Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Why I finally embraced computer literacy

Computer illiteracy
It’s very likely that you know someone who self-identifies as “computer illiterate.” That person may even be proud of being so.

I was once one of these people. I was one of these people for a long time. In fact, I was quite offended when my Latin teacher in high school thought I liked computers (I assume she assumed so because I’m of Asian descent, as that is the stereotype, and I gave her no other reason to assume so). Yes, even though I took AP Computer Science senior year in high school, I still didn’t like computers and did not want to be identified with computers, but I hated hard science more than computer science, so I took computer science, got a 5 on the AP exam, and then quickly forget everything I learned about Pascal (does anyone even use this language any more?) and programming.

Even after graduating from college, I was still computer illiterate and pretty technologically helpless. I didn’t really understand how anything in a computer worked. I just memorized steps (click this icon, type this phrase, click that menu item, select that menu item, use this keyboard shortcut). In 2000, I had to call my future wife internationally to ask her what to do about my printer not working. She was a big help. Until 2004, I remained in technologically blissful ignorance, as I was too busy grading papers and preparing curriculum to care about learning computers. After all, literature was far more important than computers. Computers helped me do my grading and handouts—that was about it.

The turning point
Then in 2004, the Dell laptop my wife and I had got a serious case of spyware/adware. It was impossible to clean off. I tried to reinstall but couldn’t, at the time, find the drivers CD or InterVideo WinDVD—only the Windows XP CD. I had quite a frustrating time trying to get Windows to work properly without drivers or DVD playback. That’s when I first tried Linux (in the form of Blag), gave up on Linux, and then switched to Firefox on Windows (eventually did find those other two CDs). One year later, I became a full-time Linux (in the form of Ubuntu) user.

A combination of quitting teaching and getting malware pushed me to want to make myself computer literate. Quitting teaching helped move me in that direction in two ways.

From teaching to office jobs
First of all, teaching sucks a lot of mental energy out of you. It can become difficult to take on a new hobby when you’re worried about parent conferences, student struggles, classroom management, lesson plans, grading, professional development, faculty meetings, coaching, etc. Yes, of course, I was busy at my office job, too, but once I left work, work was done. I didn’t take work home with me.

Secondly, teaching is still a rather low-tech profession. There are some ingenious ways some teachers have managed to work technology into the classroom, but most of the time when technology is used in English classes, it’s more technology for the sake of “technology in education,” and not for any real pedagogical value. Office jobs, however, usually depend almost solely on the use of a computer. Suddenly, I was stuck in front of a computer monitor and keyboard for eight hours a day, five days a week—and with no summers off. I had to know how to use Excel. I had to know how to use Word (never previously knowing how to do a mail merge or anything remotely fancier than bolding or bulleting text). I had to learn a rather counterintuitive and completely inflexible database program. My boss wanted regular reports from me. I was an office worker, and I needed to know how to use this tool called a computer.

Moving away from Windows malware
And, of course, the spyware/malware infection made it impossible for me to deny that the days of care-free ignorant computing were long gone. In the preinternet days, home users didn’t have security threats. Even in the early internet days of the mid-1990s, the worst thing that ever happened to me was getting bad “funny” forwards from friends. Spam wasn’t terrible in those days. I got maybe two spam messages a week. No, I didn’t have to know all the internals of a computer and how all the transistors and whatnot worked, but I had to learn basic safety and sensible operation—just as I can’t fix a car’s broken transmission, but I have learned how to minimize wear on the transmission, how to minimize the chance of an accident, and how to get the best gas mileage.

And once I had finally given up Windows and embraced Ubuntu, I found computer problems to be fun challenges to be solved. Even now, if I experience a problem in Windows (which I have to use at work), I curse the computer and usually get frustrated at having to figure out a cryptic error message or no error message at all, but if I experience a problem in Ubuntu, I’m eager to troubleshoot it and fix it. It’s perverse, I know. Don’t worry—many Linux users suffer from this malady.

