Saturday, April 30, 2011

Riding the Narwhal into Heaven

Coming to terms with: open source, hackers, Linux and Ubuntu.

Riding the Narwhal

In his book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman listed "uploading" as his fourth world-flattening force. This included collaborative projects such as wikis and open source software. One of the major open source projects is Linux, the open source operating system. Because Linux is open source, it comes in a variety of distributions. One of the most popular is Ubuntu, produced by Canonical.

Ubuntu has released their newest version, 11.04, codenamed Natty Narwhal. I did not immediately upgrade when it came out on Thursday. I waited for the weekend. The upgrade went smoothly. Here is a video about my initial, silly, reactions to the new operating system can be seen here.

S0, you can see, I am pretty excited about the new Unity desktop on Ubuntu's operating system. Admittedly, I get excited about some pretty unimportant things. I am very excited for the upcoming Thor and Captain America movies, for instance. This is different. I get excited about open source operating systems for a number of reasons, some of them are actually legitimate.

Hackers make life better.

One of the things that I love about Linux in general is that it is written by hackers for hackers. Ubuntu is a nice Linux derivative because it is made by hackers for everyone, including hackers. This allows hackers to do what they do best which is make life better.

I hear the term "hacker" associated with criminals all the time. Some hackers are criminals. So are many Caucasians, but it is correct to use neither of these terms synonymously with the term "criminals." There are many people who commit crimes using computers who are neither hackers nor Caucasians. There are also a majority of hackers and Caucasians whose acts are not criminal. However, there is something of a mindset of hackers that, I'll have to admit, lends itself to criminal action.

Bruce Scheier explained that a hacker is
"someone who thinks outside the box. It's someone who discards conventional wisdom, and does something else instead. It's someone who looks at the edge and wonders what's beyond. It's someone who sees a set of rules and wonders what happens if you don't follow them. A hacker is someone who experiments with the limitations of systems for intellectual curiosity" (citation)

I'd say that this is not always for intellectual curiosity. Sometimes necessity is the mother of hacking. Sometimes economics create a need that can't be filled without thinking outside the box. Sometimes there isn't time for conventional methods. Sometimes, once you've learned to do it, thinking outside someone else's box is just easier than trying to think inside one.

My dad is no computer expert, but from Scheier's point of view, he is a hacker. We drove a mini-van around for years with the engine block held in place using a block of wood he found. The legitimate fixes from mechanics never held. The block of wood did. I remember a number of winters where we ate a lot of fudge because he was trying to get a create a recipe that got the consistency of fudge he wanted on cheaper ingredients. My dad is a pastor and my wife is an amateur photographer. She has given him blanket permission to use her photographs for church. She has also put settings on her photosite that prevents direct downloading of her work. So, my Dad has told me that rather than call and ask each photo be sent, he takes a screen capture and edits. It's faster and more convenient. It's also not illegal because he has her permission.

Dad passed these values on to me. I believe in making what we have work and making things work cheap. My car's bumper is held on with bungee cords. I have a coolant leak sealed off with duck tape. And I've taken it a step further. My computers, not the ones for work, but my own computers, all run free open source software. Whenever I've gone the consumer route instead of the hacking route, I've regretted it. Dad taught me well.

So, when something doesn't work, a hacker makes it work. Really, this makes life better for everyone involved.

Hackers like to take things and figure out how to make them better for their own purposes which is a stumbling block for closed-source software producers. If they don't inhibit innovation, they cannot control distribution. See, if a person decides to make their code available, there is nothing stopping someone from just copying that code into their own computer and compiling it themselves, or putting it up on the internet where anyone can compile it. The only way for the public to make stuff better is to for distributors to make it free. So, for hackers to do what they do legally, there have to be open source options. These are options that a person can alter so they work better for themselves. They are also free to the public. Free does not intuitively seem like a good business model, but it does work sometimes.

How free works.

How does free software make money for its producers? The simple answer is that it doesn't. Most open source software is either a branch of a company that makes profits elsewhere, a private individual's offering that only gets that person a good reputation, a non-profit company or, in most cases, a combination of the three. Really, the idea that open source never produces profit is sort of not true.

Probably the most successful Open Source phenomena, the one that people always point to for open source success, is Firefox. Now, before I get comments arguing here, I am not advocating Firefox or even really endorsing Firefox. I am only using it as a case study because it seems to be an open source product everyone knows about.

Firefox is released under the Mozilla Public License, which is actually a somewhat restrictive license as far as open source licenses go. Still, it makes it so that one can view the code freely and alter it, at least for one's own use, freely. It is offered free to the public both compiled for installation in various operating systems and uncompiled, meaning just as code. Since it is free, it isn't something sold.

Mozilla is a non-profit organization, so if it made no profit that would be fine. However, the latest financial records, from 2009, show $104 million in revenue in 2009, according to their annual report. That is not Microsoft type of money, but it is a lot more than most of the non-profits I've worked with handle. Especially when one considers that this includes a loss of "$104,000 in investments from the Foundation's long-term portfolio as a result of economic conditions and investment values at the end of 2009."

The money came from all over the place. You can donate, it is a non-profit and the monies are tax deductible. A great deal of it came from grants. Most of it came from that little thing up in the right hand corner of your screen, if you are using Firefox. Google, Yahoo! and other companies payed Firefox to be included as automatic search choices. That is one means by which Open Source makes money.

Of course, Ubuntu also receives money from donations to its foundations, and in good years growth from its that foundation's investments. It also gets revenue from another source, customer support.

I've never used it. There is awesome support available from the Ubuntu community through their forums. Often, I've had to wait for a few days to get an answer, however.

Canonical, however, offers the services of paid hackers to help a person make things work perfectly for them. They do this without you having to wait. You pay for this service, Canonical makes money. Once again, not Microsoft level of money, but still, lots and lots of money.

The result is that the world is flattened and everyone benefits, except Apple and Microsoft.

I hope my readers know that saying I am "riding the Narwhal into Heaven" is hyperbole. Writing about open source computers brings out the techno-utopian in me. Yet, I know that Jesus said the poor will always be with us (Mat. 26:11). Yet I really think that through open source a number of people can move up.

See, hackers make things work and they make them work cheap. A block of wood in the engine, the fact that my bumper is held on by bungie cords, these are cheap. Open source can make it possible for the poorest people to have access to computer tools just like the rich. That means the poor can bring their blogs (like this one), their ideas and their products to market. It doesn't make everyone rich, but now everyone can compete.

The big software producers like Microsoft and Apple have fought pure open source. They have done so in courts, by giving cheap licenses to schools and universities so that students get addicted to consumer products and by simply failing to acknowledge their existence. I have noticed, however, that the companies realized that there are advantages to innovation of having open source products. The conundrum has resulted in even these companies releasing a few products open source.

Excitement is not so silly.

So, you see, my excitement over the newest innovation in Ubuntu is not so silly. Every open source innovation is a move in the right direction. It is a move to something better. It is a move that makes me excited.

1 comment:

  1. How to get Wanda the Fish back:
    In terminal"
    sudo add-apt-repository ppa:dylanmccall/indicator-fish
    sudo apt-get update
    sudo apt-get install indicator-fish

    Choose startup programs and choose "add"
    in the command line, type "indicator-fish &"