Sunday, November 28, 2004

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

So, that brings us to today. How does this all relate? What does it mean?

I don't know those answers any better than anyone else does. Realistically, anything can and likely will happen. However, I can tell you what I see and what it means to me going forward.

First, Sgi. They had to find new ways to make their powerful machines, without the cost margins they earned in the 90's. Additionally, they needed to return to their roots with those roots being the company that makes solving near impossible problems a reality. For them, the additional choice allowed by Open Source provided them a way clear of an early demise. Sgi could begin to help build Linux. In this way, they eliminate the costs of doing everything in-house. This is good for Sgi and good for us. Linux gets better, and Sgi gets to spend more of its dollars building very powerful computers for Defense, Science and Government.

As an example of how this works for you and me, consider my desktop Linux machine. It runs the powerful Sgi XFS filesystem. In all my years working with their systems, I never encountered filesystem related problems. Now, thanks to the choice offered by Open Source, I can do that on my chosen hardware thanks to Sgi.

To be clear, not all software needs to be free, but lots of it is better that way. Infrastructure bits are good for all of us because we need them to build our own solutions. This is why XFS makes good sense. Basic computing tools also fit the bill because everyone needs them. It is in all of our collective interests to have these tools join the growing pool of Open Source software. We can thank Sun Microsystems for their gift of Open Office. UNIX machines everywhere can now be used for common tasks as well as hard or esoteric ones. Other more specialized software, such as Computer Aided Design software, probably will remain closed. The software is difficult to build and the potential user base is small also.

The point of this whole story is to highlight the idea that choice is king. Really, I mean that.

Even if you don't choose to choose, you can always have others choose for you. Trusted others, like friends, or local service providers that have a clear interest in your interest, not their bottom line. This extends past computing for obvious reasons, but I am going to just focus on computing for now. Having choices open to you brings more competiton for your business. It helps to keep big companies honest, particularly those that sell software. Without the check Open Source and Open Standards bring to their control over our computing lives, we would be paying a lot more and doing far less for our hard earned dollars.

It sounds goofy, but Open Source software has changed my life. Today I can get almost all of my basic computing done, just the way I want it done for only the cost of getting the software. This is powerful stuff. It is like learning a trade that can be perfomed with your hands. It enables people to better themselves and make the world a better place. Anyone who takes the time to understand what Open computing is all about will be a lot better for it. They will save a lot of money too, over the long term.

My data is truly mine in that I don't have to pay somebody to manupulate or communicate it. I can give that data, to others, along with the software necessary to make proper use of it, within the limits of the law. This is huge. I don't know why more schools are not teaching kids to compute with free tools. Priming them on Closed Source basic computing tools; namely, word processors, e-mail, web, etc...

I have more money to spend on new technology, or to save or invest for later. The average person spends about $400 on computer related technology each year, much of it they can get for free. Most all Open Source software, that matters, runs on win32 systems just fine. It is possible to begin with Open Office and the Firefox browser, for example and continue to build from there.

My computing environment is a pretty safe one. Kids have their own accounts and can do what they want, but not actually harm the machine.

The skills I have can be used to make money, or simply help people without paying for the ability to do so. The software, those skills depends on, does not have to change, unless I want it to. How many people study up every last year for the latest win32 bells and whistles? How many old skills fall out of use because the software outdated them? These effects are sharply reduced with Open Source software tools.

Sound too good to be true? Well, here are some of the bad parts of the story.

Closed Source companies are working hard to change law in their favor. They patent things that would never have been allowed years ago. They patent basic things in software then try to use those patents to reduce the growing body of software free for all of us to use. This is a growing problem with few clear solutions in sight today, other than aggressive advocacy.

Learning can be tough. Many people don't want to do it. This is not a showstopper in that you can always pay someone to set things up rather than pay a growing company, who does not have your best interests in mind. Or, take it a piece at a time, finding a happy middle. Maybe you never learn Linux, but use Open Source on the computer you have today. That works fine and you still benefit.

Media companies are trying to close their data formats, making it difficult or impossible to use media you pay for on Open Systems. This, together with patents, makes many things artificially tough to do. Nobody benefits from this, other than the creators of the Closed Software used to view Closed media...

Me? I am still going to advocate for choice. The ability to choose freely how you compute and what you compute on matters, even if you don't participate. Others will and the fruits of their labour will be there for the taking later down the road should you choose differently.

I'm not against software companies producing software for money. If it is really good software that actually serves the users better than it does the creator, the world is a better place with that software in it. Sadly, the majority of software sold today does not meet that bar.

Regarding technology in general. Choose Open Technology. For each area of your life that you allow yourself to become dependant upon Closed Technology, you yield control of that area in exchange for some of your money. Again, this may be a fine thing to do, but be careful of the longer-term implications.

I spent a couple years learning about new and powerful ways to compute that can save anyone interested a lot of money. The industry I came from, does not want this and will tell anyone anything they want to hear in order to get them to commit to their software solutions, many of which are going to have very high longer-term costs associated with them.

Finally, I grew up in a world where one could learn whatever they wanted, so long as they were willing to go get the information and make use of it. The world I live in today is split between that early world of learning, and todays world of spending to solve problems.

Going forward, I would hope a majority of you continue to be willing to work to help yourself and others rather than just spend your way forward. We all will be better for that. Give Open Source software a try. Start with Open Office and a nice browser and begin to work forward from there. You are likely to find you get more value out of the process than you put in.

How can this be so? Software is simply information. Anyone who builds on the growing pool of Open Source software benefits us all. When one of us gets a copy of the software, everybody still has theirs. Information is the only thing in the world that acts like that. It is what makes the whole Open Source value proposition viable.

And that is a good thing.


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