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Free Software is Useful

by John Sullivan Contributions Published on Apr 28, 2005 12:12 PM
Free software is both versatile and effective in a wide variety of applications. Because the source code is given, it can be tailored specifically to an individual's needs---something not easily accomplished with proprietary software.
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When I charge my cellphone's battery I'd like to choose any charger, with a universal connector, why must I buy a particular one which is expensive? When I fill my car with gas I choose from which company I will buy the gas. When I'm at work I like to share my knowledge with my workmates, because it is the way in which all of us will grow up. Some body learns from me and I learn from everybody.

It is the same way in software and it is the reason why free software is really important.

My story. I had a failed attempt with Slackware in 2003. I failed at X environment installation. I continued with Windows 3.11 for a while and then tried to change again, this time with OS/2 Warp. I played with this OS for a few years.

Finally I moved to FreeBSD, then to Debian and finally to Ubuntu. I know that this distro is not entirely free software, but is the distro which best fits to my technical knowledge and to the easy of use for me and my wife. I do common work in my house with my PC, so does my wife, and free software covers all our needs.

Free Software is the key to keep the world connected, to keep the social spirit among all of us, to build a future free of restrictions. Non-Free software is like paying for the air you breathe.

Juan Matias

Since 1994 I have been using exclusively GNU/Linux both on my computers at work and at home; also on my portable Mac I rely almost 100% on GNU programs (installed with Fink) instead of Apple-supplied non-free software.

In my work as a speech and language scientist in a university setting, I make heavy use of the Emacs editor, the LaTeX system, the Praat sound analysis system and the R suite of statistical and data handling programs, plus the spreadsheet calculator gnumeric. I also use LaTeX (plus XFig and occasionally Gimp) for the preparation of all my teaching material as well as for all administrative correspondence etc. For the fortunately rare cases when somebody sends me a proprietary binary file, I keep antiword and OpenOffice handy (in addition to gnumeric which also understands XLS files). My net browser is Mozilla Firefox.

Most of my colleagues are amazed when they hear it and have a hard time to believe that I can "manage" without proprietary software. Once they agree to have a look at how much more easily and reliably I can do my work with my free software tools, though, they tend to be impressed and sometimes envious. They also often exhibit incredulity that non-hackers might be able to take advantage of free software - which I find slightly amusing not only since I come from a non-technical, humanities background myself but because nowadays there is a large amount of free software available which offers all the same graphical user interface niceties that many users of commercial software seem to think they cannot live without.

Stefan Werner, PhD
Language Technology, University of Joensuu

I am the author of an 880-page textbook containing a fair amount of mathematics. In writing the book, I had four concerns. First, I wanted to find software that minimized the chance of document corruption, since I had lost a draft chapter to corruption when using a proprietary Windows word processor. (It's a terrible thing to see two weeks of work vanish in an instant.) Second, I wanted a stable file format. I would be creating highly formatted documents that I might want to work with 10 years later. I was concerned about future file format changes creating compatibility problems. Third, I wanted writing tools that made it easy to create and maintain a very large document with multiple chapters, extensive cross-references (to equations, chapters, etc.), and a large bibliography. Fourth: If possible I wanted to avoid locking myself into one operating system.

I adopted LaTeX and chose Emacs (with RefTeX and AucTeX) as my editor. I have never looked back. Both LaTeX and Emacs required a lot of effort to learn, but both are tools that work superbly well. Now I do not worry about document corruption (LaTeX files are plain text) or formatting changes. I have a system that is superbly designed to handle arbitrarily large documents and the cross-referencing and bibliographic support (via BibTeX) are an author's dream. I can easily port my book to any operating system. As a bonus, the book was published using LaTeX so I can use the published version to work on a revision. Emacs and LaTeX are not tools for casual writers, but they are ideal for professional writers.

Robert McDonald
Northwestern University

I completely depend on GNU software in my company, which does web design, design/layout for print, and professional music production. For most, if not all, of the image manipulation tasks, I use The GIMP, which is a very powerful, flexible, and quite reliable tool. Furthermore, I use Slackware's distribution of GNU/Linux as an operating system on one of the most important workstations, and it, together with its GNU tools, gives me incredibly reliable performance, not comparable at all with the poorer performance of so-called "professional", proprietary operating systems.

Indeed, I found GNU software on the whole to be much more reliable, light-weight, and flexible than many proprietary counterparts, plus, GNU software is often taylored more towards the scientist, and not the common end-user, which is a definite plus for me.

I use GNU Window Maker on all of my boxes.... Furthermore, gcc and gdb are used frequently for development of Gtk+ applications and for an internal AI (Artificial Intelligence) project, and are both valuable and reliable tools which have never failed so far.

Alexander Ewering
instinctive new media

I work on research ships, mainly deep seismic acquisition, but other types as well. The story I am about to tell is of a single piece of GNU software. Tar. For many years we have been using systems with disk stacks containing disks no more than 3 Gb in size, and the application code has facilities to span data across disks. But for backup, it calls a shell script which calls tar. And does so on a disk-by-disk basis. We have been taring to Exabyte 2500 drives, and fortunately no one disk was bigger than would fit on a tar tape.