The digital age
Computer illiteracy for me in 2004 was an impracticality. I had to suck it up and realize we live in a digital age. Gone were the days of exchanging lettes and postcards with friends. Gone were the days of trading mix tapes. Everyone I knew was on email and listened to digital music.

Now it’s 2008, and I’m still in an office job (albeit a different one). I’m still no programmer or officially trained computer person, but now people ask me for help when they have computer problems, and very rarely now do I have to ask my wife for tech support. Time to embrace the geekdom. Computer illiteracy is no longer an option.

Apple and Mac OS X

The iPhone 3G experience

I’m very glad my wife waited a year to get the second-generation iPhone. It has been quite difficult to actually get one, though. For a while, I thought it was some ploy by Apple to generate more demand and hype by pretending to have a limited supply and thus make the iPhones appear harder to get than they really are. After all, that worked for the Wii, except that Nintendo couldn’t get its act together even a year after demand for the Wii had swelled.

The long lines were a big put-off, and I kept thinking, “Why is there such a long line? Don’t they just sell whatever stock they have and then just tell people they’re sold out?” This thought came to me especially when I called one Apple store to ask if they had iPhones in stock, and they said, “Yes, we have them, but there’s a line, and it’s about a four- to five-hour wait right now.” Excuse me? Four- to five-hour wait? Who would do that? That’s crazy! I waited in line for three hours for the Uffizi in Firenze, but that’s because my friend who was studying there at the time said the Uffizi was the only tourist trap worth going to.

Well, today, my wife finally got her iPhone. She went to the Apple store downtown, and they said they didn’t have it. Then I suggested she try the new Apple store in the Marina, and she got there just as a truck full of iPhones was pulling up to the store. A line immediately formed in front of the store, and she was about the fourth in line. What was this line for? Why did the process take so long? Well, first they had to individually “pre-screen” each customer to make sure they had an AT&T account (yes, we’re in America, and AT&T is the only provider you can use with the iPhone) or knew the appropriate account information to switch from another provider. Then they had to take each customer and set up an account and activate the phone specifically for that account. In other words, it was all this AT&T business that made the lines so long. The entire process of waiting to be pre-screened, being pre-screened, getting the iPhone set up, and purchasing the iPhone took about an hour and a half… for one customer (my wife, in this case). Talk about inefficiency. But, hey, at least AT&T knows Apple isn’t selling iPhones to people who will just unlock it and use it with another provider. No, you’re locked into their two-year contract. They have their claws in you.

That said, the iPhone’s pretty slick. I wish they had a Linux-based (and pay-as-you-go) phone that was this slick. The only things I don’t like about it (user experience-wise) are

  • You can’t easily remove apps you don’t care for.
  • You can’t easily install random apps, and a lot of the specifically-made-for-iPhone apps cost money.
  • A lot of the menu items do not have a back button to return to the main menu. I prefer a back button to pressing the main menu button.

So, buying experience—lame. Actual user experience—pretty cool. I think my wife will have a lot of fun with it. I’m happy with my crappy Virgin Mobile phone, though. I don’t need all that fancy stuff. I just want to make phone calls and occasionally check when the next bus is coming.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Fanboy isn’t just a generic insult. It means something.

Warning, for those who know me in person: This is an extremely geeky post. Proceed with caution.

Just as forum users will sometimes fling the label troll against anyone who argues with them, many forum users (particularly in computer-related discussions) will throw around the term fanboy without making the term meaningful. Most of the time, when I see the term fanboy used, it’s basically used as a way to avoid having meaningful or logical discussion and to shut the other person up, even if she has valid points. It’s basically a way of saying, “Since you clearly are a fan of this operating system, nothing you say has meaning.”

