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Pro-Choice Computing 

Wednesday, May 26 1999
A FEW MONTHS AGO, I WROTE AN ARTICLE about my single frustration with the Linux operating system: To wit, it cannot run Microsoft Word, or any word-processing program comparable to it. The day after the article ran, my e-mail inbox flooded with comments from more readers than any story about a geek-oriented operating system should by rights have. Some of the letters were sympathetic; some were appreciative. But many more of them were outraged, condescending or downright insulting. More than one called me "stupid"; others completely missed the point: "You threw a perfectly good computer down the stairs," one reader complained (I had noted incidentally that the computer I'd been using had crashed after years of abuse, including, but not limited to, being dropped down a flight of stairs). "You have no business writing about technology."

Some letter writers apologized for other people's flames before I'd even read them, which is how I learned that, with few exceptions, the letters came from readers of a Web site called Slashdot (www.slashdot.org), "news for nerds." I look to Slashdot (aka "/.") somewhat regularly for its links to stories on open-source software, but I hadn't known they'd linked to me until a sympathetic reader wrote to console me. "I'm sorry about what they're saying about you on /.," wrote one respondent. "I think it's really unfair." So I went to the site to read about myself, a "semi-informed journalist," writing a "not entirely negative" story about Linux. By the time I got there, the follow-up comments numbered in the 100s.

Oh, I had supporters, to be sure. Several of them denounced the sexism of an "Anonymous Coward" -- Slashdot's blanket pseudonym for anonymous posters -- who called me the "Martha Stewart of computing"; a few more admitted that they, too, are forced by either cultural pressure or professional need to resort to Microsoft applications. But mostly, the thread of discussion on Slashdot could be best described as Orwellian.

I was shocked. Could these Linux fascists be related to the freethinking, friendly Linux community I met years ago on the Internet Relay Chat, where once a helpful soul stayed up half the night walking me through the setup for Slackware? Honestly, even feminists have come to realize that their movement is about choice, not new rules; how is it that Linux fans, like abusive husbands, have adopted the creed of Redmond: If you don't like it our way, you're wrong?

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On the other hand, I have Slashdot to thank for furthering my technological progress. After its club gangbanged my personal reflection on Linux, I recognized that Linux didn't need my advocacy anymore. With companies both young and entrenched lining up to develop business applications for the Windows alternatives, Linux has developed its own profit-motivated momentum, complete with zealous evangelists who have invested their professional futures -- as consultants, systems analysts and pundits -- in the operating system's success. The Slashdotters have become a cautionary tale: Never get married to an OS. No one will ever invent one that can meet all your needs, and you'll turn out defiant, unreasonable and angry, dogmatic in your inability to make rational decisions about how to tailor a system to an individual.

I originally chose Linux in 1994 because I had a 386 with no operating system to rehabilitate, and Linux was, and remains, free (as in beer, not speech). I still use it. But I'm no longer religious about it. In fact, a few weeks ago, when I made plans with a fellow aspiring gearhead to build a local area network in his four-plex, connecting several computers via Ethernet to one high-speed Internet connection, I jettisoned plans to install Linux on the server and moved on, to another free, open and stable Unix clone: FreeBSD (named after its precursor, the Berkeley Software Distribution), version 2.2.8.

Like Linux, FreeBSD is free in every sense of the word. It can be downloaded from an FTP site (ftp.freebsd.org) to floppy disks, installed over a network, or purchased prepackaged on a CD-ROM for $39.95. The operating system and its applications are maintained by a large group of individuals who call themselves the FreeBSD Project (www.freebsd.org/handbook/staff.html) and keep their source code and development progress exposed to the public so outsiders can contribute to perfecting it. It runs on Intel-based PCs, and it's remarkably stable. According to a recent issue of PC Week, several systems managers have opted for FreeBSD over Windows NT not because it costs $600 less, but because it has fewer bugs.

And several Webmasters have chosen FreeBSD over Linux, not because they got pounded by Slashdotters, but because FreeBSD handles twice the Web traffic. On the other hand, user-friendly, everyday applications for FreeBSD -- word-processing programs, spreadsheets and the like -- are even scarcer than they are for Linux. So here's my perfect world: Microsoft Word for writing, FreeBSD for the network, Linux for e-mail, Web browsing, syncing the Palm Pilot and playing programmer. The best application wins, politics be damned. I can't imagine why anyone would want it any other way.

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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