik admit that most users are less into the politics than the practical applications of the system itself.

Ford wrote, "Linux has a pretty amazing advantage in that you get something for free, or a very low cost, out of the movement. It's hard for any movement based on ideas to compete with that -- it's not like you can say, 'if you buy into Noam Chomsky's theory of foreign policy, we'll give you a free Chomsky hat.' Whereas Linux can say, 'if you're willing to believe that Open Sourced software works, we'll give you a free operating system with all the trimmings and cranberry sauce.' So the two 'movements' don't really compare."

While for the Stallman and the FSF the difference between the "free" and "open source" movements is crucial, for Ford they are pretty much the same.

"I think they're usually interchangeable, " Ford wrote. "And in truth, I don't really care that much. If a license is similar to the GPL, I'll go with it. For things like OCR or image editing, I don't mind buying commercial tools. They tend to be in much better shape than their open-sourced counterparts. They're very task-based -- I'm scanning a page, or creating an image. If good replacement software comes along, I'll use that. But in the meantime, the work is done--I've got my output....But for any programming project, where people need to work together, and thousands of hours go into developing code, I'm terrified of commercial software. Lock-in is terrifying.... Basically, when I'm looking for a tool, I go "shopping" for the open-sourced version first. Open-sourced software lets me try out a huge number of solutions to find the best one--if I don't like one package, I can see if there's a better one," wrote Ford.


[BIO] Adam Engel has published poetry, fiction and essays in such magazines and periodicals as Counter Punch, Dissident Voice, Online Journal, Strike-the-Root, LewRockwell.com, The New York Art Review, The Concord Journal, The Middlesex News, Accent, The Littleton Review, Ark, Smart Shoes, The Beacon, Literal Latte, Artemis, The Lummox Journal, Fearless, POESY, The Half Moon Review, Art:Mag, Chronogram, Gnome and others.

Adam Engel's first book of poetry, Oil and Water, was published by Maximum Capacity Press in 2001. His novel, Topiary, will be published by Dandelion Books in the Spring of 2005.

He has worked as a journalist, screenwriter, executive speechwriter, systems administrator, and editorial consultant, and has taught writing at New York University, Touro College and the Gotham Writer's Workshop in New York City.

Copyright © 2005, Adam Engel. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 111 of Linux Gazette, February 2005

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