But being a fan alone doesn’t invalidate what you have to say. fanboy goes beyond fan. I think the folks over at Urban Dictionary have it right. Here are some of top-voted definitions for the word:

  • A passionate fan of various elements of geek culture (e.g. sci-fi, comics, Star Wars, video games, anime, hobbits, Magic: the Gathering, etc.), but who lets his passion override social graces.
  • A person who is completely loyal to a game or company reguardless[sic] of if they suck or not.
  • An arrogant person who goes into an outburst every time something he likes is questioned.

Since I am a regular on the Ubuntu Forums, the context in which I see fanboy is often in relation to operating systems. Linux fanboys. Mac fanboys. Windows fanboys. Just so people know, though, a Linux user defending Linux is not a Linux fanboy, just as a Mac user defending Mac OS X is not a Mac fanboy, and likewise for a Window user defending Windows.

What really sets a fanboy apart is saying only positive things about her operating system of choice and never acknowledging anything negative about her operating system of choice. Frankly, I haven’t found too many people like that on the Ubuntu Forums. Sure, if you speak mistruths about Linux or spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt without real concrete examples, then Ubuntu users will speak up and correct you. But if you ask them what’s wrong with Ubuntu or Linux, you’ll get a very, very long list of replies. I don’t think you’ll find many Ubuntu users who will say Ubuntu or Linux can do no wrong.

Further Reading
Mac Zealots, Linux Zealots, and Windows Zealots

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Firefox 3 Download Day: Good Publicity Stunt

Unless you keep up with tech news, you may have missed it, but this past Tuesday was “download day,” in which Mozilla was hoping to set a world record for downloads by encouraging its users to download Firefox 3 on its release day.

I don’t think there was actually a previously held world record, and I’m not sure how meaningful the 8 million number means. It doesn’t mean there are 8 million users, only 8 million downloads. I myself, did three downloads that day. There was someone on the Ubuntu Forums who did seven downloads. There may have even been people writing scripts to download Firefox. Who knows?

But let’s just say there were 8 million unique downloaders. So what? According to Internet World Stats, only a little more than 1/5 of the world population has internet access. That means only 0.6% of internet users downloaded Firefox on download day. If we were to assume that the entire world had internet access, that’d drop the percentage down to 0.1% of users who downloaded that day.

Those numbers aren’t very encouraging. Actually, they aren’t discouraging either. They’re pretty much meaningless, as we know the Firefox web browser marketshare is anywhere between 10% and 50%, depending on the country.

All it means is that most Firefox users had no clue there was a download day. They just went about their daily lives actually using Firefox instead of re-downloading it. Still, it was a good publicity stunt… at least for those who do read the tech news. It made the front page of the technology section of Google News practically every day this week. I don’t think any download record will ever mean anything, but you’ve got to hand it to those Mozilla folks for getting some good hype.

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Is security through obscurity better than nothing?

Before I started using Linux and getting into frequent online discussions with other Linux users about security issues, I had no idea about computer security. I thought having a login and password was enough to keep the “bad guys” out, should my computer ever be stolen. Most people I know think the same. My dad (who actually is quite tech-savvy and can, unlike me, program in several languages and build his own computers from scratch) thought a fingerprint reader on his Thinkpad would keep people from accessing his files, but I showed him (with the aid of Knoppix CD) that that wasn’t the case.

The truth is that most computer “security” for home users is bogus and just security through obscurity. It may (or may not, depending on how resourceful they are) keep nosy family members and friends out, but it won’t stop someone who’s stolen your computer from getting to all your files. Having separate passwords and usernames on a home computer (as opposed to authenticated on a domain at work) is mainly a way to just make it slightly inconvenient for others using the same computer to snoop into your files.

If they had a little bit of knowledge and really wanted to snoop, however, they could. In the case of Mac OS X or Ubuntu, all it would take is booting into single-user mode and copying your files to their folders and changing ownership of those files. Or, if they didn’t want to be stealthy about it, they could change your password and log in as you. In Ubuntu, Mac OS X, and Windows, if you have a live CD (like Knoppix), you can boot it, mount the hard drive, and read any and all files on the computer.

