[DISCUSS] LUG questions

Craig Buchek craig at buchek.com
Thu Feb 6 00:00:12 CST 2003


> I received some questions from a local reporter (see below).

Thanks for picking that up, Robert. He had sent it to me as well, 
but I was out of town and without email for a week. Here are some of my 
thoughts.

[I've BCCed the journalist as well.]

> What is a LUG? [ what role does a LUG play in the gnu/linux
> community, how can people get involved with one in Saint Louis?]

A Linux Users Group is a place for Linux users to get together to 
discuss topics of interest and help each other. It ends up being a 
social, technical, and professional organization (roughly in that 
order). It's a place you can come to learn new things, ask questions, 
and get general support. LUGs provide a community that's an important 
part of the Free Software eco-system.

The St. Louis LUG community is pretty active. There are many groups 
that range from assisting brand new Linux users to those writing 
programs for GNU/Linux. The St. Louis Linux Users Group (STLLUG -- 
http://www.stllinux.org) aims to be the central focus to help steer 
people toward the sub-group that is right for them.

> Have you seen local interest  in and or use of gnu/linux/free
> software increase in the last few years? If so, to what do you
> attribute this increase ?

Yes, it's increased quite a bit. A lot of what we see in the LUGs is 
based on hobbyist interest. But a lot of us also use GNU/Linux at work. 
Linux has improved a lot over the years, which is why it is gaining 
more acceptance as time goes by. 

> How would you say the quality of free software stacks up to its
> commercial counterparts [specifically operating system software and
> office software] ?

I'd say that GNU/Linux has surpassed Windows (the primary commercial OS) 
on the OS side as far as quality. That's why Linux is so popular on the 
server -- its stability, in addition to its flexibility. You'll notice 
that GNU/Linux tends to have fewer security holes than Windows, despite 
the fact that the source code is available for anyone to examine for 
vulnerabilities. I think that says a lot about its quality.

As far as office productivity software, that's one of the weaker points 
of GNU/Linux. OpenOffice has taken a big step, but it's still not as 
easy to use as Microsoft Office, especially if you're used to using 
Microsoft Office. But again, we've seen a lot of progress. In addition, 
I've noticed that Gnumeric has pretty much caught up with Excel for 
most tasks.

And for network office tasks (email, web, etc.) I think Linux has 
surpassed Windows, with Mozilla, KMail, Evolution, and others. 
Recently, great strides have been made in getting these to work with 
Exchange in addition to the already excellent support of open 
standards.

> What is the advantage of free software for the average computer
> user? How about for a small business?

The initial thing that brings in almost all the users is of course the 
price. This does provide an obvious advantage. But once they have 
started using GNU/Linux, they notice a few other advantages:

 - Stability. Linux systems stay running longer than Windows systems, 
	with less problems (especially once you get them running).
 - Power. Because GNU/Linux is based on UNIX, it provides a wealth of
	small utility programs that can be put together in scripts to
	do system administration tasks that the authors never considered.
	I noticed that Windows Server 2003 has added a lot of these types 
	of commands, because you can't automate clicking on buttons for
	1000 machines.
 - Flexibility. GNU/Linux provides flexibility, because you aren't
	constrained by what the vendors or authors think you want. 
	You are free to pick and choose what you want on your system,
	and customize it as much as you want.
 - Lower TCO. Because of command-line access and scripting, a single
	administrator can maintain more systems. In addition, you're 
	never forced to pay to upgrade to the latest version.
 - Control. In the long run, this may actually be the biggest
	advantage. You have ultimate control of your own systems. 
	No vendor can force you to upgrade. You don't have to wait
	for a vendor to fix a bug, patch a hole, or add a feature.
	As long as you can find one programmer who can modify the code, 
	you can update it yourself.

And for a lot of us, it's just fun to see what we can do with it.

> How can the average local computer user get started with
> gnu/linux/free software?

