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You are here: Home Bulletins 2011 Fall 2011 Bulletin How I became aware of free software

How I became aware of free software

by Ali Razeen, Free Software Activist Contributions Published on Nov 28, 2011 05:29 PM
I entered college four years ago, and like most college students, I relied heavily on my laptop, which ran Windows XP. One day, when I turned it on to get some work done, I was greeted with an error message; something failed during the boot process and Windows couldn't load, not even in Safe Mode. I tried to fix the issue by using the repair option on the Windows XP setup disc, but that didn't work either.

I was frustrated because everything was fine the last time I used my laptop. The usual recovery methods weren't working. Reinstalling Windows wasn't an option because doing so would have erased my school work. My assignment was due very soon and I really needed to work on it. Racking my mind desperately for solutions, I remembered discussions on Slashdot about how people used GNU/Linux to fix their Windows problems.

I found a GNU/Linux distribution and used it to boot my laptop. It started up correctly and detected my hard disk. Feeling optimistic, I tried copying my files onto a thumb drive, and it worked! I was extremely relieved. This meant I didn't have to redo my assignment from scratch after all. As I stared at the pop-up showing me the copy's progress, it suddenly struck me that all along, Microsoft was holding me hostage to my own data!

An operating system stores files on a hard disk in some structured format. In Windows XP and later versions of the operating system, the format used is usually NTFS. As the NTFS specifications have not been released by Microsoft, it turns out I depended on Microsoft to be able to access and modify my own data. I was able to use GNU/Linux to get back my files only because talented hackers spent countless hours figuring out how NTFS works. I wouldn't be as lucky next time if Microsoft used a format that was tougher to reverse engineer in the future.

This realization didn't sit well with me, and a couple of things happened. First, when I reinstalled Windows on my laptop, I made a separate partition using the Extended file system, a format whose specifications are freely available, and stored all my data there. That ensured I didn't need Microsoft's help to access my own work should Windows fail again. Second, I paid close attention to the numerous discussions held on sites such as Slashdot. Very quickly, I became a fan of open source and extolled its benefits to my friends.

But before long, I started having issues with open source. The way I understood it, open source was supposed to be superior compared to closed source software because anyone could take part in the development process, fix bugs, and innovate. But there were plenty of instances where I felt the closed sourced software was clearly better than its open source counterpart. For example, it was much easier to create high-quality presentations in Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 compared to at the time. Why was it that companies such as Apple and Microsoft were regularly able to create software that was technically superior to the open source movement's if open source was supposed to be better?

While searching for satisfying answers to my questions, I noticed something interesting in discussions about open source: a few people often used the terms "FOSS" or "FLOSS." I found they stood for "free/open source software" and "free/libre/open source software" respectively. I wondered why anyone would attach "free" next to "open source," and I found "libre" just confusing. So I looked up free software and found that it was backed by the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

Intrigued by what this foundation stood for, I explored their Web site and found that they were going to release new editions of their books explaining free software and its motivations soon. A few months ago, the books became available for purchase, and I bought them almost immediately.

Everything started to click in my mind when I read the books. The fundamental principle of free software is that users should have basic freedoms over their software. This includes the freedom to study how a software works, to modify it, and to share the software and any modifications with others. This idea strongly resonated with me because of the incident with my laptop. Free software would ensure that users are not beholden to companies to use their own computers.

Free software even addresses the issues I had with open source. It doesn't matter if proprietary software is technically superior; it fails the most basic test of providing freedom to users. We just have to develop alternatives that do. The idea of free software sits very well with me. There truly is something magical about being able to study how any of the software I'm using works and make changes.

I'm taking steps to contribute to free software and advance it. Countless like-minded people have done so despite facing tremendous challenges and discouragement. In the process, they have made society a better and freer place. I don't see why I can't join them and do the same.

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