Of course, in addition to having a username and password, there are other ways to slow down intruders and snooping friends from exploring your computer’s contents (setting a BIOS password, for example). Ultimately, though, once physical security is compromised, your computer’s contents have been also compromised… unless your drive is encrypted.

Of course, if one single person learns anything new from reading this, then the obscurity is that much less obscure now than before, but this understanding leads to the next question of “Is security through obscurity better than no security at all?” The Pidgin developers seem to think it’s not, as you can read in their justification for storing instant messaging passwords in plain text. In answer to the question “But surely something is better than nothing, right?” they say No. When a Pidgin user looks at her accounts.xml file, she can tell immediately that it’s a sensitive file and should be treated as such. When an application attempts to ‘trick’ the user into thinking its passwords are secure by obfuscating it in some way, the user assumes it’s safe.

In one sense, I agree with this. I don’t believe in giving users a false sense of security. In another sense, though, I think what they’re saying is ridiculous. Most users of instant messaging programs never look to see whether their passwords are stored in plain text or not, so they will almost always assume it’s safe. What would make much more sense by their line of reasoning would be to have a huge warning the first time you launch up Pidgin saying “Instant messaging is never secure, and that’s why we store your password in plain text.”

I’m a little ambivalent about all this, if you couldn’t tell. On the one hand, I do believe that for most purposes (keeping snooping family members and friends out), having usernames and passwords for unencrypted data serves its purpose. In this regard, security through obscurity works. On the other hand, this does give people a false sense of security, as they may think that not having an autologin will prevent laptop thieves from getting their data. People won’t be careful when it comes to their data and the real “bad guys.” On a lighter note, they may think that forgetting their administrative password means they have to reinstall the entire operating system instead of just resetting the password.

I guess if it really comes down to it, I believe in education. I believe people should know what is secure and what is not secure. What do people think? I know I have a lot of tech-savvy folks (people who know a lot more than I do) who read this blog. Is it ever the case that security through obscurity is better than no security at all?

Apple and Mac OS X Linux Ubuntu

Wake-up call: Apple won’t port iTunes to Linux

I want to bring iTunes-loving Linux users back to reality. As you can see from the following Ubuntu Forums threads, some Ubuntu-ites are deluded about the idea of Apple porting iTunes to Linux:
Why Apple doesn’t want to release iTunes for Linux
Petition – iTunes for Ubuntu
Should Apple port iTunes to Linux?
The iTunes Linux Project

If you’re too lazy to read those links, I can sum up how the iTunes discussion usually goes among Linux users:

Hi. I’m new to Linux. How do I install iTunes on it?
iTunes is a bloated piece of crap. Use a real music application like AmaroK.
I really like iTunes, though.
I installed iTunes on Ubuntu with Wine.
iTunes installs with Wine, but it isn’t fully functional. Don’t bother.
Why do you have an iPod anyway? Use a Cowon player instead. It’s more Linux-friendly.
I kind of like the iTunes music store. Will the songs I bought from there be able to play on a Cowon player?
No. Pop music sucks these days. Don’t support the big labels. Support independent artists.
But I like pop music. Can’t we convince Apple to port iTunes to Linux?
I’ve put together a petition for it. Go to this link to sign it.
I hate iTunes, but I signed the petition because it’ll help bring more users over to Linux.
Apple can keep its proprietary applications. We have better iPod-management software on Linux anyway.

I think I got all the major arguments in there.

Philanthropic Apple porting iTunes?
Now imagine you’re an executive at Apple—Steve Jobs or somebody else. If you read that kind of back-and-forth, would you (even if you were more philanthropic- than profit-oriented) port iTunes to Linux? I know I wouldn’t. Even if I didn’t care about profit, I wouldn’t, because there are too many anti-proprietary software and/or anti-Apple elements in the Linux community. With the number of Linux users not buying iPods, buying iPods and installing Rockbox onto them, and using non-iTunes Music Store services like Jamendo, eMusic, or Amazon, I wouldn’t see a very compelling case for putting any resources into porting iTunes to Linux.

