I am not a computer nerd. I am not a geek. I have no interest in processes represented by acronyms that are measured in nanoseconds and I don't frequent Saturday swap meets in search of power supplies and dumb terminals.

Nonetheless I do spend the better part of each work day in front of a glowing video monitor--sometimes three of them--engaged in what I hope will be profitable enterprise as a writer and filmmaker. It's a good bet, therefore, that when my computer goes down I become an unhappy man who sometimes wishes he were a geek. Think of me as a virtual nerd. A geek in my own mind, the way a fat and lazy man can be Arnold Schwarzenegger in his dreams.

Associates have accused me of geekdom, probably because my first computer was a Kaypro II running the CP/M operating system back in 1981. In those halcyon days Before Microsoft, nobody knew anything about computers and it was every man for himself. Few women of my acquaintance felt the inclination to stay up all night pondering machine code, BASIC compilers, or worse: playing Adventure, the original text-based spelunking game that seemed to me to be a metaphor for computing in general: when in doubt, try everything. It's a maze of twisty tiny passages, but it's your maze and you can't break it, so have fun. Eat. Sleep.

Most people probably don't recall the first Micro-soft (as it was spelled in those days) product: a cheesy BASIC program, a rip-off really, of readily available public domain code that came in a thin plastic bag that--if I remember correctly--had misprints on its disclaimers. It looked like something you'd picked up at a swap meet, feeling slightly guilty that you'd paid for it. It was underwhelming and inferior, and it set the tenor for two decades of cheesy ripoffs that have built the world's richest man a mansion in Seattle and an historic lawsuit in Washington.

My personal relationship with Micro-soft has, from the beginning, been one of incredulous dismay. As a CP/M user and dilettante BASIC programmer who would have loved to have created anything useful out of bits and bytes, it was apparent to me that Bill Gates had done an amateur's job of "creating" MS DOS by "borrowing" bits and pieces of CP/M, which itself had grown out of UNIX, the Excalibur of the Uber-nerd and the first really "open" computer architecture, so stable and protean that it is still in use today by all of us, whether we know it or not.

MS DOS was a kludge, a hacked-together mishmash of the most insidious sort: it was blessed by IBM, the platinum standard for computers in those days. Never mind that the first "Personal Computer" built by this unholy alliance was ill-designed and a complete failure. Together, as time passed and people forgot, IBM and Microsoft (marketers eventually removed the dash from the plastic bags) put one over on the world.

For my part, I did the only intelligent thing and bought an Apple Macintosh in 1984. It was a good year to stand up against Big Brother, as the famous Super Bowl commercial proposed. Apple had a Better Way. They really did. What they didn't have was software, and in a replay of the Garden of Eden scenario, Big Brother Bill slithered on-stage with his dark legions of geeks and some well-designed packaging.

They gave us one good program, I'll admit it. Excel was written for the Mac and we loved it. But they also contrived a nasty item called Microsoft Word, which was to dog my paragraphs and page breaks for years to come.

Word. Any MS Word writer knows the stiffening of the spine that occurs when he sits down to master this devilish tool. Compare it to the elegant Wordstar (remember?), a real word processor in a tiny package that flew. Wordstar was tasteful and concise. It was bullet-proof. It didn't need a mouse. I wrote a novel, three screenplays and some bad Haiku with Wordstar and I thought I was in heaven. It delivered on the All-Abiding Promise of the Geek: it made me more productive.

When I "upgraded" to Word 3.0, I lost sixty pages of a work-in-progress. Sixty pages, because--somewhere in that gargantuan maze of twisty passages that is the bloated code of Microsoft Word, some nerd had forgotten about compatibility.

And then John Scully, formerly of Pepsi Cola, took over Apple, fired the visionary Steve Jobs who had hired him in the first place, and the Macintosh went off on a merry jaunt through the forest of me-tooism, chasing IBM and its tail and trying desperately to maintain market share against what was rapidly becoming the de facto desktop computer, the IBM/MS DOS cheesy kludge.

Big Brother Bill has given us Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows ME. Put them all together and they all amount to the same thing: a towering skyscraper of an operating system (not!) full of false starts and software patches, a monument to the ingenuity of Bill's army of company nerds, a rickety--dare I say it again--cheesy kludge of a program built upon the groaning old skeleton of MS DOS, or should I say CP/M?

Microsoft Windows: a Zombie masquerading as the Next Best Thing. In more enlightened times (NOW for instance), Apple's lawyers should have prevailed in a huge intellectual property suit, for Microsoft's dirty Windows look and feel like Apple's Macintosh, don't they? (For the sake of argument let's forget Xerox PARC. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.)

Nothing has changed in twenty years but the packaging. Your VHS deck is not better than my Beta deck and Windows is nothing but MS DOS in a designer gown. It's the old shell game writ large. If you were a geek you'd gag.