The world changes, and things move on. Because of a monster project last year I was forced to replace several of the disks in the stack with 180Gb ones. The application code coped, but the backup needed very careful human intervention instead of using the facilities from the application - because now it was easy to launch a backup that would not fit on one tape.

The solution? GNU tar. GNU tar has allowed us to do two things in one go: to split backups across more than one tape, and to connect directly to an IBM 3590 tape drive on another workstation for larger capacity. This was made possible , too, by the well-written application code whose GUI merely calls a shell script, and by some of the basic modularity of unix. But without GNU tar it could not have been done. A two kilo-euro investment in software, hardware, training, and installtion on the vessel has been rescued from obselescence by me - with some help from GNU tar.

GNU tar is an enhanced version of standard Unix tar. But the enhancements are sensible, and merely looking at the help output one can see that they have been made by practical, experienced, people working with the code they write. The code is solid, reliable, and achieves exactly what it sets out to do. And it is familiar enough that anyone can use it.

How long did it take me to make this astonishing change? Twenty hours to download some binary packages to the vessel. And around 3 minutes to install them. Another hour for the changes to the application script, and 6 hours to test. (Have you ever tried writing 8.6GB of data?).

I have been using GNU, and GNU/linux, software for many years: since my days at Rockwell Automation at least, call that 1984. I just thought it was time to say thank you to the originators of some of the most useful bits of code on the planet.

Robert E A Harvey

A French CAD/CAM company is leveraging the power of GNU tools to build software for mechanical, nuclear, and bridge engineers. An eight-developer team is responsible for 15 applications that contain a total of 2.5 million lines of code. These applications are used in 25 different countries.

All of these developers use EMACS, CVS, and GNATS. They use Apache and Perl as an Intranet solution, as well. Other GNU tools, such as GCC and gdb, are used from time to time.

Jerome Haguet

Since the beginning of the '90s, I have been gradually using GNU and other free software more and more. That is true for my current project, a database system that manages organ transplant waiting lists. This system is used by hospital departments in the Scandinavian countries.

My environment for developing front-end applications for the relational database would have been rather poor without the emacs editor. I use it to take over the source editing after the screen layout has been generated. Similarily, the sql-mode package makes it possible to perform immediate execution and testing of sql statements. This has been especially useful.

By and by I have used numerous other GNU software packages in my development and production environments. These include compilers, shell interpreters, pagers, text filters, and others. Among the non-GNU utilities I frequently use are Larry Wall's perl scripting and reporting language and Andrew Tridgell's Samba file server.

Of course, I must not forget to mention Linus Torvald's unix type kernel. This, together with a large suite of GNU utilities, makes an inexpensive pc an invaluable X windows work station. From this workstation, I can access all the other development and production machines.

Christian Mondrup

The HIRLAM consortium is a research effort of seven European meteorological services. In their work with limited area numerical weather forecasting, they use diffutils, RCS, and GNU make as the basis of their source code management. GNU Fortran and GNU C, along with a Bourne compatible shell like bash are sufficient to compile and run the system.

The benefit of basing source code management on free tools is the wide portability of them; I have personally used them on systems such as NeXTStep, Cray Unicos, Fujitsu VPP 700, Convex 4610, SGI, and DEC Alpha. Using GNU make is far simpler than writing makefiles that are portable to different versions of make.

Toon Moene

"[The Free Software Foundation's] high quality software makes our work easier, and we value it greatly ... Recently we have received some prizes and monetary awards for our work. We believe we would not have received these without your software."

VSC Research and Development group
Toyota Motor Corporation

"As you well know, GNU tools are all over the place for the various space missions. They are used extensively throughout the mission development, test and operations phases. I wrote the DARTS dynamics simulator for Cassini (spacecraft) several years ago and relied heavily on tools such as gcc, gdb, emacs, rcs etc. These and others are in use by many other spacecraft missions including Galileo, Mars Pathfinder, New Millennium etc. It is my personal belief that the FSF activities and software have been a tremendous source of high quality tools which are readily accessible and usable by the community."

Abhinandan Jain
NASA engineer

"Within three months, we demonstrated a product developed entirely on [free] software, the core of which were the programming tools (gcc and gdb) from the Free Software Foundation. Solid code, it was cross-platform compatible with either Motif (r) or Les sTif. Our satisfied customers extended the contract and we won some corporate visibility in a very high tech market ..."

Ron Broberg Systems Engineer Lockheed-Martin

"The proper care of our cancer patients would not be what it is today without [GNU/]Linux ... The tools that we have been able to deploy from free software channels have enabled us to write and develop innovative applications which ... do not exist through commercial avenues."

Dr. G.W. Wettstein
Cancer Center
Fargo, North Dakota

Regarding graphics development for the "Titanic" movie production:

"Using 200 DEC Alpha-based systems running the Red Hat 4.1 distribution of GNU/Linux, after upgrading the kernel to support the PC164 mainboard, Digital Domain found a performance increase of three to four over SGI systems. The combination of the GNU/Lin ux OS and Alpha CPUs also delivered the most cost-effective solution to time and processing demands."

Daryll Strauss
Digital Domain

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