Profit-oriented Apple porting iTunes?
But that’s also assuming Apple isn’t, like almost all corporations, motivated by profit and pleasing the shareholders. Apple is a hardware company focused on hardware sales. They do earn some money from iTunes Music Store purchases, Apple Care subscriptions, and software sales, but their big cash cows are iPods, iPhones, and Macs. That’s what their efforts are focused on: How do we get people to buy more iPods, iPhones, and Macs?

Why did Apple port to Windows?
Apple ported iTunes to Windows, because they knew Windows users wouldn’t otherwise buy Macs in order to have their iPods sync properly, which meant Windows users wouldn’t otherwise buy iPods. And if Windows users hadn’t bought iPods, iPods wouldn’t have taken off. Creative or Sandisk might have instead dominated the portable music player market. The supposed “halo effect” that has Windows users gradually moving to more Apple products is the main reason for the iTunes port to Windows.

What would porting to Linux gain for Apple?
Could a similar effect be achieved by porting iTunes to Linux? I doubt it. My general sense from three years of active participation in the online Linux community is that those who want an iPod will get an iPod, regardless of whether iTunes is available for Linux or not, and those who won’t get an iPod won’t get one anyway. Not to mention that there aren’t (relatively speaking) that many Linux users to begin with.

As a matter of fact, porting iTunes to Linux is counterproductive to Apple’s goals. Porting iTunes to Linux might make Windows users take more seriously Linux as an alternative to Windows, which means they might keep their old Dell or HP computers and install Linux on them instead of saying, “Hey, I want a Windows alternative. Maybe I’ll get a Mac.” People generally do not think of Linux as a viable alternative to Windows, which is fine by Apple. Remember—it’s “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC,” not “I’m OS X, I’m Windows, I’m Linux.”

It wouldn’t even help community relations
And porting iTunes to Linux wouldn’t even build good will in the Linux community. As a PR move, it would fall flat on its face. I don’t know whether it’s large percentages of users or just the vocal minority, but you know the second Apple ported iTunes to Linux, there would be cries of “Do not infest my system with your proprietary, bloated crap” and “Why don’t you just GPL iTunes instead?”

Personal story time
My first portable audio player was an iPod, and I used iTunes for Windows with it. When I moved to Linux, I dual-booted with Windows just for iTunes. Eventually, I weaned myself off iTunes and the iPod and used Rhythmbox and a Sandisk player instead, mainly because iPods don’t have FM radios. My wife (also a former Windows user), on the other hand, bought an iPod, used iTunes on Windows until she had to buy a Mac for school (the school mandated students in her line of study buy a Mac), and then she used iTunes on the Mac. There was a time when she considered getting a non-iPod portable music player, but the information on what non-iPods worked well with Macs was too difficult to find at the time, so she stuck with iPods. I had one dalliance with Cowon’s crappy players (the iAudio 7, which busted after only three months of use), but I’m back to Sandisk.

Now, if Apple had ported iTunes to Linux when I was dual-booting just for iTunes, I would have found it convenient to have iTunes on Linux (and I’d have ditched Windows sooner), but I’d have probably still moved to Sandisk just because of the lack of radio in the iPod. So Apple wouldn’t have sold our families any more iPods or Macs. And I think that’s a pretty typical scenario.

With regard to Apple products and Linux users, I’d say Linux users generally fall into these categories:

  • I have no problem with Apple products. I own them and use them in addition to Linux.
  • I have no problem with Apple products. I own them and install Linux or Rockbox on them, or mod them in some other way.
  • I’ll use an iPod, and I wish Apple would port iTunes to Linux, and I’d be grateful to have better integration, but in the meantime I’m coping fine with AmaroK, GTKPod, and other native Linux applications.
  • I’ll use an iPod, but I hate iTunes and much prefer native Linux applications.
  • I realize some people like Apple products, but I don’t really need them. I prefer non-Apple products.
  • I hate Apple products. I think they’re overrated and overpriced. Apple locks users in more than Microsoft does. Down with DRM! Down with proprietary software!