Last week an associate called with a question: did I use Microsoft Office? Does a spotted besotted pig fly I thought, but I humored him as he described his problem.

It seems that he has clients whose reports are written in Word 95. He has other clients who work in Word 97 (they were apparently foolish enough to upgrade--always a mistake in the nefarious world of Big Brother Bill). The documents are incompatible with each other and they can't be integrated into whatever god-forsaken DOS-based program he uses (I didn't ask) and he was hoping against hope that they got it right in Office. I assured him that I most certainly did not use Office nor did I use any Microsoft product. Anymore. Ever again.

I have become a Linux user. Linux is free. Linux is clean. Linux is powerful, and today, this rainy 13th day in February in the year 2001, Linux has matured to the point where even a virtual geek like myself can install it. On the same Intel machine that used to try to contain MS DOS and every engorged version of Windows ever compiled.

Linux likes old useless computers. Linux gives them new life. With Linux you don't need next year's newest and fanciest box of worms. You're out of the upgrade racket. It's a miracle.

Linux is an Operating System. Your computer needs an operating system like you need a brain and a spinal cord. DOS and Macintosh are operating systems too, but they are to Linux as ostriches are to the space shuttle.

DOS (with its Windows shell) and Macintosh have huge commitments to the status quo. They are indebted to What Has Been, since it is Those Who Have Gone Before who have paid for the research and development, the false starts, the compromises, and the prematurely locked code. Indeed, they have paid for that mansion on the lake in Seattle and for the tens of thousands of billable hours that comprise that monumental lawsuit which Microsoft lost. Something about...unfair business practices....

Nobody needs to pay anything for Linux. It's FREE. It was originally a labor of love which sprung from the fertile mind of Linus Torvalds, a Finnish computer student who didn't like the operating system they were trying to teach him in college and decided to write his own. This was in 1991.

Torvalds had the ingenious concept of making his work available to those kindred souls on the still-new and mystifying Internet, and what evolved is truly a thing of genius. Hundreds--if not thousands--of programmers, both amateur and professional, have contributed to the Linux operating system. Anyone can download it, absolutely free, from the Internet, and anyone is free to copy it, give it to anybody else, and--most important--modify it in any way that suits him (or her).

Linux gives power to the people and solace to the virtual nerd. You can't break it. You can't get arrested for copying it, and best of all--anything you can think of to add to it will be welcomed, considered, worked upon, and ultimately included in the kernel that is at the heart of Linux.

If I as a Linux user like what you've done (with the help of all those people who like to stay up late working on arcane things like SCSI drivers and adventure games), then I can download the new improved kernel and recompile it for my own customized operating system, thus assuring that my computer is as good as it possibly can be. This concept is as foreign to Microsoft as Democracy is to Slobodon Milosevic. Nobody owns it you see. Nobody makes any money off it.

The catch you're thinking. There must be a catch.

Ok. There is money to be made from Linux. You can pay someone to support your use of the software if you're even less of a geek than I am. Because Linux is UNIVERSAL. It runs on IBM machines. It runs on Dell machines, Gateway machines, Sony machines, Compaq machines, UNIX machines, and it even runs on the Apple Macintosh. Each computer is different, obviously, but Linux knows that. It's an equal opportunity operating system. Tech support makes Linux even more of a no-brainer. Your twelve-year-old will install it for movie tickets.

So it's a win-win situation, truly the best of all possible worlds. This article is proof. It was written in StarOffice 5.1, the word processing component of a completely FREE office suite downloadable from Sun Microsystems at www.sun.com.

StarOffice includes a spreadsheet, a database, a web browser, a presentation manager and goodness-knows-what-else since I just got it up and running, thanks to the excellent distribution, documentation, and support of Libranet, at www.Libranet.com.

I have flawlessly imported all 450 Microsoft Word 97-tainted pages of an elaborately-formatted novel in progress into Star Office, praise Linux and Linus Torvalds, the man with the better idea. I have slipped the surly bonds of Microsoft forever and it feels great.

I should mention that the same computer that used to crash at least three times a day has been up and running for over a week now. I never shut it down. Why should I? It's a Linux box. Reborn.

Linux is the audacious new face of computing, and truly good news for anyone who's suffered the enslavement that is the enduring legacy of Big Brother Bill.

The Linux logo is an adorable little penguin. Look for him, peeking out from behind those imposing stacks of over-priced and under-developed Microsoft products.

He can't fly, but he sure could swim to the top if he wanted to.


2006-10-19@13:28 zoeb says Why I love Linux is great... but you don't need to "forget Xerox" - Apple paid them for the GUI, and M$ didn't pay them in turn. That's the difference. Plus Microsoft didn't rip off CP/M - they *bought* QUDOS, the rip-off of CP/M. And you didn't mention the GNU part of the GNU/Linux project, which is what started it... but otherwise great write-up! :D

Thanks, zoeb.

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