Sunday, November 28, 2004

Of Sgi, Linux and X --How one person learned to choose (3)

Computing is really more like construction than anything else, but for one problem: Those that don't share. Now I am not saying they should. Afterall, they are entitled to do what they want with the software they create, just as any of us do. However, their closed products that lock my data into closed formats, Closed Standards if you will, destroy my choice. They destroy your choice too.

Eventually, I gave up my old workstation / music server. Used SGI gear began to get cheap enough that I could get a better machine. Of course I did this the first chance I got. After setting it up, I began to load as much Open Source software as I could onto the machine. This proved somewhat difficult in that much of the software did not complile easily on my SGI machine. That's not to say it could not be done, but simply that I didn't have the time to do it.

Enter Linux again. Between the two of them, I could have the best of both worlds: The SGI desktop, and the best Open Source has to offer on Linux. Eventually the entire environment became rather complete. It was now possible to perform almost every basic computing task on Open Source software on just about any machine you choose to do it on. For me, that actually meant two machines, but it could have just been the one. None of that matters really, the choice is up to the person the way it should be.

My choice was to use two machines together for Sufting the web, playing games on Mame, which I did compile for the SGI (hehe), wordprocessing, HTML, programming, mp3, mix rip burn, graphics, image manupulation, CAD, CD burning, etc.. It was all there and things were good.

Family life began to place new demands on my time, so I ran the system the way it was for a few years. Once in a while, I would add on something, tweak this, tweak that, but essentially I let things run the way I had built them. During these few years, I watched most of my friends go through at least a couple computers, upgrades and hassles associated with Closed Software. You know how it is. Add a new card, find out it is not supported. This, more often than not, leads to a series of unplanned upgrades that sometimes cost more than an entire new machine.

Interestingly, my choice to go with Open Source computing left me with a few more bucks to spend on the hobby than I would have had otherwise. The simple economy of not paying for the same technology over again each upgrade cycle began to add up. That was enough value to give back, so I began to. I took my CAD experience and wrote a STL software viewer in C. While that thing will not win any coding awards, it does make a couple thousand peoples lives easier. That was one way to give back to the growing software pool I depend on. Other ways included buying Open Source software where people had packaged it. Today many writers sell things, like t-shirts and such. Some take donations. Others form companies and support their software for money, while letting those that don't need the support continue to use the software as they always have.

The growing sense of community appeals to me. I feel a lot better knowing the money I sent to some Open Source developer, through a t-shirt sale is appreciated than I do knowing my Closed Software purchase helped some company, who does not want to hear from me, make their sales number for the month.

During this time, the net developed for the worse. Virii, scripts and less than honorable folks, all appeared rapidly turning the Internet into a pretty dangerous place. This revealed an aspect of my choice that I did not consider early on.

Security was becoming an issue. My motivation was all about getting the work I needed to do done the way I saw fit to do it. Since I often needed to do remote support and work with multiple systems, the environment I crafted out of love had its practical side too. However, as security continued to evolve into a signifcant problem, my home environment was sitting there unaffected. At first I did not worry about things much. I figured that the major Closed Source companies would work to protect their interests. After all they were making lots of money. An investment to protect their users seemed to make sense.

But that is not what happened. While I was not spending much time in front of win32 machines, my skills were kept intact, for the most part, by the sheer number of dangers most win32 users face. Viruses, spyware and trojans all combined to take out nearly every computer owned by almost everyone I knew at one time or another.

Closed Source software companies made even more money fixing their software! New companies sprouted up, offering anti-this and anti-that tools to help users to continue to be able to use the software they paid for without having to worry what horrors of spam and kiddie porn were moving their their 0wn3d machines. Blech!

Other things happened too. Businesses, who buy new machines, get mostly clean machines. Ordinary people however, get a far different treatment. Their machines come loaded with tons of mostly useless software. This is called shovelware and I basically hate it. People are buying computers to improve their lives, or help their kids, or maybe just send some e-mail and surt the Internet. What they get is a deluge of sales pitches, free trials, helper programs and other junk that get in the way of actually computing. It's sick frankly.

I was largely shielded from this for a long time because of where I worked in the reseller channel. All the new hardware I saw was part of other deals for expensive software. Those machines did not come loaded with much of anything. In a sense, they had more value, because they did not require as much work to get setup properly.

On the other hand, those inexpensive machines being sold to ordinary people were plenty powerful enough, but largely useless until they were setup proper, sans shovelware. Sadly I found it easier to just do that work for people getting new machines than it was dealing with the aftermath of having left them as is.

This is what happens when people don't have choice. It is not a good thing.


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