(Corrected version: in para 4 line 1 – some 22 years ago instead of some 14 years ago)
Nadeem M Qureshi
What do the International Space Station, the Czech Post Office, the French Parliament and the Turkish Government have in common? All have switched from using a proprietary Operating System (OS) on their computers to an ‘open source’ or free OS; or putting it simply: They have switched from Windows to a free OS called Linux. And they are not alone. A growing number of businesses, educational and scientific institutions, schools and governments are doing likewise. Why are they doing it? And what has all this got to do with Pakistan?
First some definitions: An OS is the software that manages the computer and its resources such as processors, storage, drives and the like. It plays host to the many programs called applications that people need for computers to be useful. Popular programs used for typing and editing documents, preparing spreadsheets and office presentations, and surfing the web would be useless without an OS. The OS provides the ‘operating environment’ for these programs to function so that you – the user – can do what you want to.
The most popular OS by far is Microsoft’s Windows. More than 90% of the world’s PCs run Windows. About 7% run Apple’s OS X. And just under 2% run Linux. But this is changing rapidly as people are beginning to discover the advantages of Linux. First, Linux is absolutely free. No need for a license. No need for a pirated copy. Second, it is just as easy to use. Third, in contrast to proprietary systems whose innards are known only to the companies that sell them, Linux is literally an open book. Anyone can see its innards – the programming or ‘source’ code which makes it tick – the reason it’s called ‘open source’. This means that it can’t do anything behind your back like send information about you to its makers without your knowing it. Useful in these post-Snowden days. And fourth, it is practically immune to viruses so no need for expensive and intrusive antivirus software.
Linux was developed by Linus Torvalds a computer engineer from Finland some 22 years ago. Since then an army of software programmers has worked to improve it and make it available for general use. As a result today there are several versions – or distributions as they are called – of Linux which can be downloaded readily and installed on personal computers. They have colourful names such as Debian, Fedora, Red Hat, Ubuntu and many more.
The last of these – Ubuntu – is perhaps the most popular. In fact, I am writing this article on a PC running Ubuntu which I downloaded and installed myself. People with relatively little computer savvy can download a distribution such as Ubuntu and install and run it on their computer in an hour or so. What’s more, it comes preinstalled with open source versions of the most popular applications: Microsoft’s Office is replaced by Open Office, and Internet Explorer by Firefox. So it is usable out of the box. It makes no sense anymore for anyone to pay for proprietary software when just as good, and arguably better free software is available.
Many countries and governments – rich and poor – have realized this and have already initiated serious programs to switch all their computers to Linux based systems. Here are just a few examples of many: The US Army is the single largest user of ‘Red Hat’. Malaysia in 2010 switched 703 of its 724 government agencies to Linux. The Chief Secretary of the Malaysian Government justified the switch as follows: “the general acceptance of its promise of better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility and lower cost”. The Turkish Government has created its own Linux distribution called ‘Pardus’, as has Cuba, whose distribution is named “Nova”. Iceland announced in 2012 that it will switch to open source software in public institutions. All schools in Iceland have already switched to Ubuntu from Windows. Brazil has 35 million students in over 50,000 schools using over half a million PC’s all running on Linux. Russia announced in 2007 that all its school computers will run on Linux. The list goes on, and on.
As a poor country Pakistan cannot afford proprietary software. In Linux we now have a powerful, globally accepted, and free alternative. We also have a large pool of talented young software engineers and programmers. Our government needs to put them to work in making Linux the preferred OS in every PC in every classroom and office in the country. The savings to Pakistan on licensing fees will be several hundred million dollars per year. Why should we, the poor, continue to enrich the Microsofts and Apples of the world when there is absolutely no need to do so?