My 9/02/07 Missoulian column: Open-source software a worldwide collaboration; what’s the difference between Windows, Apple and Open Source?
Since I mentioned open-source software last week – applications and operating systems that are free – the next step is to explain the difference between open source and the two most more popular software platforms in use: the different varieties of Windows made by Microsoft, and operating systems made by Apple Computer. This is a broad subject that’s tough to fit into a column, but here goes.
Everyone has heard of Microsoft. That’s because its flagship product is the Windows operating system in all its different versions, which, all together, have about 90 percent market share: Windows 95 (now long in the tooth), 98, 2000, XP (which has 80 percent marker share alone) and the newest, Vista. Microsoft only makes software; it depends on many other companies to make hardware. This has been true since 1981, when the first generally available personal computer that ran a Microsoft operating system (the pre-Windows DOS) was sold.
Windows will run on just about any hardware out there, and that’s good and bad. Good because just about any computer you pick up, Windows will have the necessary software and drivers. It’s bad because with Windows there always seem to be driver problems; there is so much different hardware out there that Windows has to work with. Windows software tends to be big and complicated, too, because it has to be able to run on all the hardware out there. And it’s closed source – most of the code is a corporate secret.
Formed in 1977, Apple Computer has always made both its hardware and its operating system software, and has (almost) always restricted the use of its operating system to its own hardware. That way, Apple has been able to control the quality of the entire product. That’s also one of the reasons why more people in the world use Microsoft Windows than Apple; Microsoft licensed its operating system for use on any compatible hardware. Apple tried licensing for just a short time in the 1990s.
In the past, Apple has suffered from a lack of some applications, such as large business software packages, but it has always been strong in the area of creative arts, design and publishing. One of the reasons is there were – and still are – fewer Macintosh users than Windows users. Apple’s market share hovers around 6 percent and has been growing with the introduction of its flagship operating system, called OS X (X as in the Roman numeral 10).
With Microsoft’s large market share, I run into people all the time who have never heard of Apple, which is unfortunate because Apple has done two very interesting things in recent years. For one, last year the company changed its basic hardware, and now all new Macs run on the same hardware that Windows runs on. Second, since 2001, the software backbone of Macs has been open source. Some parts of OS X are still closed source and secret to Apple, mostly the visible stuff like the icons and desktop, but the backbone is open source, which I’ll talk about below.
Now, what is open-source software? open-source software is written and maintained by thousands of programmers all over the world. Collaboratively, they write code for a variety of projects, from word processors and e-mail clients to operating systems. They can do this because the source code is readable by anyone; it’s not owned by a company that restricts its use. The philosophy of open source came from those same programmers who have always felt that the tools of technology should be free and easy to use, so everyone can learn and take advantage of the benefits. (Open source is also know as FOSS, or Free and Open Source Software.)
Linux is the popular catch-all name of an open-source operating system that comes in many flavors, or what are called distributions because they are provided free. Linux runs a larger part of the backbone of the Internet and other critical infrastructure systems because it can reliably run for days, weeks and years without having problems or needing to be restarted. For PCs, Linux has a market share of about 3 percent, but it’s growing. Linux runs on the same hardware as Windows and on newer Macs.
The benefits of open source are that bugs get fixed very quickly, the software is constantly being looked over for security holes and back doors, and new software comes out and is adapted all the time. One drawback of open source is that you have to be somewhat of a tinkerer to get it to run reliably on your PC. What’s also confusing are the many flavors of Linux. Need help? Go to www.linux.org, which will tell you all about the operating system’s different distributions, as well as the applications available for it, such as office suites, Web browsers and more.
An easy way to try Linux is with a distribution called Ubuntu on what’s called a live CD. Rather than start up from the hard drive, you start up from the CD and run Linux and a basic set of applications. The CD doesn’t change anything on your hard drive, so you can restart normally and be back on Windows. Go to www.ubuntu.com to download it for free.
So briefly, that’s Windows, Apple and open source. What do I use? I use Apple, and have for many years. With OS X on my MacBook, I can run all that Apple has to offer with a very stable open-source core. At the same time, I can run Windows XP side by side for the things I need it for. And because the core of OS X is a flavor of Linux, I can run all kinds of open-source software, too. It’s like an ecosystem: the more adaptable and capable your hardware and software are, the better your chances of working well in a high-tech world.