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I began my own experimentation by downloading Linux free from a Web site: Debian.org. Debian, a loose collective of programmers, is positioned near one end of the arc of open-source software -- the end with the most geek credibility, because it is militantly devoted to the hacker ethos. Through no fault of Debian's, I didn't download all 800 megabytes of Linux from its Web site: I stopped after a few hours, because my noisy phone line kept losing the connection.
Debian's version of Linux is offered by online retailers; CheapBytes.com sells the current release, Debian 2.1, on CD-ROM for $2.49 plus shipping and handling. But after several download failures I was too grumpy
Most people who buy a Linux CD-ROM plan to install the software on a machine that is already running Windows or Mac OS, and want to keep working with their old programs; Red Hat Linux includes a program called "LILO" -- for "Linux Loader" -- that lets such users switch between operating systems. I planned to install Linux on an old 486-50 that my family uses to store aged but potentially useful material.
Because I had souped up the computer with new components over the years, I expected trouble. It arrived within seconds of inserting the start-up floppy disk. The installation program looked for the Linux CD-ROM and couldn't find it, because it didn't recognize the Trantor adapter in my NEC CD-ROM drive. A search on the Internet informed me that Trantor had been bought by Adaptec, which no longer supported my adapter. I also found several futile pleas by Linux users for help with their Trantor adapters. So I went to a used-computer store and bought a ...
There's little point in continuing. Installing Linux in an old Windows or Macintosh box is like putting a new clutch in a car. Some people like this sort of thing and some don't. I like it more than many people I know, though I'm not particularly good at it. People who don't like to tinker should either pay someone else to install Linux or, better, obtain a brand-new computer with Linux already on its hard drive, which is what I did next.
I borrowed a computer from VA Linux Systems, of Sunnyvale, California, the biggest Linux-only computer maker. As a graduate student in engineering at Stanford, Larry Augustin, the company president, discovered that by loading Linux on a 486 PC he could make a powerful workstation for about a quarter of the prevailing price. One thing led to another, and in 1993 VA Linux Systems was born (the name comes from the initials of Augustin and James Vera, a former partner). Augustin helped his fellow students David Filo and Jerry Yang write the initial business plan for Yahoo! -- an Internet-search company with a current stock valuation of more than $30 billion. Augustin is not yet a billionaire, but he assured me that Linux will grow so much that VA "will be bigger [than Yahoo!] in the end." Indeed, he said, its monthly sales tripled from November to March.
When Donna Sokolsky, the public-relations person for VA, asked why I wanted the computer, I explained that I hoped to see what Linux would be like if bought in the same way that most people buy Windows or Mac OS -- pre-loaded on a machine. Sighing, Sokolsky said something like "Well, you have to understand that Linux isn't really ready for the casual user yet." This turned out to be not completely true. In certain situations Linux is better suited to non-experts than are other operating systems -- something about which, upon reflection, I could not feel entirely happy.
LINUX, Torvalds warned early on, "is a program for hackers by a hacker." Indeed, Unix, the inspiration for GNU and Linux, is exactly the kind of software that makes the uninitiated feel stupid. Militantly unintuitive, it requires the mastering of dozens of telegraphic commands such as "egrep," "ping," and "gzip," all of which can be modified to act in any number of ways familiar to anyone who remembers MS-DOS. Novices can easily view this approach as daunting. One of the help files distributed with Linux unblushingly gives, as a "realistic example," the following command to decompress all the compressed files in the current directory without erasing any of them:
find . -name '*.gz' -print | sed
Hackers prefer typed commands to point-and-click menus, because these usually permit better control of the machine; they like open-source software because they can add options as needed. The purpose of Windows and Mac OS is to create a seamless experience for the user, which is usually accomplished by gluing together separate pieces of software. Examples of this agglomerating tendency abound, including Microsoft's attempt to meld Internet Explorer, its Web browser, into Windows -- which led to the antitrust battle that began last fall. Conceptually more important was the decision, first by Apple and then, imitating it, by Microsoft, to fuse the operating system with the graphical user interface -- the software that lets people run the operating system by clicking the mouse on windows on a computer "desktop." With Macintoshes there are no typed commands. Grudgingly, almost covertly, Windows does permit typed-in commands, but Microsoft supposedly has been trying to eliminate the DOS command line in the next versions.
This is abhorrent to Linux partisans. From their point of view, the best practice is to separate the operating system from the user interface and applications, so that if one application freezes up, the system won't crash. (IBM's challenger to Windows, the lamented but for-hackers-only OS/2, rigorously maintained this separation, and its safety made it the object of a cult.) I have terrible Netscape karma, for instance -- Netscape crashes when I'm anywhere near it. With Windows, Netscape usually takes down the whole computer; when I try to exit the frozen program, I end up having to reboot. With Linux the program is just as badly behaved, but I can kill it without bringing everything else down with it. Indeed, I have not yet managed to lock up Linux, despite giving it, in my incompetence, plenty of excuses to go belly-up. My Windows box dies every day or so; Mac OS, when I use it, rarely lasts a day without needing a reboot.
