Geek Love

In which Boy Developer Andrew Shuman goes on a date with Linux but declines to marry it.

After you read this tech-head’s view of Linux, see the English major’s appreciation in “

A Labor of Linux


Linux will change the world. Linux will do my homework, my dishes, my laundry. The hype reminds me of similar hype a couple of years ago about Java, which never did floss my teeth. But, setting out to demystify Linux, I fell in love. Geek love, I hasten to add. It’s not for everyone.

Unlike Windows (and IBM’s OS/2 and Apple’s MacOS) Linux was written by a person, not a faceless monolith like the company I work for. This person was Linus Torvalds. Linux is also different because it is based on the founding principles and software of the Free Software Foundation, whose name describes its mission. Linux is derived from an operating system developed by FSF called GNU. The proper name for Linux is GNU/Linux. GNU is a variation on the Unix operating system and the acronym GNU stands–disconcertingly–for ” GNU’s not Unix.” Are you still with me?

The FSF crew preaches that all software should be “Open Source,” by which they mean that any user should be able to view and change the underlying code, be it for the operating system or for applications. (Microsoft, Apple, and other companies consider their code top secret.) Open sourcers also advocate free distribution of software. To the FSF the issues of free software are at the very foundation of creating a “cooperative society.” I am a wee bit skeptical. I enjoy getting paid to write software, and I suspect that many, if not most, Linux enthusiasts are being paid by someone to write software. It’s nice that they can play with Linux for free, but if all software were free, how would they eat?

When pushed, the Free Software Foundation defines “free” as a matter of liberty, not of price. Many people pay for GNU/Linux, but the underlying mechanics are freely available to anyone who wants them. Companies that sell Linux offer the support and maintenance that people have come to expect–and charge for them.

But software development religions aside, what is an operating system like Linux doing? As the name suggests, it controls the fundamental operation of your computer: things like how to read documents from a disk and send them to a printer. As you may have heard, the demarcation of what is and isn’t “in the operating system” can be a touchy question. Some companies maintain that an operating system contains any goddamn thing they want to put in it, thank you very much. Other folks say that an operating system is just the core functionality (or in computer parlance, the kernel) necessary to run the chips in your machine.

Linux is definitely the second model. When you turn on a computer using Linux you get no bells, whistles, or windows. You just see some lines of text and then a blinking cursor. So are we just back to DOS? Well, no: You can add a graphical interface known as Xwindows, which looks amazingly like Windows, complete with a Start button. Once you start Xwindows, you’re back in familiar territory. You can use your mouse to open documents and applications (such as WordPerfect). I even ran a Web browser. A big practical disadvantage of Linux is that there isn’t much application software for it. But that’s because so few people use it. It wouldn’t be fair to count this as a negative in weighing Linux’s intrinsic merits. And so, of course, I won’t.

To begin my experiment I had to get a machine running Linux. So I started searching the Web for information. After getting lost on a few Web sites, I completely wimped out and went to Barnes & Noble. The software may be free, but there’s big money in books on how to use it. I made a scientific decision based on weight and purchased Red Hat Linux Secrets for $39.95, which included Red Hat software’s 5.1 version of Linux on a CD-ROM.

Back at the office I did the hard stuff. I hijacked a Pentium 133 with 32 megs of memory and repartitioned its hard drive into two parts. “Repartitioned” is a fancy way of saying “divided.” Thus, instead of one big hard drive I now have two little ones using the same physical disk. Linux has a utility program that helped me do this (because it knows you’re going to want to keep running Windows too). It did involve some complicated thinking about disk cylinders, but it worked.

I then fruitlessly tried to get Linux to boot up. First I tried to get it to load directly from the CD that came with the book. Then I spent another hour trying to get the Linux boot disk I had created to acknowledge the existence of the CD drive. Finally, I copied the entire CD onto my hard drive and started the install process. I had to create two more floppy boot disks.

I had to repartition my drive again within Linux to create swap space for the operating system (for those keeping track I now have three partitions on my hard drive). I had to format both drives. I then had to remember where on my hard drive I had put the install files. Then it got started. Linux found my various devices, such as my mouse and graphics card. It configured both relatively painlessly. It wasn’t complete plug and pray. I still had to select my items from lists, and it was good that I generally knew what types of hardware I was running, but it worked. Finally I got a blinking cursor at the Linux prompt. I then launched Xwindows. To complete the setup, I got the browser configured and read Slate! After installing Corel’s WordPerfect I was even able to write this column on Linux in Linux. (Lexicographical curiosity: The word Linux is in the WordPerfect spell-check dictionary but not in Microsoft Word’s.)

After spending a day with Linux, I concluded that it runs great. It helped that I know Unix, but the system does work. I have basic Web browsing capabilities and a word processor. I also configured and set up the Web server, so I could, in theory, power all of Slate off this machine. In fact, Linux is definitely cool as a server. But if you want to replace your desktop machine, forget it.

What makes Linux enthralling from a tech-head’s point of view is that it is based on Unix standards that have been around for decades. Companies from AT&T to Sun Microsystems to Apple to IBM to Silicon Graphics have produced varieties of Unix for their business customers. While these varieties are generally incompatible with one another, all this code-writing has resulted in a far-flung community that understands the Unix beast. Linux developers stand on the shoulders of these giants, thus Linux has a lot of intrinsic testing behind it. That makes it what techies call “robust,” meaning resistant to breaking down. Enthusiasts claim that Linux can run for years without requiring you to restart your system. On my machine I can claim only a week of running without restarting, but that is pretty darn good. It also has a solid multithreading and multitasking model, meaning that one errant program can’t bring the whole computer to its knees. (This is a feature Linux shares with Windows NT, but not with Windows 95/98.)

In terms of performance, Linux ran about as quickly as Windows 95/98 (though much faster than Windows NT Server) on my low-end Pentium machine. For a completely unscientific example, there was little difference in basic file operations such as copying and pasting, and WordPerfect ran just as fast as it did on a comparable Windows machine.

Should you switch to Linux? In my opinion, if you are a typical computer user, there is no practical reason to do so. The best reason is psychological. Linux is a workable alternative to Windows, and thus it allows you to vote with your PC. If you hate Microsoft, you can use Linux. It has all the basics necessary to get you through your computing life, if you are willing to ignore some rough edges here and there. For instance, you won’t have much trouble importing data from word processing and spreadsheet files. But if you crave a huge variety of software application–games, personal information managers, graphics programs, financial software, reference works–you’d be better off buying a Mac or a Windows PC. Some experts predict that the dawning of the Web means that your operating system may be less and less important anyway. Many of you have used Linux and don’t even know it, because many of the Web sites you frequent to check the weather or buy airplane tickets are powered by Linux.

Now I must confess my doubts about the Open Source movement. Do all those software developers writing open source code for Linux have the incentive to fix problems as they arise and–more important–to help people upgrade and keep old code running? Perhaps the greatest technological feature that Windows possesses is that it can handle programs as old as the first DOS applications. Linux will never do that.

Some critics say that Linux will fracture into a dozen different incompatible versions, just as Unix did. Linux champions insists that the community will prevent such a Tower of Babel disaster. I suspect that a schism will eventually divide the happy Linux community, as equally creative innovators disagree on the operating system’s future.

Furthermore, as I’ve written before in Slate, software companies spend a surprising fraction of their resources testing software, not writing it. In my experience, this is the ultimate problem with Open Source development: not enough formal engaged testing. Developers want to write code, they don’t want to solve all the niggling little problems that users come up with.

But if the thought of a free operating system is so exciting that you’re willing to pay $39.95 and invest hours for the privilege, by all means give Linux a try.