Linux. You've heard of it - the alternative operating system for PCs. Open-source, robust, scalable, free. A bit rough around the edges perhaps, but don't worry, the next version will be better. MS Windows. You've heard of it too. The operating system for PCs. Ubiquitous, well-supported, cheap, runs all your favourite software. Maybe it crashes a bit more than you'd like, but at least you know who to call.

More and more, this is a choice consumers are called to make. Do they choose the old favourite, or the brash newcomer? They have used Windows for years, as have all their friends. They know the ins and outs, and they have come to expect its eccentricities. They see Linux touted in all of the magazines as the up-and-coming contender to replace Windows as the standard OS for PCs. Linux is stable, where Windows crashes regularly. Linux is written by thousands of people all over the world, while Windows developed within one company in Redmond. Linux is updated regularly, and bug-fixes are available quickly, while Windows is upgraded every few years, with patches posted only when some new bug hits the news. Of course, there are two sides to the story. Linux is harder to operate, while Windows is very user-friendly. Linux comes from a bewildering number of sources, while Windows makes the choice of vendors easy. Linux comes with no guarantees, while Windows has a 24-hour technical support line.

The situation outlined above is in many ways parallel to the situation described in the articles by Kevin Kelly and Sven Birkerts. Kelly describes the "Net" as "the symbol of science for the next century", and encourages us to embrace it, using the analogy of the "emergent hive mind" of a beehive to show us why. Birkerts sees the Net (and many other technologies) in a less optimistic light. He believes that by "enlisting ourselves in the collective", we are taking "a step away from our fundamental selves". This echoes the promise that many see in Linux, and the fear that others have in abandoning Windows.

Opinions of Linux are heavily influenced by its open-source nature. It is developed by anyone who cares to do so, and this is seen as its biggest strength, as well as its biggest weakness. To its supporters, there is security in numbers. To its detractors, there are no guarantees - no reliable safety net. These positions are sometimes taken to extremes, when it is argued that open source software is the only way to go, or that it must be avoided at all costs. The principle underlying both sides of this argument is intellectual property. Open source proponents (in the extreme sense) believe that proprietary interests cannot be trusted to fairly supply necessary software, so as much software as possible must be freed from proprietary interests. The best example of how this is done is the GNU General Public License (GPL), which Linux is distributed under. Open source detractors (in the extreme sense) claim that open source software threatens their intellectual property, by attempting to infiltrate their software with the GPL or its equivalent. As mentioned though, these are the most extreme arguments.

Others take a more measured approach, and attack the problem from an objective, measured standpoint. Linux supporters emphasise the demonstrated reliability of the system, and the speed at which bugs are found and fixed, as evidence that their way is superior. Windows supporters point out that Linux is not suited to an ordinary computer user, and it will not run the most common applications. These more moderate people however, are likely to acknowledge the positive aspects of the competing system, if only to point out how soon they'll have duplicated it, or how little it matters anyway. This sort of pragmatism shadows the position expressed in Nardi and O'Day's paper - there are good and bad aspects to all new technologies, and we must refuse the bad, and embrace the good. In terms of technical issues, this principle is easy to apply to the situation at hand - software is infinitely pliable. The application to the intellectual property issues is less obvious.

Nardi and O'Day's position of "carefully considering the impact of technologies without rejecting them wholesale" can and has been successfully applied to the intellectual property issue. One approach, which allows the use of open-source software in proprietary systems, is the GNU Library General Public License (LGPL). Another, which allows the use of proprietary software in an open-source program, is that taken by xanim (note the bit about the video DLLs). These sort of compromises, where the impact is carefully examined by both sides, and a mutually agreeable solution is arrived at, may not be achievable in all cases. In the Linux vs. Windows case, an analogous compromise is probably not possible. Linux, and much of the software that runs on it, is covered by the GPL, which was written to be uncompromising. A proprietary Windows is what the Microsoft empire is founded on, and it's unlikely that that strategy will change. These particular products, representing the extremes of the positions with respect to embracing or refusing the hive, are not going to be reconciled. Other products can apply the position of Nardi and O'Day judiciously and successfully, without undue sacrifices at the altar of utility.

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