All the various LUG meetings in the area are free and open to the 
public. We have a fairly complete list of are LUG meetings in the 
SLUUG (St. Louis UNIX Users Group) newsletter, available at 
http://www.sluug.org/cronicle/. Just come -- no need to call ahead.

The STLLinux.org and SLUUG web sites provide other resources as well. We 
have a discussion mailing list, which is a great place to ask technical 
questions if you can't make it to a meeting.

We also hold special events on occasion. A couple of times a year, we 
hold InstallFests. An InstallFest is an opportunity for folks to bring 
their computers in, and we help them install GNU/Linux. (We do request 
that people sign up for the InstallFests, so we know how many people to 
expect and can schedule the installs.) Our next InstallFest is 
scheduled for March 9, 2003. We'll have details on the web site soon. 

> Does software licensed under the GPL or compatible license
> ultimately restrict and limit the licensee  or give her more
> freedom than software available under a conventional license?

This is a philosophical question that divides the Free Software movement 
from the Open Source movement. (It's actually one of the few things 
they disagree on.) The trick of the GPL is that the only restriction is 
that you cannot restrict someone else's rights. The Free Software folks 
are of the opinion that giving someone the right to take away someone 
else's rights reduces freedom. The Open Source folks tend to believe 
that the author should have the freedom to decide what rights to give 
to others. Most of us in the GNU/Linux community fall somewhere in 
between.

I sat in on a class taught by Scott Granneman at Washington University a 
few months ago. The course was on technology and society. The topic 
that night was Open Source and Free Software. The class sat down and 
examined the Microsoft End User License Agreement (EULA) and the GNU 
General Public License (GPL). They read the text of both licenses. What 
they found was that the entire text of the GPL is centered around 
*giving* rights to the user, and the EULA was a (difficult-to-read) 
contract *taking away* as many rights as possible -- including many 
that cannot even be legally waived by contract. 

There's even a good argument to be made that the EULA is *not* a valid 
contract, because it explicitly claims that the software has no value. 
To be a valid contract, there must be some exchange of value. On the 
other hand, the GPL says that you *don't* have to agree to it, and you 
can still *use* the software. But you *do* have to agree to the license 
in order to modify or redistribute the software, because copyright law 
defaults to disallowing those rights.

> With the recent increase in gnu/linux in enterprise and primary
> spots in the marketing campaigns by major corporations like IBM and
> Oracle do you think gnu/linux is in danger of being coopted by
> corporate interests?

No. I think the chances of GNU/Linux being coopted are pretty slim. The 
license requires that any changes be allowed to be given away freely. 
While individual programs run on Linux can use other licenses, the base 
system will always remain free. I believe that the more "freedom" 
conscious distributions like Debian GNU/Linux will always make sure 
that there is a viable completely free version of Linux available.

> Is free software under fire? I have read that some legislation like
> the Digital Millennium Copyright Act potentially makes some free
> software illegal. Is this true? Is more legislation like this
> coming down the pipe?

Yes, there are currently many attacks on the freedoms that allow us to 
use our computers as we wish. The DMCA is one of the most ridiculous. 
It presumes that anything that allows you to create a digital copy is 
used to steal copyrighted works. When in actuality, the vast majority 
of copying is of one's own works. DRM (Digital Rights/Restrictions 
Management) is the technology that makes this presumption; the DMCA 
makes circumventing DRM illegal. This effectively gives DRM developers 
legislative powers. The threat to Free Software is that providing the 
source code to any Free Software program allows anyone to change any 
DRM code to be circumvented. 

Another threat is software patents. Until recently, ideas could not be 
patented, only physical processes. Software patents allow a monopoly on 
ideas. Physical patents don't prevent others from building a better 
mouse-trap -- only from building it the same way as the patent holder. 
Software patents basically prevent others from building any mouse-trap. 
Compound that with the number of patents that are being granted for 
obvious and already existing technologies (which patent law says should 
not be granted), and you effectively cannot create a new software 
product without violating numerous patents. The biggest problem for the 
GNU/Linux community is that most of the software is written by 
individuals and small companies without the resources to fight a patent 
lawsuit.

