Sunday, June 29, 2008

Free as in Beer!

As I mentioned in my last Independence Day post, most free software is free in the monetary sense of the word ("gratis"), which can be a hindrance to those of us who are trying our best to emphasize the "freedom-as-in-liberty" sense of free software to those who don't yet understand. To your average computer user, "free" usually means "free to download," and that category includes many programs that no one in the Free Software world would consider free in the "liberty" sense (here's an FSF page with some definitions of these variants). And even when people download software licensed under the GPL and its variants, they don't notice that difference because they click right by the EULA in every case. And let's face it - most computer users aren't philosophical about software - they just need a program or OS that works so they can get things done (be that work or play).

One of Richard Stallman's memorable and concise ways of making the "free" distinction is to say "think free speech, not free beer." The problem with the term "free software" seems to be that many users can't think past the "free-as-in-beer" quality (or perhaps "free-as-in-cheap" or "free-as-in-kittens" - my next topic!). But let's think for a second about why that is, and how we advocates and defenders of software freedom might use it to our advantage. This software is (almost always) free of charge. When I go out looking for a Linux distribution or a software solution, I don't go to a shopping site. I look in the Ubuntu repositories for a program I know I can use without buying it or I go to a download mirror. Isn't there value in this quality of free software? Can't we enjoy free speech and free beer? (I can really appreciate free beer, can't you?)

Of course, I'm not advocating not caring about freedom-as-in-speech. I'm a librarian and have worked for years in a world were everything's free-as-in-speech, but I also advocate the enjoyment of that shared freedom. Just like the library, the freedom of free software is something all of us can use, share, and enjoy. (And in the case of free software, you don't even need a picture ID and proof of residency!) :-) Let's enjoy it!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Partitioning Hard Drives - My Experiences

When I got into all this Linux business, I was very intimidated by the thought of installing Debian onto what amounted to a throw-away PC that nobody needed. The only way I was ever going to install Linux on my main PC before about six months ago was to purchase a second hard-drive so I could leave my current configuration (aside from the Master Boot Record - which we'll get to shortly) alone. Even recently, when a library co-worker mentioned a desire to dual-boot on a laptop with a single hard drive, the very idea of partitioning a drive was scary and unknown to me. Now I've done it twice, and it was quite easy (maybe too easy).

I recently began a new job, and when the IT guy gave me my work laptop, he mentioned that I was welcome to resize the Windows partition and install Linux (WOW - I didn't even have to ask! In my last job the systems guy quailed at the idea of putting Linux on a web server!). I smiled and gulped and decided to get to it. By the end of the evening, I had installed Ubuntu on my work laptop and all was well.

Next, my wife just got a Windows-based computer, and we off-loaded her data from my desktop and deleted her Windows XP profile, which then allowed me to consider shrinking the Windows partition and use the space for Ubuntu (I later ended up using it for Kubuntu). This was a little more involved than it was the first time since I used a Live CD program called GParted (Gnome Partition Editor) to resize the Windows partition. Then with the freed space, I installed Kubuntu.

Since both of these experiences were successful, I'll make up a simple guide for my next post.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Taking a Closer Look at KDE

I actually have a lot to report, but I'll have to get to it bit by bit in more than one post. For the moment I'll stick to one topic - my renewed interest in the K Desktop Environment (KDE). To review, Linux distributions can come with different desktop environments, even if the same file structure lies underneath. This is a very foreign concept to users of computer systems like Windows or Mac (which is like, everybody) that might allow you to change things like fonts and color schemes, but if you really want your computer to look and act a different way you have to buy a new computer (or at least upgrade operating systems). In Linux, there are choices that are just not present in proprietary software programs.

As faithful readers of my blog may recall, I added KDE to my regular Ubuntu installation, just to give it a test drive. Since I have so far generally preferred Ubuntu's default desktop environment (called Gnome), I didn't want to keep KDE and all of its many programs installed, so I worked tirelessly for a few days to remove it. I have since been satisfied with Gnome and KDE just hasn't been on my radar until several things happened over the last couple of weeks.

First of all, my poor Ubuntu laptop, which my wife had claimed as hers, died a pitiful death as it gave me chilling messages like "kernel panic!" Fortunately (miraculously), I was able to save much of my wife's data - she's a student so there was a lot of important information on there. (Take this as a cautionary tale to back up your data regularly!) As a replacement, we bought a new laptop running Windows Vista, which meant I was able to offload my wife's Windows data from my desktop and shrink the Windows partition (the mechanics of which I will note later). After some thought about how to use the freed disk space, and some conversations with a new co-worker who prefers KDE, I decided to install Kubuntu, which is Ubuntu with KDE as the native desktop environment.

Here's a screenshot of my new desktop:

I've decided I'm going to try and live and work in KDE for a while, just to get to know it better. I'm told it's the favorite of many Linux users, including Linux kernel author Linus Torvalds. I'd say that's a pretty good recommendation!

I'll report more as I form opinions about it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Free as in Speech

With Independence Day coming up, I want to do a series of posts about freedom and what "free software" actually means. The English language is weak in the area of freedom, so when somebody says "free software" they think "free of charge" or "gratis" (to use the Latin term for the concept), which can really throw you, since most free software is available to anyone without monetary cost. If you have a CD drive with writing capability (which is standard on any computer made in the last four or five years) and a blank 700 MB CD, you can zip over to Ubuntu's download page right this minute, download the CD image, burn it to your disc, restart your computer with the disc in the drive*, and voila! You can either install or just use Ubuntu with the Live CD within 20 - 30 minutes for no charge beyond what you spent on the CD itself. That's free.

But that's still not what "free" means in the term "free software." This sort of "free" means "unfettered" or "free as in liberty" - it's what "free" means in "free speech." Or what the word "independence" means in "Independence Day." You're free to use this software in the way you see fit, as long as that way doesn't involve taking that same freedom away from others. It's free like a public library is free. It's ours not mine or yours. Corporate software companies make their millions on keeping their software locked down and "non-free" in this sense. Every end user license agreement that we click through going "yeah, yeah, I know" is restricting how we use the software we just paid for. It's more of a rental situation, like renting a Blockbuster DVD except a lot more expensive.

For example, if you purchase a copy of Windows Vista for your desktop, and decide you'd also like to install it on your laptop, you are not allowed to do that without buying it again. You just shelled out $130.00 and have the Vista installation disk in your hand, a disk you presume to "own," but you are not allowed to put it on another machine without buying it again. This is not freedom in the way any of us expect it to work. It would be like buying a book to keep on your bedside table and being told that you can't read it in the living room without buying it again.

On the other hand, with the Ubuntu disk you just downloaded for free, you can, without paying anyone or without asking or needing to wonder if you just broke the law, install it on any computer you want. Now that's freedom!

*The boot order in your BIOS settings has to be set to boot from CD before the hard disk.