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As I said on the home page, I am a Linux fan and I especially like the Debian distribution. I also use systems based on FreeBSD, such as Mac, but the problem with Apple is the price. We could spend hours debating whether the Linux operating system (OS) is accessible to novices. I would argue that with a small amount of training (introduction to the Shell concept and basic commands), someone with a few current knowledges could at least do the same things as with Windows.

The problem is that, for both historical and economical reasons, Linux is not yet part of the "general public" computer culture. At the time I write this, computers sold with Linux installed on the hard disk as a default are rare; any novice who buys a computer is consequently conditioned to use Windows. It is worth noting that prior to the marketing of personal computers (PCs), computers were reserved for an elite (research, university academic environment, etc.), using UNIX (Linux predecessor). It was in this context that, with Windows, Bill Gates was the first to popularise computers, and with great success. Even today, 20 years later, Windows is the most widely used OS for basic computer use (office work, music, image processing, video games, etc.).

Linux was developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, a young student at the University of Helsinki. His aim was to create a system totally compatible with the UNIX systems, while being able to use non-proprietary source code (the source code contains the description of how the OS operates). Microsoft OS source codes are private and the development of future versions of Windows is reserved for Microsoft employees only. For the penguin (the Linux mascot, called Tux), OS source codes are "open-source" (see the GPL licence below), meaning they are accessible and modifiable, which changes everything.

Along with developing an operating system, compatible software to be used with the OS must also be developed. We can identify four main types of software :

  • Under proprietary licence, for which the source code is unavailable for commercial purposes.

  • Under GPL licence (GNU General Public License), for which the source code is available to all, and all modifications must be published. It is consequently described as "infectious".

  • Under LGPL licence (Lesser General Public License), less restrictive, enabling you to integrate programs under GPL with a program under proprietary licence.

  • Under BSD licence, the most liberal, allowing you to modify BSD programs and to register them under proprietary licence, meaning you don't have to share new source codes.

While the GPL can seem extreme, it is nevertheless essential for the development of programs with critical evolution. Take the example of the BIND DNS server program, which is used by all search engines. It is essential that this be under GPL licence, as any modification whose source code is not subsequently made publicly available would create serious compatibility problems on a global level.

Richard Stallman, a guru of open-source software, said: "Attacking sharing is like attacking society", and therein lies the problem. We cannot deny that development requires resources and time, so there is a human cost. But in our societies, with their permanently depressed economies, should we not consider alternative solutions to the spiral of escalating prices resulting from proprietary licensing ? Between the "all GPL" and "all proprietary" schools of thought, striking a fair balance is necessary.

Since 1995, Linux development has been given a second wind with the explosion of the Internet: the Linux software development community increased steadily, giving Linux a real presence on the operating systems market. Its performance across the board (security, administration, stability, configuration, etc.) has made it increasingly popular with Internet service providers. It has thus become the website hosting market leader. Indeed, Linux is now available on several different architectures, like the Debian distribution (x86, x64, ARM, MIPS, etc.). Of course, there are disadvantages, like the fact that few 3D video games work as well on Linux as they do on Windows. It is also behind in all the latest multimedia developments, but the little penguins are working on it. It is important to note that making source codes publicly accessible can lead badly-intentioned people to look for security weaknesses: take the example of the Apache server, which is very widely used. In fact, we should see this problem rather as an advantage, in that it motivates the software development community to be ever more rigorous in their programming.

To those who have preconceived ideas about Linux, I would say we need above all to demystify it. Installation can be problematic for novices. Yet some distributions, like Ubuntu, have become quite easy to install as the hardware recognition is good, while Debian, previously always known to be difficult to set up, now has an interface which facilitates installation.

"We are Penguins. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated"

ps : join like me the Cosmology@Home project whose aim is to refine the model that best describes our Universe

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