The community is also concerned with the extended term of copyrights. 
Our community sees the value of "standing on the shoulders of giants" 
and uses the GPL and other licenses to allow consumers/users *more* 
rights now, instead of taking them away as long as possible. [Read any 
of Lawrence Lessig's work for more info on copyright issues, especially 
CreativeCommons.org and "The Future of Ideas".]

In essence, the Free Software community is concerned with the balance of 
power being tipped too far in favor of "content producers" at the 
expense of the "consumer". Whether it be making digital VCRs illegal, 
DRM, the DMCA, software patents, copyright extension, or one of many 
others, we believe that giving power to the "consumers" to take 
existing works and create new works benefits society as a whole. Note 
that we want *balance*, not a complete removal of the rights of 
authors/producers/inventors.

> Is free software inherently anticapitalist ?

First of all, the people writing the software don't really care -- 
they just want to write something that works for them, and they also 
hope that their work may be useful to others. Is donating to charity 
anti-capitalist? Does it matter?

To further answer your question, what does capitalism mean? It's based 
on the idea that to stimulate economic growth, fair competition is 
required. 

Free Software in no way stifles competition. Witness the GNOME and KDE 
projects -- they contain programs written using very different 
technologies; programs which compete directly with each other for user 
share. But they also cooperate, allowing programs from the one project 
to work on the other system. The projects also work to create new 
standards to improve consistency and interoperability. 

Other examples of competition in Free Software are:
 - the various GNU/Linux distributions
 - Linux vs. BSD
 - vi vs. Emacs
 - RPM vs. DEB
 - PostgreSQL vs. MySQL (and several others)

The fact is that Free Software *guarantees* unlimited competition. 
Anyone is free to take an existing Free Software program, modify it in 
any manner he sees fit, and give it away -- or charge for it -- as long 
as he makes the modified copy available to everyone under the same 
terms that he received it.

I think your question may be based on the premise that giving something 
away for free is somehow anti-capitalist. But the entire capitalist 
system is based on the idea that competition will drive prices down as 
far as possible. And since the cost of creating 1 additional copy of a 
digital file is nearly zero, I believe it was inevitable that Free 
Software would come into being.

Given that the price of copying digital content is nearly zero, it seems 
somewhat absurd that you can keep charging large amounts of money for 
every copy, even once you've paid for it's production many times over. 
(Microsoft makes an 80% profit on Windows -- try doing that with a 
physical product. I suspect that most of that 20% is the box and 
administrative costs.) So whoever succeeds in gaining a substantial 
market share is going to end up with a *really* large profit, and it 
was probably inevitable that the vendor of the software that nearly 
everyone depends on would parlay that profit into a monopoly position.

Note that a monopoly is *very* anti-capitalist -- it removes 
competition, hurting consumers and the public in general. That's why 
capitalist governments figured out that they had to regulate monopolies 
and ensure that they don't use their monopoly power to gain unfair 
access to new markets. And of course, they don't restrict the right to 
*be* a monopoly, just using it for anti-competitive behavior.

It's kind of ironic that the capitalist system creates such an 
anti-capitalist monopoly, but I suppose that's due to an exponential 
network effect but a limited number of consumers.

[Well, I suppose you wanted some blurbs and quotes, but I went and wrote 
a whole 8-page manifesto. I hope you don't have a word limit for your 
article! ;) Anyway, feel free to use any of this, as long as you keep 
it in context and provide attribution. Feel free to contact me for more 
-- I may not be quick to respond, but I will be verbose.]

Thanks for listening,
Craig M. Buchek
---
St. Louis Linux Users Group (Chair for nearly another month)
St. Louis UNIX Users Group (board member)
MCSE, MCP, CNE, CNA, CCNA, LPIC-1, LCA, etc., etc.

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