Hey guys and loyal readers. No I haven’t died or disappeared. It’s been a busy few weeks with projects and vacations, VBS, and just life in general. While I very much enjoy writing this article. Unfortunately it’s not always at the top of my list of things to do. In any case, I’m taking the time to write this one for you. This week’s article isn’t so much a how-to or a tech tip as it is an idea. It’s an idea intended to get you to begin thinking about something very important. The question is “Who really owns your computer?”. You bought and paid for it, but do you own the contents of it and ultimately have control over what happens on your computer, what gets installed, and are you aware of what all that software is doing while you’re asleep?
A lot of this idea is borrowed from two camps of thought that goes back several decades and in short are known as “Commercial/Proprietary Software” and ”Open source Software”.
Proprietary software is what’s mostly available from companies like Microsoft, Symantec, Mcafee, Macromedia, Adobe and the like. You give them some money and they give you a product. Sometimes this transaction includes support from the provider. When new features are added to the product you are asked to once again pay for the software. This happens usually on an annual basis. Security patches are usually provided for free however. There is nothing wrong with this model, but it does have a few drawbacks. Most notably is that you’re at the mercy of the software vendor as to how and when you’re concerns or needs will be addressed. And at what cost. Suppose you’re using a program you paid for and you think it’s almost great. It allows you to be fairly productive and it works well, but there is a certain thing (feature) that you wish it had. How do you go about getting that feature you need added? Well, maybe you decide to wait and see if it’s added to next year’s release. And you might still be waiting for a couple of years. For a feature to be added, many hundreds of people would have to make that request to the vendor. But if they don’t provide you a channel to do that where do you start? I don’t know the answer to that question. I suppose a logical start would be their tech support phone number. Several transfers later you try to explain your desire to a minimally English speaking individual on the other end who is logging all of this into a database somewhere that’s far away from the actual developers. The real point here is that you must depend on someone else to take care of you, and they may not understand or really care about your needs. Furthermore, in proprietary software do you really know what all that code is doing? Do you know what information it’s sending out about you? Do you know what servers it’s chatting with on the internet? Do you have any idea about a single line of code contained in that software? Did you know that Sony/BMG were shipping rootkits as part of the audio CD you paid for(old news by now, but valid to make my point). The rootkit installed itself without your permission or knowledge, and potentially opened the door for a flood of other problems and attacks. They were doing this as a way to prevent you from making illegal copies of the CD you bought. The problem is that the computer is yours and you should have the ultimate say-so as to what’s installed and you should fully understand what the software’s intention is once it is installed. Since we don’t know the contents of the code, we have to put our trust in the software provider to do what’s best for us. And in most cases this works fine. But as in the case with Sony/BMG, sometimes companies do what’s in their best interest regardless of your rights and your property. It would not be out of the realm of reality for a company providing software, that you’ve paid for, to include code to monitor your actions and attempt to control your behavior. Picture this…”You spend $500 for a piece of commercial software only to find out that it displays ads to you every 20 mins or so.” Do you stop using it? Probably not, you’re used to paying to look at ads. Cable TV, for instance, you pay money for it but there are still ads all over it. I’m really not a paranoid person, nor am I anti-capitalism, nor do I entertain conspiracy theories. But I believe strongly in freedom and far too often these days we’re more than willing to give up a bit of our freedom in exchange for simplicity, comfort, security and what not. Possessing freedom requires work, thought, and diligence to protect it. We should ask for an account of the code that we are purchasing and fully understand what its intent is as well as actual actions are. We should be exempt from marketing if we have spent money on something.
Now Open source software is quite a bit different. The GNU/Linux Operating System is probably the best example of open source software at work. I love it and use it everyday. It’s been a part of my life for over four years now. In fact everything I know about computers I learned simply by using GNU/Linux. The idea behind open source software is that the code that makes up the program is available for you to view, edit, share, compile, fix, and poses. In contrast to proprietary software this means you can review the code and you know exactly what every line of code is intended to do. You’ll know what servers on the internet it’s communicating with and you can either disable features you don’t want or need or add features that you do need. The openness of the code gives you complete freedom and control over something that already belongs to you. You are not limited by a vendors release schedule nor are you bound by their desire to pay attention to your request or not. I’ve mentioned before that open source software is typically free, but it doesn’t have to be. If you find it useful or don’t know how to read and write code yourself you can pay the developers to add a feature for you. Or someone in your community that write code. I’m using an open source document editor called Abiword. It’s compatible with MS Word and when I’m finished I’ll email a word document to “The Record” for print. If you’d like to learn more about GNU/Linux and open source software there is a group here in North Wilkesboro called “North Wilkesboro Linux Users Group”. You can find their website at http://nwlug.org. They meet once a month to discuss GNU/Linux and open source software. They are made up of some of the best and brightest the community has to offer and are more than willing to help you take the open source plunge.
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