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Open Source

KU group gives gift and lesson on alternatives

Over spring break at Kutztown University, a group of computer enthusiasts slipped CDs under the doors of the school's 400-some faculty members.

These weren't Web links to favorite YouTube videos, or some cyperprank. The discs contained practical software the profs could load onto their Windows machines and use. (The discs included a link to similar software for Mac users.)
The CDs contained about $60,000 worth of software, if the programs had been purchased commercially. But the software represented a wider range of free programs exchanged and copied by enthusiasts on the Internet. And it's all legal.

The costs involved the time it took group members to create, or burn, the CDs, which was donated labor, and around $150 for the blank CDs themselves, says Christopher Waid, a Kutztown senior and president of the campus GNU/Linux users group.

The group wanted to make a point that Open Source software works on Windows machines, not just on computers running a version of GNU/Linux, a popular alternative operating system. But they also wanted to underscore the fact that there are inexpensive and practical alternatives to Microsoft's Windows and the Apple's Mac systems and the commercial software programs that run on them.

"It was more of a promotional thing," says Waid, who studies computer science and has been using a type of Open Source software exclusively since 2000, although he experimented with different versions of it since he was 11.

Open Source is one way to describe a type of software that computer users can customize, copy and share with others. Proprietary software operating systems, including Windows and Apple's Mac, and the proprietary software programs that run on them, usually don't permit this level of sharing and, in fact, it is illegal to do so. Users agree to these restrictions -- usually without reading the texts -- when they click "Yes" or "Agree" when installing it.

A slightly different way to describe Open Source is to call it Free Software. The two are similar but not identical. Open Source proponents agree to have their free software become part of an overall suite of programs that sometimes includes proprietary, commercial software, a situation the Free Software proponents oppose on philosophical grounds. The two groups share many of the same goals and beliefs, however, and work together on projects.

GNU/Linux is the way the Free Software Foundation identifies a freely distributed computer operating system, with GNU referring to a series of utilities and Linux referring to the core of the operating system, called a kernel.

The Kutztown group welcomes both Open Source and GNU/Linux users. Netizen talks with Waid, the group's president, about the future of GNU/Linux and Open Source.


Q: When did you first started using GNU/Linux?

A: I started using it around 1995. I got introduced to it by a friend. It was mainly just a toy, for playing around. [Back then] it did work well as software to run a server [a computer that controls other computers]. I kept running Linux for years, but not seriously. Then in 2000, I completely switched over. I went from having several systems, including one that ran Windows, to having only computers that ran Linux. By that time [2000], Linux had really become a desktop operating system. Before that, it was really ready for programmers and developers but it was still not ready for most other people. At this time [2000], a lot of your desktop applications started to turn to the better and become more stable and more full featured.

Q: How difficult was the switch from Windows to GNU/Linux for you?

A: Initially, I had problems getting my CD burner to work. But today you wouldn't have those problems, especially if you bought a system with Linux already on it. A few years ago, there were enough bugs in the systems to hold people back [from switching]. But today, it is not so much a problem. The bugs you find today are with hardware and accessory issues. It is the kind of thing that if you're willing to put a little time into it, you'll be able to find a solution. My Dad recently purchased what was basically a plug-and-play computer running a version of Linux from He plugged in the printer, turned the monitor on and all the applications were installed. He plugged in his digital camera, copied all his photos over [to the computer's hard drive] and is checking his e-mail, all the things he normally does.

Q: How long have you been involved with Kutztown's GNU/Linux users group?

A: It had been around, but it wasn't very active. I started it again in 2005 and spent most of 2005 getting it off the ground. We have about 25 people on our mailing list, but there are more people in the group. There are no memberships. Mostly, you come as often as you like to meetings and so forth.

Q: One thing that people tend to do is to install some form of GNU/Linux on an older computer they're no longer using. Is there anyway to tell if the older computers will work well in this way?

A: If your computer is more than a year old and less then five years old, you can probably run Linux fairly well. But it really depends. If you have a cheap computer, the hardware is not very good, so you end up having to make it work. It is not as bad as it used to be. But if there is a problem, you are basically forced to figure it out for yourself. If you can't get Java to work, you don't get an error message saying you have to search for a special Java bin file. Linux tends to be difficult if you pick the wrong distribution [version].

Q: What distribution or distro, as they are called, do you recommend?

A: Linspire is a really good system. It is loaded onto computers sold from There is also a free version of Linspire, called Freespire, but it's not supported [no tech support]. They are basically the same system.

THE DETAILS Richard Stallman, one of the creators of the GNU/Linux operating system and a founder of the Free Software Foundation, speaks at Lehigh University's Whitaker Lab at 4 p.m. Tuesday. The talk is free and open to the public. This is a link to Stallman's informative and funny personal page. Be sure to check out his ''humorous biography'' link. This bills itself as the world's easiest Linux desktop system. It costs about $60 and $50 as a digital download. The price includes the operating system, a complete Internet suite, home office software, digital photo and music managers, advanced notebook features and wireless capabilities. Last month, Linspire announced a collaboration with Ubuntu, one of the newest and most popular distributions, or distros. The Web site for the school's GNU/Linux group. Sign up for the group's mailing list to keep track of events and announcements.