Some of the expressions in there might be exaggerated, but those are the major demographics in the Linux community with regard to Apple, and I don’t really see how any of them would be buying more Apple products than they already are if Apple ported iTunes to Linux.

iTunes on Linux—not going to happen.

Further Reading
The Futility of Online Petitions

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Sometimes I will get PC about “PC”

Yes, I’m a former English teacher, and I tend to be a stickler about word choice, phrasing, and grammar. I’m not ridiculous, though. If you want to split your infinitives, I really couldn’t care less. If you say you could care less when you really couldn’t care less, then I’ll get irritated.

But I don’t mind when people say Kleenex to mean tissue or Xerox to mean photocopy. After all, when someone asks for Kleenex and gets a Walgreens tissue, she usually won’t complain, as long as she can blow or wipe her nose. Likewise, someone asking for you to Xerox a paper really just wants a copy made. If you make a copy on a Canon instead, she is highly unlikely to grill you, “I said Xerox. Are you sure you used a Xerox to make this copy? You didn’t sneak over to the Canon copier?”

Language, after all, is about consensus about meaning. If someone says Kleenex, and we all understand it to mean tissue, then there isn’t a problem. Sometimes, though, there are problems with consensus. In some parts of America, carbonated beverages are referred to as cokes. Coke is coke. Dr. Pepper is coke. Pepsi is coke. In other parts of the country, they’re referred to as pop, soda, or soft drinks. In England, they’re called fizzy drinks. Eventually, somehow, we come to understand each other with regard to those yummy caffeine sugar cans.

Then there is the whole Mac and PC thing.

With Apple’s recent “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” campaign, now more than ever rich people are asking whether they should buy a Mac or a PC. Of course, some snarky Windows users will counter that Macs are PCs, since PC originally stood for personal computer. Unfortunately, now, PC means Windows PC, and they need to recognize that change. I recognize it, and I say it’s unfortunate because it leaves alternative operating systems (say, Linux-based ones) out of the question completely.

So when people say “PCs have problems with viruses and spyware,” I do have to correct them and say, “You mean Windows PCs.” If Macs and Windows PCs were the only personal computers out there, I’d be fine with them equating PC with Windows PC, but a non-Kleenex will soak up your mucus the same as a Kleenex will; a Windows PC is a completely different experience from a Linux PC, though. We Linux users may be few, but we exist, and the English language should reflect that existence. After all, we have words in the English language people don’t even use (for examples, watch the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C.).

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Without education, it doesn’t matter which OS is “more secure”

In Linux online communities, oftentimes there are debates about which operating is the most secure—Windows or a Linux-based distribution. The debates usually go something like this:
Do I have to worry about security in Linux the way I did in Windows? No, you don’t have to. Linux is much more secure. But isn’t that just because it’s less targeted? If it were as popular as Windows, it would have just as many security problems. No, it wouldn’t. Read this article about how Linux has better security, and don’t forget that Linux servers are huge targets and still more secure than Windows servers.

And it goes on and on. The details of a secure structure, sensible (from a security standpoint) defaults, and frequent patches for exploits are all important parts of security. Ultimately, though, security debates about the structures of the OS are moot when the user does not employ good security practices. It’s a bit like people debating whether kevlar is “more secure” than chainmail armor. Well, what if the attack is through biological warfare rather than a bullet or sword? What if the person you’re trying to secure can be tricked into taking off the kevlar/chainmail? Then it doesn’t really matter which covering is more difficult to penetrate, does it?

And this is also why bringing in servers into desktop security debates doesn’t shed light on whether an increase in user base will lead to more security compromises. Servers tend to be administered by server administrators—professionals whose job it is to constantly battle and prevent online security breaches. On the home desktop (and sometimes even the business workstation), users tend to be less savvy about what to click or not click, what to install or not to install, and when it’s a good idea to type one’s password.

