Originally Published: Sunday, 14 May 2000 Author: Mark McGrew
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

Here Comes the Hurricane

Board up your windows, secure your doors, and make sure the storm stays out of your home! If you aren't prepared, you could find yourself with an unwelcome guest on your home PC, making life very inconvenient for you.

While I was lying in bed yesterday morning, listening to an NPR station, I received a rude awakening in more than one sense. Not that I'm really that fond of NPR, but that's exactly why I use it to wake me up: it motivates me to get out of bed and start the day. Yesterday, though, I received a jolt that sent shivers down my spine.

A coalition of several hundred software companies, including Microsoft, AT&T, and IBM, has requested assistance from the United Nations in developing an infrastructure for delivering software updates and patches on an international level. The coalition is called the Application Service Provider Industry Consortium.

But why the United Nations? Given the UN's ability to entangle itself in situations without really trying, do we really want the UN involved in software updates? Besides, what's really wrong with what we currently have?

Then again, is this the beginning of UCITA on a global scale? Since a corporation's ability to pursue software pirates is limited in such legally difficult areas as sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, and the kid down the street with a CD-RW drive in his parents' computer, the United Nations seems a perfect ally to enforce global restrictions on who can use their products, and how, and when.

Fast-forward one hour. When I arrived at work, I picked up a copy of the Silicon Valley Computer User magazine, and found an article discussing the Registration Wizard for Microsoft Office 2000. The author confessed to being a pirate, in that he violated the terms of the End User License Agreement (EULA), but his overall attitude was "who cares? everyone does it."

While I may not be able to support his attitude towards violating the EULA, I must agree that the Registration Wizard has a creepy aspect about it. After all, without completing the Wizard, you can launch Office only fifty times. If Office crashes and work is lost, does that still count? What if the Wizard's Internet registration isn't an option? Should the purchaser use the Post Office instead? How long will the registration turnaround be for someone in very remote North Dakota or near a billabong in the Aussie outback? Fifty launches without registration is stifling, to say the least. What if a totally new installation is required after the OS has been re-installed?

Combine these two bits of information, and you have a very scary world indeed. The United Nations, maintaining a database of registered Microsoft customers (on Microsoft systems, of course), can deny anyone permission to obtain possibly critical upgrades for their systems, based solely on the fact that their license number doesn't appear in the database. Never mind that the database server crashed between data entry and backup. All in the name of UCITA, or whatever it will be called.

Board up your windows, secure your doors, and make sure the storm stays out of your home! If you aren't prepared, you could find yourself with an unwelcome guest on your home PC, making life very inconvenient for you.

This is where Linux has the edge. Through sites such as Linux.com, kernel.org, gnome.org, kde.org, and of course metalab.sunsite.edu, Linux and the Open Source tools are being passed out to anyone who wants them. Sure, some US sites have export restrictions on them, but anyone in nations not allowed to download from US-based servers can use mirrors. Piracy? Well, it is possible to pirate a GPL'ed product (witness Nvidia's slip-up), but simply downloading Linux, copying it, and giving it to friends doesn't count as piracy. In fact, it's encouraged.

And now the confession: Six months ago, I was a Linux "elitist," expecting anyone using Linux to learn about their system. I have now reconsidered. Given that Linux is all about freedom of choice, I believe it is perfectly reasonable to allow someone to choose fancy GUI tools for configuring their system (think Red Hat). It is also reasonable to allow someone to choose vi as their primary configuration tool (think Slackware). Or even use both, as I have done on occasion.

Another part of that freedom is the freedom to do what you want with it. If someone wants to create an Intranet router using Linux and some old, discarded PC parts, fine. Someone else can set up a high-end graphics design station. Put it in the corner and forget about it, or incorporate the latest patches every week, or even write an experimental driver that could ruin your system. It's your choice. No corporation or international organization will tell you otherwise.

Only by getting Linux (or its older half-siblings, the *BSD flavors) into as many hands as possible, all over the world, will we be able to stem the tide of corporate control away from our personal lives.

Mark McGrew (gus3@eskimo.com) stayed up way too late writing this article. His day job involves data security. His night job is enjoying his new life in Silicon Valley.