For all its obvious advantages, Linux strikes most people as hard to use, because they don't want to learn typed commands. To bring Linux to the masses, programmers around the world have spent years developing a point-and-click interface -- an effort that is now paying off. The attempt to make Linux (and Unix) easier to use began with a project called, variously, X Window, X11, and simply X. Launched in the 1980s as a joint project between MIT and Digital, X is free software that provides a way for Linux computers to draw graphics on the monitor -- but, in the spirit of the operating system, without requiring any particular method of putting up windows. That is left up to the "window manager" -- software that lays out how the onscreen windows look and act.
More than half a dozen Linux window managers are available, all of them with features that are so obviously good ideas that the failure of Microsoft and
The latest step in the campaign to domesticate Linux has been to create "desktop environments," software that adds features to the window managers to let users control and configure their computers. Again, modular construction: the environment rides on top of the window manager, which rides on top of the graphical user interface, which rides on top of the operating system. As with Windows and Mac OS, Linux desktops have icons that users click on to run programs, "drag-and-drop" features that permit people to move text and files with the mouse, and the equivalent of taskbars, called "panels" or "pagers," which list running programs and desktops. Unlike the Windows desktop, Linux desktops do not force people who want to turn off their computers to click a button labeled START. Unlike the Mac OS desktop, Linux desktops do not ask users to eject floppy disks by dragging them to the trash -- the same action used to erase files.
When turnkey Linux systems become widely available, Stallman will have achieved much of his preposterous goal. No single person, company, or institution will own the software through which people interact with computers. The accomplishment will be remarkable. And yet turnkey systems -- machines that require no choices or understanding from the user -- fit uncomfortably with the ideals of freedom that began the GNU Project and the free-software movement.
WHEN Linux boots up, it sprays dozens of cryptic messages on the monitor, informing the user precisely what is happening inside the computer. The messages exemplify the transparency hackers like about Linux: it permits complete control of the machine. In our technological era control of computers is an increasingly valuable kind of freedom. Sensing this, people readily distrust the corporations that make technological choices for them -- one reason that Microsoft will never be loved, despite the many economic benefits it has conferred on the nation. At the same time, the line of boot-up messages stuttering down the monitor makes clear that this freedom comes at a price -- a learning curve that can be long and frustrating. VA Linux Systems lent me a computer that far surpassed my modest needs, not that I complained. Intended for use as a central computer in a network, it came with nothing so primitive as a modem. Wanting to connect to the Internet, I once again drove to CompUSA and bought a modem. When I got home, I was confronted with the task of figuring out how to hook it up -- the maker provided no instructions.
I spent a day or two puttering through the help files, newsgroup archives, and books. But just when I was ready to get down to work connecting the modem, I lost all interest. I was suffering from what the writer Neal Stephenson calls "geek fatigue" -- the desire to stop learning about, and fiddling with, a computer. (Last spring, in conjunction with the publication of his novel, Cryptonomicon, Stephenson made available a long, shrewd, funny online essay about operating systems, "In the Beginning was the Command Line.")
My ideas about liberty were unexpectedly challenged when Dan asked whether I wanted him to make an account for himself on my machine; if I had further problems, he could dial in and resolve them from his home. VA technical support made a similar offer: my machine came with a "back door" -- a pre-installed route by which company technicians could take over my computer and inspect the contents. Even if I asked Dan or VA to maintain my computer, it would be effectively impossible for anyone to enter it without my permission. But I would still be surrendering control.
Every contemporary operating system allows outside supervisors to control a user's machine, but with Linux the control is especially complete. Supervisors aren't limited by the choices left to them by Microsoft or Apple: they can do exactly what they want. If bosses don't want employees to download pictures from the Internet, that can be arranged. If they want alarms to sound when employees show signs of inefficiency, that, too, is possible. Every keystroke can be recorded and analyzed.
As is always the case with technology, the only way to control its impact is to understand it. That can't be done for every innovation -- look at the "12:00" blinking on videocassette recorders across the nation. Computers have become too important to be unquestioningly turned over to others to run. But they are a tremendous burden to maintain without help. Living with Linux has increased my awareness of the control exerted by computers even as it has stripped away my easy certainty about how much value I attach to liberty. Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds may have launched a successful campaign to unseal every computer, but it is a pending question how many people will want to look inside.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1999; Living With Linux - 99.08 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 2; page 80-86.