Yes, developers should try to strengthen the security of the OS in terms of structure and defaults. Yes, developers should create patches for newly discovered exploits (buffer overflows, for example). Nevertheless, if the Linux user base does increase to the point where desktop Linux is a significant target for malicious users, and computer users in general remain as uneducated as they are now, then all those security patches will be for naught. Users who can’t discern the difference between a spoofed webpage and a real webpage are the security exploits that can be patched only through education. Users who will give their passwords away to untrustworthy sources are security exploits. Users who will install some “cool” program (yes, in Ubuntu it could be a .deb file you double-click or an added repository) that happens to contain spyware or a rootkit are security exploits.

A larger Linux user base with no better education than computer users as a whole have now is going to be subject to the same social engineering malware attacks that the current larger user base Windows has. No developer-created patch is going to fix that hole.

Apple and Mac OS X Linux Ubuntu

Netflix’s new feature screws Mac and Linux

This doesn’t happen very frequently to us. Our bank is Mac- and Linux-friendly. Pretty much anything we use these days is Mac- and Linux-friendly.

Up until today, Netflix was also Mac- and Linux-friendly. I just got an email from them telling me

Your $____ plan not only gives you 3 DVDs out at-a-time but you can also watch 17 hours of movies and TV episodes instantly on your PC each month – for no additional charge.

Check it out:

Sounds good, right? Then I log into my Netflix account and see that my operating system is not compatible. When I click for more details, I get this:

Free Image Hosting at

Thanks, Netflix. My wife is a Mac user who uses Camino. I’m a Ubuntu user who uses Firefox. The User Agent Switcher extension didn’t even cut it. Netflix was having none of this. Why? Why Windows Service Pack 2 with Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player? Who comes up with these ideas?

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Open Source for Non-Programmers

On a Linux forum, when you get into discussions of the benefits of open source over proprietary software, inevitably someone will say something to the effect of If you don’t like it, you can change it—that’s the beauty of open source. While that may be the beauty of open source for programmers, how does that benefit affect non-programmers?

I myself am not a programmer, so being able to modify the source code of a program is a dubious benefit for me. I do, however, enjoy several fringe benefits as a regular software user.

These are the main ways I benefit from open source:

  • Low or No Cost
    Yes, it’s true. You can legally charge money for open source software, but very few people do, and the prices can never be exhorbitant (say, $500 for an office suite), because people can easily compile the source code themselves for less than $500. The cost you pay, if you pay anything at all, is usually marginal and covers the distribution costs, the packaging, the shipping, or support. I’ve never had to pay money for any of the open source software I use, though.
  • Peace of Mind
    Free? Hm. Does it have spyware? Does it have adware? Is it a virus? Well, I’ve yet to come across an open source program that’s installed malware on my computer. I have, back in my Windows-using days, installed freeware (different from open source, by the way) that’s come with malware or at least nagware (Want to upgrade to the full edition? Your free trial is almost over!). I think this is a combination of open source program creators generally having good intentions and other open source programmers being able to examine the source code.
  • Community Support
    This is a double-edged sword, of course. Some open source projects are funded by a company, but most are developed by a worldwide community of programmers and testers, meaning that if the project is successful enough, it’ll never die just because one company decides to discontinue it. It also means no company can lock you in to the way they want to do things. If a previously excellent open source project starts going in a bad direction, you can bet there are programmers out there who are working on a fork of the project.

    Here’s where the other edge of the sword comes in, though: someone has to do it. If the project isn’t funded by a company, it’s usually volunteer or subsidized by donations. So if no one’s interested in continuing the project, the project just dies or remains stagnant.

Interested? You may have already started using some open source programs—Firefox, Audacity, FileZilla, GIMP.

If you’re not a Linux user, there are still plenty of great open source programs for you to try out: