On Computers

Rabbit's Rant

Jack 'daWabbit' Imsdahl, jack@oncomputers.info

17 August 2003

Happy Birthday, Debian GNU/Linux!

My first intention for writing this week was to do something on why Open Source/Free Software (OS/FS) matters to 'the rest of us'. It's a point often missed; overshadowed by cost issues and philosophy (not to mention axe-grinding of various natures and animosities to certain corporations run wild). The whole thing proved harder than it first seemed and I was struggling with it when I came across a tenth birthday announcement for Debian GNU/Linux, which made it perfectly clear in my mind.

Before I get too far into that, though, I'd like to congratulate and thank all the folks who participate in producing and developing Debian GNU/Linux. It's my favorite distribution; the one I install when the choice is mine and I'm the user. I'm currently contemplating installing another distro (Red Hat 9, if you're curious) and I'm certain I'm going to miss 'apt-get', the Debian package management tools. Apt was the first truly coherent package management system available and to my mind it is still the best, though there are plenty who will argue this with me. Long before Red Hat, et al; Debian was introducing the tools that would make commercialization of Linux possible, which is ironic when you realize how determinedly non-commercial the Debian project is.

In reading the article cited below and then re-reading Eric S. Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" (not just that essay but the entire book containing it) I realized that the OS/FS development community represents a tremendous reservoir of passion for computing and the experiences therein and that this benefits the rest of us to a 
tremendous degree.

You've got to be a real geek (or at least so inclined) to be passionate about computing. If you don't believe me, ask an office worker how they feel about their computer. Should you hear anything in their reply resembling passion, it will most likely be anger. To many of them, the majority, I suspect, the computer is a mysterious and often fallible tool.

OS/FS represents a lot of passion, really. Peer approval and passion for accomplishing the task well is a big part of what drives OS/FS coders. Some programmer gets an itch, hacks a solution, then puts it out for users and other developers to help finish it. No one gets paid except in peer approval and the artful satisfaction of a job well done. People work on this stuff because they care about it.

I think this matters because the end result of it can be (and often is) better software for all of us. People who care about the tools they use do better work. Any tool which is an annoyance in use is a liability. So better software is needed now and that need is never-ending. While I am NOT saying a for-profit enterprise can't deliver on that need, they have before and will again, I am saying that they don't completely fill it.

One need look no further than automobile or motorcycle racing to see the effect 
passionate pursuit of performance has. The cars and bikes we drive every day have benefited in innumerable ways from this. Yes, there are some which depend on their remaining unchanging to maintain their allure, but these are few compared to those which incorporate the developments of racing engineers into their products.

Some proprietary applications are only a half-step above unusable. Some OS/FS apps are, too. The difference is that I'm never sure the company producing the apps I'm using really cares. After all; they've already got my money, right? And if you've dealt with most publisher's software support apparatus, you know exactly where I'm coming from with this. There are exceptions, it is true, but not many. Whereas I'm quite certain the OS/FS developers care. If they didn't care, they wouldn't be doing it. The same goes for those populating the various support forums for OS/FS apps. I think this shows now and will continue to increase in importance, as time goes by and the OS/FS movement matures further.

It used to be that someone would come out with a 'killer app' and we would all be wowed at the new tool and how it helped us do our work so much better. That doesn't happen anywhere near so often now. In fact, more than one pundit has argued that the killer app mentality is a dead end, if it hasn't already expired, and good riddance. I don't know about that. But it is plain that most of the progress in applications is coming in refinements and improvements and not in the creation of software that bestows entirely new ways of working upon us. (This applies to operating systems, also.) That progress seems to be coming as much from the OS/FS community of developers now as from proprietary concerns. Both sides of the fence have developed new applications, too, but in most cases, it's an incremental game. New features and improved function are the most common developments, rather than new applications.

There's always going to be a place for proprietary software. I'll be there paying for some of it, too. There will likewise always be folks who aren't motivated by money trying to go them one better. It's very interesting to watch, plus I get good software to use. We always benefit from more choices. Sometimes a little and sometimes a lot.

I feel better already.


Read a very lightweight review of Debian's history by Ian Murdock (the founder) 
complete with his first postings to the Internet regarding creating the distribution.

© 2003 Jack Imsdahl

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