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Come to the light side

Come to the light side.

Odds are that you are on the dark side and don't realize it. Odds are that you didn't even realize that there were dark and light sides when it came to computers. You're probably thinking of politics or religion or philosophy and wondering why you're here, on a page about Linux.

Linux is the side of goodness and light. Mac and Windows are the side of darkness and, well maybe not evil, but less good anyway. Linux is, at its heart, a philosophy more than an operating system. It is a philosophy that people can work together to share their talents and make something useful for the benefit of all. It is built on the idea that something good happens when you offer people something useful and the opportunity to make it better with an incentive to share their improvements.
Note that this article is about Linux and the good it does. Saying bad things about other systems is pretty much completely avoided.

When speaking of software, there are three basic types that all software is broadly categorized into:
  • Unfettered free - referred to hereafter as unfettered
  • Free but with strings - stringy
  • Not free - not-free
These categories are not about cost, but rather they are about your opportunity to modify the software to meet your needs.

Source code is the resource used to build programs. With non-free software, you are left in the dark when it comes to those resources. When you use programs that leave you in the dark, you're contributing to that system, thus it is fair to say you're on the dark side, even if it isn't necessarily a moral choice.
The most common software is non-free software which includes Windows, Mac and Unix and most of the software that is designed to work on them. Non-free software may or may not cost you anything to acquire but it does not allow you to legally modify it. Flexibility in software like Windows or Adobe Acrobat is found in your ability to change the settings to your own preferences, but never in the rewriting of the software itself. Software that does not allow you to modify it is useful and widely appreciated and often sold because of the usefulness. Software that is non-free allows many people to have a job and produce things that would otherwise not be produced and very often comes with an advertising budget. The good that it provides is why it is not exactly evil, but there are better options in many cases. Ask yourself this, what if you could make Windows do that one awesome thing that nobody but you has thought of; wouldn't it be better if you could make it better for everyone? You're not allowed to though, because you are not granted a license from Microsoft to change Windows. Windows remains the property of Microsoft even when you pay for the license to use it. Just like you cannot modify it, you cannot make copies and sell them. These license restrictions are what allows Microsoft to make money selling Windows. Typically each type of non-free software comes with an End User License Agreement, EULA for short, that outlines the license you must agree to in order to use the software. You may be familiar with it as that screen you always skip reading when you're installing something new or that package you never read when you buy software at the store.

 For the purposes of this article, unfettered license examples are:
  • Public domain
  • Creative Commons
Unfettered free software is the opposite of non-free software. With unfettered software, you are given the resources necessary to change it in any way you like and use it in any way you like, including selling what you've made. Software of this nature is often used by companies like Microsoft or Apple in the process of preparing a product that they can sell. They are free to use it to build something and then sell it, or for that matter sell it out-right even though it may have cost them nothing. In some ways, unfettered free software is the most useful of software since it can be used by anyone to do anything they like. The problem is that sometimes, people don't want to give away the product of their efforts when it may be used for things they might later disapprove of. Consider the case of networking software: Microsoft and Apple both benefit from unfettered free software that was designed to make it possible for computers to talk to each other. Both companies have done things with software that was originally unfettered, but now has been improved or modified in ways that they believe makes their product better than their competitors, so they're unlikely to give it away. This double edged sword is what makes it possible for them to (profitably) offer useful products, but it is also what allows them to prevent others from benefiting from their work the way they benefited from someone else.

 For the purposes of this article, stringy license examples are:
  • GNU Public License
  • MIT
The in-between software is a compromise between software that is unfettered and software that is non-free. The ability to use stringy software in the production of something new is limited in some way with a requirement that some benefit be given back. In the case of Putty, (a program I like) you can modify it in any way you see fit and give away or sell the result, so long as you give credit to the original authors. That particular software is used to allow communications between two computers to be secured in various technical ways. Recently I discovered that software used in handling money is using some of this and I'm glad to see it used that way. I think it is exactly the kind of use that the developers had in mind. It allows a company who makes money from selling their software to produce a better product and that benefits everybody who depends on them in turn, and the reason that it can be used is because the onus on the the software selling company is so light. Apple has a similar story with OS X. It was built in part on free software and improved and they have a better product to offer the world because of it.

This is where Linux comes in. Linux is stringy software. It is licensed so that anyone can modify it any way they like and give it away themselves or sell it, but only so long as they provide the same opportunities with their own contributions as they were granted. You can purchase Linux software and (in most cases) make copies for your friends and sell it if you like. Companies that sell Linux make their profits by offering help, improvements and updates. Some versions of Linux can be had at no cost, and others are sold at a price, but all have a common base agreement built into the most fundamental parts of the system, that which makes it Linux. If you wish to improve Linux you are free to do so, indeed by agreements preceding your acquisition you are guaranteed the necessary resources, but you may only sell or give away the improved version so long as you provide the same resources. The price of using Linux (and similar software) is that you cannot choose not to give the same opportunities you were given.

In practice the non-free software is most profitable and as such provides incentives to make useful products. There is some benefit in that. Unfettered software also serves that good purpose, but without the same strength of incentive, though it offers opportunities for wider good by having a low price of use. Each has a place.

Linux however, has strong incentives for use by the wide range of usefulness it offers and that wide use also generates a lot of contribution back to the system. Much like a snowball at the top of the mountain, it has little momentum until it gathers resources, but the more resources it gathers, the stronger the momentum becomes. By simply using Linux, you contribute in small ways to the entire system and each time you discuss ways it could be better, or ask questions about how to do something, a little momentum is added as people find better ways to make it useful.

At this point, you may be asking, "Okay, but what is it good for?" The answer is just about anything a computer can do. You can run it on your home computer instead of Windows or Mac. You can run email programs and browse the web. If you're using Android on your phone, you're already using the core of the Linux system. If you're visiting a website, you're probably benefiting from the computers providing the website with Linux. If you decide that you want to build a super-computer to process ways to heal diseases or predict the weather, you're following a well established tradition when you choose Linux for the task. Each time you make that choice, and particularly if you add useful changes, you're contributing back to a large community of people who want to provide useful things to the world.

Really, can you think of a better reason to call an operating system "the light side?"