Why Free(dom) Software?

My first experiments (The chrysalis)

I stepped into to the fascinating world of computers as a wide-eyed 10 year old, with a BBC micro computer to learn the basics of Programming which was included in the C.B.S.E curriculum as a socially useful productive work (S.U.P.W). I started with the BASIC programming language, then moved on to PASCAL for a very short period of time, did some coding in FORTRAN as a part of my engineering curriculum. My early days in the software world was more out of compulsion to pass exams rather than gain knowledge.

These days though, programming has taken on a completely different perspective for me. To know the reason behind this darconian change in my attitude towards programming, let me take you along with me on a short journey into the world of free(dom) software.

Tuxing and me (out of the bondage cocoon)

Computers and networking are my passion these days, and I love learning more and more about them, be it hardware, programming or networking. I am a Free Software* enthusiast, and i use a dual boot machine at home consisting of Debian GNU/Linux and FreeBSD.

My journey into the world of free(dom) software began when the zenith pc I purchased did not offer me any operating system pre-loaded with it. I decided to borrow a copy of a popular proprietary operating system software (no prices for guessing the name) from a friend of mine unaware of the treacherous End User's Licence Agreement (EULA) that it contained.

The friend of mine lend me his 'legal' copy (because he was indeed a good friend in deed) and I found it perfectly legal to install it as I was not illegally copying software (pirating software), but borrowing a genuine version from my friend who had no problems sharing his software with me in the first place. I requested the Zenith technicians to install my friend's copy of the properietary operating system on my brand new PC. My friend was gracious enough to lend his 'legal' version of the word processing application too (no prices again for guessing the name).

Within a few days of spending my time online and researching on various Operating Systems and Word Processing applications which I should buy for myself (I did not want to use my friend's copy forever), I discovered couple of horrifying facts. The first fact was that I could not 'legally' afford to have my own copy of the proprietary operating system and the Word Processing application as it was way beyond my budget. The second fact was that I was 'unknowingy' breaking the law by violating the EULA by borrowing a copy of the proprietary software which was 'licensed' only for usage to my friend and not to anyone else. I would now be called a 'pirate', a term commonly used for robbers and burglars who loot ships at high sea.

EULA prevented me from borrowing the operating system software from my friend stating that it was illegal to borrow or copy proprietary source code that was distributed under EULA without the permission of the company that created the software. The rule made by owners of proprietary software is 'If you share with your neighbour, you are a pirate. If you want any changes, beg us to make them.'

In short the owners of proprietary software were building walls to divide people. I knew that i could not in any good conscience sign any agreement that prevents me from sharing my software with my friends.

I faced a stark moral choice, one was to sacrifice my freedom and like countless unfortunate software users worldwide, sign the EULA or refuse to sign the EULA and look for a operating system that gave me the freedom to not only share the software with my friends but also study,modify and share the modified source code with the whole community of software users worldwide. Even though i am just a budding programmer, I am curious to know how operating systems and applications work, and access to the source codes are a prerequisite for learning.

So I decided to do a bit of research on the internet to find a stable, secure replacement for the proprietary operating system . I visited various security portals, IRC Chat Rooms,read various articles on computer/network security.

It was at this point of time that i managed to install Red Hat GNU/Linux 8 on my system. The installation was not smooth ( This may surprise a lot of you out there), and the GNOME Graphical User Interface (GUI) it had was sluggish on my system. The GNOME GUI started crashing more often than MiGs of the Indian Air Force. I tried upgrading my operating system to Red Hat Linux 9 and things seemed to go ok for a while. I had no support from Red Hat but it seemed stable and fairly usable.

I decided to give Mandrake GNU/Linux a chance. Mandrake 10.0 was beautiful with a Graphical User Interface more colourful and option rich than the Red Hat interface, but 'beautiful' did not serve my purpose. It was plagued by the same problems that Red Hat had and lacked support from its creators. I swifty reverted back to Red Hat again. Life seemed to back to normal, well it was only a mirage......

After a few months Red Hat changed its policy and started distributing 2 editions one called the Red Hat GNU/Linux Enterprise Edition for commerical use which had their support for a limited period of time, and then there was the Fedora Core family for non-commercial use that was totally unsupported by Red Hat.

At that point of time Red Hat was in a tough spot. I understood that most of Red Hat's revenue streams were based on sales, support, and Red Hat Certification courses. The free(dom) nature of GNU/Linux had resulted in thousands of freely-available GNU/Linux resources on the Web. Red Hat's survival depended on having a product that was proprietary enough to make me dependent upon them for upgrades and support. And now that they were a publically-held company they were under pressure to meet the expectations of Wall Street analysts for revenue growth and cash flows every quarter.

I also understood that Red Hat's dominance will likely kill off smaller commercial distributions like Suse and Mandrake and dealing with Red Hat will be no different than dealing with the proprietary company that prevented me from borrowing and sharing my software with my friends in the first place . I decided that enough was enough and wanted a GNU/Linux distribution that i could install once and forget about policy changes and package updates.

It was then that a friend of mine suggested that i try Debian GNU/Linux on my system. I sulked when i heard that it involved going through a 7 cd installation process (Debian Woody), but these days i am laughing (silently of course), when i hear that people use other operating systems or even other GNU/Linux distributions.

Debian GNU/Linux solved all the issues of ease of use, stability and timely package updates in one go. Click here to read my article on why i prefer the Debian GNU/Linux model over other GNU/Linux distribtions.

I am really fortunate to have met a lot of wonderful hackers who have helped me both online as well as offline learn more about Free Operating Systems and the hacker culture.

The hacker culture orginated in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The word hack at MIT usually refers to a clever, benign, and "ethical" prank or practical joke, which is both challenging for the perpetrators and amusing to the MIT community (and sometimes even the rest of the world!). Note that this has nothing to do with computer (or phone) hacking (which we call "cracking"). Click here to know more about the hacker culture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Free Software and me (Wings of Freedom)

The Free Software Movement started by the legendary former Massachusetts Institute of Technology hacker Richard Matthew Stallman(RMS), and his philosophy on software have inculcated in me values like voluntary sharing of software and a spirit of ethos.

I use only free(dom) software, and urge you my fellow netizens to refuse to use any software that divides us by building walls that prevent us from sharing our own software with others who are in need.

These days, i am involved with GNU/Linux localisation into malayalam and co-ordinate the FOSS-Malayalam Project that aims at providing comprehensive malayalam support to the GNU operating system(s), websites and manuals. I have accepted the invitation of Mr.Guntapalli Karunakar to volunteer as a systems administrator for the IndLinux Project that aims to offer Indian Language support to GNU/Linux.

Today software for me is not merely a set of programs that run on my systems, but a tool that can change the way our society thinks on social issues like bridging the gap between the privileged few and the unprivileged masses. In short its transforming me into a Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) Hacktivist, and I have no regrets.


* free as in freedom, not free lunch. In Hindi "mukth" means freedom and
"mufth" means free of cost, or Free as in "swathanthra" not "soujanya"

Copyright (c) 2004,2005,2006,2007,2008,2009,2010 Vivek Varghese Cherian < freeshell DOT org AT vivekvc >

Verbatim copying and redistribution of the contents of the site are permitted provided this notice is preserved.

Disclamer: The opinions expressed on this site and on my blog are my own and do not reflect those of my past or present employers.

Last modified: Thurs Nov 16 07:52:25 IST 2010