So, you use Windows?
7 or 10?
10? How do you like it?
Do you like getting an update?
Do you remember your Microsoft account password?
That’s what I thought.
To be honest, there’s nothing really wrong with using Windows. I’ve used it for years as my only operating system. But, my personal preference is to have a computer as a computer, where I control what is stored there and who sees what. With the advent of Windows 10, Microsoft is moving from the desktop domain to the “cloud” domain. This means instead of having everything in one place, you have a “cloud” account where everything you do is kept in servers far from your home and out of your control. Instead of staying with Windows, I decided to fully embrace the world of FOSS!
What is FOSS and Why Do I Focus On It?
If I were a betting person, I’d bet your computer uses some version of Windows: Windows 7, Windows 8.1, Windows 10. If that is wrong, my next guess would be some version of MacOS. These two operating systems comprise the lion’s share of home and office computer operating systems. But, my computer uses neither of these operating systems. My computer has Linux Mint, a version of Linux (technically considered GNU/Linux, but that is not a rabbit hole we are going down today).
One of the reasons I use Linux is because it’s what is called FOSS. FOSS means Free and Open Source Software. It costs nothing to download and the source code is available to not only look at and study, but to also tweak and change however you like. There are hundreds of different variations of Linux available, and the central Linux depot where you can learn about the biggest and best versions (called distributions) is at Distrowatch.com
I had used Linux way back when Red Hat was the hot new Linux distribution, but it was an uphill battle to learn how to use it. There also wasn’t much software available and the software that was available was not as good as Windows software. So, I left Linux and continued my work with Windows. I continued using Windows through Windows 2000, XP, Vista, and 7. However, once Windows 8 and 8.1 came around, and then Windows 10, it was clear to me that Windows was less interested in remaining a home desktop OS and more interested in becoming a mobile OS that is firmly fixed in the cloud.
So, FOSS stands for Free and Open Source Software. Imagine that you buy a computer and there is no operating system on it. What could you do with it? Not much, you’d think. Technically correct, but not entirely. If you have a disk with an operating system image on it, you can install that operating system onto the computer. Then, you’d be able to use it. Most people use Windows or Mac operating systems. The most current Windows system at the time of this writing is Windows 10. You can buy the Home edition currently for only $119.99.
Alternatively, you can download the latest Mac OS – macOS High Sierra – from the Mac App Store. But, if your computer has no operating system, how do you access the Mac App Store? Good question. After a little digging, it turns out you can only get it from the Mac App Store on a Mac computer. Linux, on the other hand, can be downloaded and an ISO image burned to a DVD or USB from any operating system. If you are interested in the macOS route for your hypothetical systemless computer, simply use your favorite search engine to search “install MacOS on hackintosh”.
Linux has come a really long way since the early 2000s. There are hundreds of versions available to download immediately. Each distro is specially made for specific uses. The ones with the broadest appeal are Ubuntu and Linux Mint (which is based off Ubuntu). One version, CentOS, is specifically made to look just like Red Hat Enterprise Linux, a popular version used commercially. Another version, Kali Linux, is specifically designed with networking packages (programs) that penetration testers (aka hackers) find useful. One version, Arch Linux, is specifically for people who want to completely customize their computer. They must install every single package they want starting from the command line, installing their own GUI desktop on top (if they desire), so that they have a stripped down, fast and nimble OS made just for them. And, there are more resources than ever to learn how to get started with Linux. It’s never been easier!
Free is Not Really Free
Just because you don’t pay money for software, this does not mean the software is free and open source. As anyone who has ever used any Apple product can tell you, you can only use apps that have been vetted by the Apple Corporation. Also, you cannot see any of the code that goes into making these apps, or the operating system. They are protected by copyright law and trade secret law, coupled with restrictive license agreements to inform the consumer.
A software or operating system can only be considered free and open source if it is licensed with a license that indicates it is free and the source is open and available to anyone. A few examples of FOSS licenses are GNU General Public License (GPL), GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL), Common Development and Distribution License version 1.0 (CDDL-1.0), Mozilla Public License 2.0 (MPL-2.0), and Apache License 2.0 (Apache-2.0). Another example of something that is free, but not open source is Google. You are free to use Google and Google products, but you may not peek under the hood!
Why Should I Care About FOSS?
Think about the greatest country in the world. What country came to mind? Most Americans would say the United States. Some people from other countries would also say the United States due to the unparalleled freedoms afforded to its residents. And one of the greatest of those freedoms is the freedom to vote for whoever you want to run this great country. Because so many people love these freedoms, there are many people who join the U.S. military to fight for these freedoms. Also, politicians are happy to allocate money to the U.S. military to keep it among the strongest in the world. This allows us to defend our country even from people who could never reach our shores.
Free and open source software is like America. Because it is free, anyone may participate. And because it is open source, anyone may go in and change the code as needed. If there is a threat to the security of open source software, anyone can step in and change the code to prevent future threats from infiltrating our software and computers. Popular open source software and operating systems are some of the most secure and stable in the world. Just like the U.S.
Examples of FOSS
You may know some things that are FOSS. Usually, the first thing people think about is Linux. This is the most famous free and open source operating system. Another great FOSS operating system is FreeBSD. Most people that try out FreeBSD love it.
You may also use FOSS software and not know it. For example, do you use Firefox? Yep, that is FOSS! And, if you use Mozilla’s email client, Thunderbird – that is also FOSS. Do you ever play movies or music on your computer? If you’ve ever used VLC, that is FOSS. LibreOffice is a FOSS office suite similar to Microsoft Office (although they have diverged a bit since Microsoft invented their “ribbon”). What FOSS programs do you use?
Here’s another question. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that most home and office computers use Windows or MacOS. With that in mind, answer this question: What operating system is installed on the bulk of the world’s top supercomputers? Which one is used on more state-of-the-art systems than any other?
The answer is
As of last September, 498 of the top 500 supercomputers run some version of Linux. Oh, and the other 2? They run on Unix, which Linux is based on (but is not FOSS!).
I hope this gives you a good idea of why FOSS is important and why you will be smart to learn how to use it when you can.