Two days ago, Fedora 14 was released, and I decided to give it a try. In a previous post, I was using openSUSE 11.3, and I was proud of it. Well, I was, but now I have moved on. I shift between Linux distributions as my needs and desires change, and I don’t believe there is anything wrong with that.
All operating systems come with their own ideology, whether their users are actively aware of them or even care. These are all generalizations, but…
Windows users are usually sticking with what is familiar with them. Many don’t know that Windows and PC are not interchangeable terms, nor do they care. They expect everything they see online or in stores to be able to run on their computers, as long as they pay the right price. They either don’t care or don’t notice that every program on their computer tends to look and function in a different way, and they tend to be fine with pouring money and trust into Microsoft’s coffers.
Mac users are willing to pay more money for what they think is a superior product. They believe Mac’s interface is easier to understand than Windows, and they’re forced into understanding that not everything they see in stores can run on their computers. They’re more comfortable with pouring their trust and money into Apple than Windows users, because Apple controls every aspect of the Mac, from the hardware to what kind of software is installed on it to how that software looks. They don’t necessarily know what an operating system is, just that a Mac isn’t a PC, and for many of them, not running Windows is an attractive enough statement in its own right.
Linux users are an entirely different breed of people. They know what an operating system is — after all, they likely installed Linux themselves. They understand that most of what they see in stores can’t be run on their computers, but many are willing to tinker with it anyways just to be certain. They know that buying anything, from buying a printer to a digital camera to a voice recorder, may require research on their part, since these products do not go out of their way to say whether they are Windows or Mac capable, and for good reason: Linux is a mess. Linux challenges the notion that computers are products and that our use of them should be limited to what the computer manufacturer or software designer decides. Linux users want the freedom to compute in the way that they desire, without unnecessary — some would deem scary — restrictions. As a result, no single entity controls or speakers for Linux, nor is there one form of Linux. Sometimes, Linux users themselves are the loudest speakers on behalf of Linux, and for them, that can be empowering.
How do Fedora and openSUSE fit into all of this? Well, they are both Linux distributions. To grossly simplify, Linux is developed by individuals from all over the world, varying from hobbyists to corporations. Since no one entity controls Linux, no one entity collects and distributes the software made for it. As a result, other groups have to fill this role. You can’t go online and download Linux, but you can download Fedora, openSUSE, Ubuntu, etc., which will give you access to what Linux has to offer. Thus, Linux distributions are less like products, like Windows and Mac OS X, and more like communities. I could have taken my openSUSE computer and changed it so that it looked identical to how my Fedora computer looks now, if I so desired.
Why, then, did I switch? This is largely because I’m a curious individual. I will wipe my computer multiple times in one day, just to see what a new Linux distribution has to offer me. I have wiped my computer dozens of times since my last post, and again, I’m okay with that. What ultimately attracted me to Fedora was not its product, but the ideology it espouses.
In this day and age, I see computing as more than the use of a product. In a world where entire relationships can take place, pictures can be taken and shared, research papers can be typed and formatted, bills can be paid and communities can form all from behind a computer screen, to treat operating systems and the software they run as mere products poses a large risk. This places too much power over our lives into the hands of a few companies and the size of our checkbook.
Lets say you type a letter to a friend and save it as a .docx file, the format the latest version of Microsoft Office Word uses as default. Your friend may be using an older version of Microsoft Office and cannot open the file. Sure, they could fork over the money for Microsoft Office, but they may not have that money available. Now lets assume that you want to look back at that letter ten years later, but you can’t because Microsoft has gone out of business and their Microsoft Office format is now unsupported. You’ve now lost access to your own data.
Fedora doesn’t sell itself as the best product out there. Different people have different needs and desires, so there is no reason to try to be all things for all people. Instead, Fedora tries to be at the forefront of open source software — that is, software that is free to use, share, and modify. They desire to be the distribution that makes it easiest to access the latest open source software without going through too much effort to place their brand everywhere. They give users the tools to use open source software to set up their computer however they see fit, and that’s attractive to me. My setup currently looks and functions quite differently from the default setup shown on the Fedora website. Fedora doesn’t task itself with getting its product in the hands of everyone, but instead pushes the advancement of open source software as a whole. All of the art for it and its webpage are created using open source software as a testament to how capable the software is. It also doesn’t ship software that isn’t open source, such as proprietary multimedia codecs. This comes with its own set of difficulties, but I feel good knowing I’m using an operating system that is free to use, free to modify, not trying to limit what I can do and not trying to sell something to me — a peeve of mine whenever I find myself using Windows nowadays.
Is Linux suitable for the masses? Well, yes and no. The software is definitely capable. There is very little that I could do back when I was on Windows that I can’t do now, and for my purposes, the benefits definitely outweigh the setbacks. However, using open source operating systems such as Linux, FreeBSD, etc. requires a certain amount of knowledge that the average computer user currently does not want to have to deal with when the dominant culture around them is comfortable with plunking down dollars for everything. Personally, I rather save money using free alternatives, even if I do have to take the time reading up on them. At the end of the day, Windows causes stupidity, and until the dominant culture changes, Linux is not likely to see mass acceptance, regardless of its merits.