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March 18, 2009
I wrote a post a few days ago about the bits and pieces of proprietary software that are still a necessary part of my technological life. As a follow-up, I thought it might be interesting to look at the other side of the coin, by considering how many people would be able to survive without free software.
Even the harshest critics of the open-source movement would have a hard time, I suspect, extricating free software from their lives. Below is a short list of the most popular open-source software that Microsoft and Apple fanboys take for granted, but without which their world would fall apart.
It’s well known that the networking stack in Windows NT incorporated large chunks of code originally written for the BSD operating system. Vista is ostensibly free of BSD code, but earlier versions of Windows wouldn’t be able to connect to the modern Internet if Microsoft hadn’t borrowed heavily from free software.
Apple’s OS X operating system is based on Darwin, a derivative of BSD released under the same license. In addition, OS X ships with an array of other borrowings from the free-software world, like the bash shell. Without open-source developers, Macs as Apple fanboys know them would not exist at all.
Although Google’s tendency to keep much of its own code closed is disappointing, the company nonetheless hosts most of its web applications on Linux. If you use Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs or just plain Google search, you’re using Linux.
There are a host of other websites and services, of course, that also rely heavily on open-source software. Even Microsoft Hotmail was once hosted on FreeBSD. Go figure.
Of course, without free software, most people wouldn’t be able to access Google in the first place, since most of the Internet’s infrastructure depends on open-source operating systems and utilities.
All of the world’s root nameservers, for example, use open-source software for resolving domain names. Unless you like memorizing IP addresses, you can thank free software for making name resolution possible. There’s also a good chance that most of the networking equipment connecting your computer to the Internet is running Linux or something similar.
Most of the information above is not news to anyone. It’s well known that many proprietary-software developers borrow free code frequently, usually without violating any laws.
Nonetheless, Microsoft and Apple devotees continue to deride free software as flaky and unreliable, and the ideological principles of open-source projects as unrealistic. Free software, they argue, will never be good enough to run the world on its own.
That may be true, at least for the time being. Life without any proprietary software at all remains impossible for most people, including me. But life without free software would be magnitudes more unimaginable for almost everyone on the planet with a modern computer.
Perhaps apologists for Microsoft, Apple and the like should think twice before dismissing free software and the ideology behind it as a hippie’s pipe dream. Otherwise, I hope they liked the 1980s–because without open-source software, that’s where their computers would be.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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