Living With Linux

A new cost-free and crash-free alternative to Windows and Macintosh operating systems provides freedom at a price
(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

A FEW years ago I worked on a small publishing project in northern California. As often happens now, the project was entirely edited and laid out on a computer network -- four Apple Macintoshes in this case. Because the project had many pictures, which computers treat as very large files, we added a powerful new-model Mac to the network and a fancy laser printer that could produce photo-quality images. To our dismay, the improvements broke the system horribly. We tried to fix it by every method we could think of: fiddling with configuration screens, deleting and reinstalling software, combing through the Internet for advice, calling technical-support numbers, cursing at the machines while turning them on and off repeatedly. A hired computer consultant swaggered into our offices. Hours later he staggered out in defeat. Although we were not far from Silicon Valley, we couldn't find anyone who could fix our boxes.
By luck we eventually resuscitated our machines. But we still had no idea why they had so many problems, other than our incautious decision to revamp the network on the eve of a major deadline. Recently I have come to believe that the fundamental cause was one that hardly anyone would have named, even those few years ago: our software was proprietary. In other words, the manufacturers -- Apple, in the main, but also Xanté, which made the printer -- controlled the underlying instructions that made their products work, and kept them secret. Much as no technician could repair a computer if the case were sealed shut, neither we nor our consultant could lift the lid of the software and peer inside to see why our network was down.

This is rapidly changing. Pushed by the growth of the Internet and a new operating system known as Linux, many software companies are considering whether to allow unrestricted access to the underlying instructions -- the "source code," in the jargon -- of their programs. For the computer industry this is a turnabout. Until as recently as last year software companies almost invariably viewed source code as their single most valuable asset. Yet throughout Silicon Valley executives are discussing whether they will be forced, for the sake of corporate survival, to give away something they have always thought worth millions of dollars.

The notion is especially startling for operating systems. An operating system is the software that runs the hardware on a computer. When users of, say, Microsoft Word click on the PRINT button or type sentences, the program does not print the document or put letters on the monitor. Instead it passes the instructions to the operating system, which shuttles data from the hard drive to the printer or translates the keystrokes into onscreen characters. The two most familiar operating systems are Microsoft Windows and Mac OS, the Macintosh operating system. Microsoft and Apple are famed for their differences, but in one respect they are exactly the same: they have both used control of the source code to their operating systems as a competitive weapon. Indeed, Microsoft's competitors widely attribute its dominance to its lock on Windows. Nonetheless, Apple has already given programmers a small glimpse of its source code, and Microsoft has announced that it might do the same.

Opening source code is more than the latest news release in the software industry. It is the center of a small but increasingly influential movement -- one that aspires to transform the world. Enthusiasts dismiss the grudging moves by Apple and Microsoft as too little too late, and confidently anticipate that Linux will topple Bill Gates's empire. Many believe that its widespread adoption will greatly increase human freedom. Still others hope that Linux will reduce the gap between rich and poor nations.

No one can say whether any of this will come to pass, although the information age is sweeping society so rapidly and unpredictably that not even the unlikeliest outcomes can be dismissed. But it is clear that living with Linux, which I have been doing for a while now, is not at all like spending time with Windows or Mac OS. Whereas Windows and Mac OS are intended in part to shield users from their machines, Linux forces people to grapple with their relationship to technology -- an experience that was for me both salutary and disquieting.

I'M writing this article with software called XEmacs. The program (its name derives, circuitously, from an abbreviation for "Editor Macros") is unlike any other word processor I've ever encountered. In addition to cutting and pasting text, XEmacs can run other programs; send electronic mail; browse the World Wide Web; retrieve, edit, and send files across the Internet; and keep track of appointments. It's like a digital Swiss army knife. Many hackers (a term used by computer cognoscenti to refer not to teenage vandals but to expert programmers and network administrators) open XEmacs when they come to work, use it through the day for every kind of task, and close it when they go home. Macintosh and Windows adaptations of XEmacs exist, but the program is used mainly on other operating systems, especially Linux. XEmacs is a descendant of Emacs, most of which was written in the mid-1970s by Richard Stallman, a gifted hacker who has spent most of the past two decades working as a volunteer in the halls of the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When Stallman began coding, proprietary software hardly existed. Computer makers like IBM and Digital threw in the programs needed to operate their expensive machines -- the profits to be made were on hardware. In those long-ago days programmers freely passed their code around for colleagues to use, critique, and improve. Stallman thought of this as eminently sensible.

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Charles C. Mann, an Atlantic contributing editor, has been writing for the magazine since 1984. His recent books include 1491, based on his March 2002 cover story, and 1493.

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