My long journey to discovering the nirvana of free software began slowly. I started off putting Linux on an old computer my dad brought home from work. It was too slow to use for anything else, but I was pleasantly surprised to find Linux running at speeds comparable to my spiffy new Windows machine. Busy with school, I ignored this computer. Over the summer, however, a good friend of mine started a new job, which required him to learn Linux.

As he learned more, he constantly proselytized to me, harping about how cool and useful Linux really was. I slowly learned more about this foreign operating system and it slowly pervaded my normal computing habits. I switched to a “dual-boot” system, where I could restart my computer to switch from Linux to Windows. Eventually, when I got my new laptop, I installed Linux only. Since then, I have never looked back.

The more I learned about Linux, the more I grew to love not only the operating system, but also the community it has spawned. The free software community is wonderful – a group with a common goal of developing better software and committed to keeping it free. When first learning how to get started, there are numerous Web sites and mailing lists where the “pros” are happy to offer advice and point beginners in the right direction. As I became one of those “pros” and started to modify and write my own software, there was yet another group of people willing to help me with that.

Free software is not all about Linux, however. While Linux is probably the word people most associate with it, there are hundreds of thousands of other programs created under the same license, and with the same attitude. One Web site which hosts such projects, http://www.sourceforge.net, boasted 98,185 registered projects at the time I wrote this article.

All of these programs, which span multiple operating systems, are alike in that anyone can modify them, add to them and use them – all for free. The people who start these projects do so hoping that someone will come along and add to the software, improving it for all. The results of this are evident – especially in projects such as The Gimp, a photo editing program comparable to Photoshop, which has no lead developers – anyone can contribute. Because of this, The Gimp has improved substantially each release, and while many argue that Photoshop is still a superior product, the gap is closing quickly and you can’t beat the price.

I encourage everyone to try some piece of free software after reading this article, such as Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird from http://www.mozilla.org, and Linux from http://www.knoppix.org. It is an experience you won’t regret.

Freidman can be reached at jfreidman@campustimes.org.



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