After years of rumors regarding the company’s intentions to produce a “gPhone,” Google made an announcement about the public buzz in November. Google didn’t actually design a phone to sell to the masses, but the corporation did design a software suite called “Android” that will run on many phones, much like Windows Mobile does today. The significance of this development is not simply that the Android platform runs on Linux — Nokia phones have been doing this for ages — but that it is open-source.
While Apple opened up its iPhone to developers who wanted to create add-on programs, the rest of the software running on that phone is still closed to the public’s peering eyes. But the Android software package is completely accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Unlike Windows Mobile or its computer counterpart, Windows Vista, Android is freely modifiable in every sense of the word and is available to manufacturers at no cost.
These last two reasons are precisely why computer-science majors are so excited about Linux and the world of open-source development. Open-source software truly is inspiring and very helpful to the market. Its principal advantage, however, is that it is available at virtually no cost. Consequently, when I travel to Ghana this spring break with a Reach Out trip, the computers in the laboratory we will be setting up will all run Linux — piracy of Microsoft software and community service should not go together. We will save thousands of dollars simply because we won’t be paying licensing fees to Microsoft.
To the general public, “free” is often associated with “cheap” and, therefore, “shoddy.” When I dismissed Linux in my last column, I had no intention of implying that Linux is shoddy. I implied that Linux is simply hard to set up properly. While this was previously the case, today the more popular versions of Linux, such as Ubuntu, Dell’s choice, and OpenSUSE, both incorporate very simple procedures for basic setup. However, if you happen to have a brand-new PC or Mac, Linux very well may not support the hardware in your laptop. Linux developers add support for new hardware all the time, but as Linux does not involve much corporate profit in comparison to Windows, Linux is always playing a game of catch-up, even if Linux catches up more and more quickly as time goes on.
Despite all of this visual beauty, the pragmatist will note that he or she can under no circumstances use the iTunes music store, or virtually any other online music store, because of copyright-protection setups that simply don’t work on Linux. While you may be able to play most of the contents of your iPod in Linux, if and when it crashes, you’ll have to find someone with a Mac or PC to reset your iPod for you. Linux enthusiasts would argue that you shouldn’t buy an iPod in the first place, because you are inherently supporting a locked-down corporate hierarchy. But who can resist the simplicity of an MP3 player that just works?
Microsoft Outlook has precisely the same problem if you have to use an Exchange server.
Unfortunately, many often bespectacled and shaggy-haired Linux enthusiasts have been steeped in the medicine of free software for too long. Often times these self-titled “apostles” simply come off to the general public as zealots. While Linux may work brilliantly for them, most open software will still present roadblocks to the casual user. Personally, I enjoy the comfort and convenience of using the iTunes music store with my iPod. Until corporations such as Google have pushed Linux to the extent that common users are adopting Linux left and right, many of these problems with hardware and “corporate incompatibility” in general will not be resolved. I wish these roadblocks were surmountable, but I do not believe they are.
In the course of this column, I have likely strayed from the comfort zone of many readers. Technology can be overwhelming, but in order to discuss Linux and open-source software, one needs to stray from discussion of the more common and well-marketed corporate world. But here I can return to a discussion of two formidable and very familiar names: Firefox and Thunderbird.
Whether you use a Mac or a PC, chances are you use Firefox to browse the Web and Thunderbird to check your e-mail. While these programs are both available for Linux, it is more important that they are open source. Their prominence in the academic and corporate world — hopefully they will disseminate into PCs at home as well — gives some credence to the belief that open-source software will dominate all available software. On a larger scale, Linux may replace Windows and MacOS X years in the future. But as long as I have more trouble setting up the features I want in Linux than I do in Windows, I’ll leave the Linux world for those who are more persistent. Downloading songs on iTunes and playing them on my iPod is just too simple and, above all, comfortable.
Barrett Williams is a sophomore in Trumbull College.