Linux Lies

Category: Computing Devices
Fri, 03 Oct 2008, 16:03

In a recent e-mail, an acquaintance wrote to me: "I have heard that Linux is a rip off of UNIX, and the only reason the creators of Linux can't be sued is because they can't be found".

I couldn't believe what I was reading. What nonsense! Are there really people out there who believe crap like that? Let's have a look at those claims.


First, what exactly is Linux? Think of the computer you currently use. For most of you, your computer runs some form of the Windows operating system. An operating system controls all aspects of the basic operation of the machine, providing interfaces between the software you use and the underlying hardware. Linux is an alternative operating system.

But there are fundamental differences between Linux and Windows. The most obvious difference is the price. Think about how much the cost of computers has fallen over the years. The cost reductions are almost entirely due to the cost of the hardware components. But the cost of the Windows operating system has not fallen. As the cost of the hardware decreases, you are spending a larger and larger proportion of the computer price to the manufacturer of Windows.

Why hasn't the cost of the software decreased in proportion to the cost of the hardware? After all, unlike hardware, the manufacturing costs of a piece of software is practically negligible. True copies of software can be easily made by anyone. The reality is that Microsoft has a virtual lock on the operating systems installed on the majority of personal computers sold. That is, they have a monopoly, and can charge what the market will bear.

Now to my point: Linux is available for free. That is, you can download and use a Linux distribution for only the cost of your internet connection, and the cost of a blank CD or DVD.

But that's not all. Linux is one of many free software packages. Typically, a Linux distribution comes with a plethora of useful software. So much so that you can easily run Linux on your desktop computer and do everything you need (and want) to do without paying a dime to a software vendor. Word processors, spread sheets, image manipulation, games, e-mail, web browser, financial - you name it, there's a software package available for free. You can pay if you want to. Sometimes you do want to if you need vendor support. But for most people, free is the right price.

Now on to the ridiculous claims: The first is that Linux is a "rip off of Unix". I could spend a lot or words discussing Unix, but that's not really necessary here. It's sufficient to point out that Linux is completely independent from Unix. Unix was developed in the early 1970's by Bell Labs. Linux development started in 1991 by a Finnish student named Linus Torvalds. Shortly after Torvalds began his pet project, others joined in, including the people responsible for the GNU project. GNU (which stands for "GNU's Not Unix") provides a wide range of software tools that duplicate tools available on Unix, but again, is completely independent of Unix. In other words, Linux looks and works a lot like Unix, but contains no Unix code.

What about the other claims? Can the creators of Linux be sued? Some companies claim that Linux is tainted by stolen code. Such claims are silly for one simple reason: The source code of Linux is publically available, unlike other operating systems like Windows. Furthermore, the entire history of Linux development is public knowledge. If there were a potential claim against Linux, it would be very easy to look at the source code to evaluate the validity of the claim. Those responsible for Linux have publicly stated that if there were any infringement of anyones patent or copyright, they would immediately pull out that code and work on a non-infringing replacement.

Lastly, are those responsible for Linux in hiding, as my acquaintance suggests? Hardly. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, not only is the history of Linux development totally out in the open, so are those responsible. That applies not just to the Linux kernel, but also to the vast majority of open-source and free software. People like Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman (GNU), Guido van Rossum (Python), and Larry Wall (Perl) are well known in the open-source community. They have no reason to hide, and anyone can reach them if necessary.

Finally, you have to wonder about the sources of such misinformation about Linux. It should be noted that while Windows software is supported by multi-billion dollar business empires, open-source software doesn't get a lot of publicity. The benefits of open-source software are communicated largely by word of mouth, and not by multi-million dollar ad campaigns. So how do some people, like my acquaintance, hear these lies about Linux? In her case, a good friend of hers recently became a MCSE (that is, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer). I would hate to think that he was the one who lied to her. But clearly, the growing success of Linux is seen as a major threat in the Windows camp.

In conclusion, if you do see questionable claims, remember that everything can be verified with a simple Google search. Research the subject for yourself. Or download a distribution of Linux and give it a try for yourself.

Omnifariously yours, Hans

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