Set your computing free – Operating Systems

updateMuch is written on this website in relation to freeing yourself from corporate restraints – yet many of us remain shackled in our daily computing lives to two of the largest, and most aggressive destroyers of computing privacy; Microsoft and Apple.In the first part of a series we will be running called ‘set your computing free’ we will be looking at operating systems. These are the primary pieces of software running on computing devices, the most famous of which is probably Windows, but there are others – and they don’t just run on computers, but on phones, tablet devices, game consoles, PVR’s – almost every piece of electronic equipment.

In this post we will primarily be focusing on computers and consumer electronics.
Before we discuss the alternatives, let us have a brief look at what makes these two companies so detrimental to our privacy.

Microsoft

Microsoft the company behind the Windows operating systems are in a near monopoly position in the PC market. Windows runs on almost all PC’s and is distributed directly by computer manufacturer’s – destroying choice. It also runs on some phones.
Regardless of how Microsoft got in this position, there software and the company as a whole are not the friend of those who support privacy.

  • Windows is the primary target of virus’s and spyware
  • Internet Explorer (windows’ default browser) has over time proven to be one of the most insecure available (though this is improving)
  • Windows often becomes unstable/slow after being installed for a while
  • Windows requires much third party software to protect you from security and privacy issues
  • Windows is expensive – whether you realise you’re paying for it or not, if it is installed by  default, you’ve paid
  • Its not free! Not just as in cost, but the source code is not available for others to check for problems (or potential back-doors)
  • Bugs in the software can only be fixed by Microsoft – when they feel like it

Apple

Apple, the company behind the Mac line of computers were once seen as a great alternative to the Microsoft monoculture. Since the release of iPods, iPhones, and iPads they have come to be a bigger company than Microsoft – and as they have grown they have demonstrated that they are actually worse than Microsoft for device ‘lock-in’ and user control.

Thanks to great marketing and an insane, almost religious following from their dedicated users, they have pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable, and normal sane rational beings have given them huge influence and control over their lives in exchange for technological trinkets.

  • Apple are the master of ‘lock-in’ you must use their hardware and software together
  • Almost every piece of apple hardware requires proprietary software to copy files to and from
  • Apple collect huge amounts of data on each of their users, and interlink and store it all together
  • Apple are a gate-keeper not only to their own software, but to third party software installed on their hardware
  • Apple are also a gate-keeper from much of the media brought for their hardware

What does all this mean?

For the most part, all these issues relate to one thing; control.

When you run a device controlled by a closed source operating system you relinquish at least some control to the company which created that software – in the case of a computer or other Internet connected consumer electronic device this comes with a great deal of risk, both from undiscovered ‘bugs’ in the software and from intentional morally questionable actions from the company.

The alternative – Open source

The alternative to this monoculture of control is Open Source software. Open Source is just that, the source code to the software is freely available to all, to be peer reviewed, both for improvement of the software and to scrutinize for bugs or intentional 'back doors'.

The origins of open source software go back to the dawn of computing. Originally computer hardware was independently devised which left software writers with a problem - what runs on my computer may not run on another. And so, more often than not software was distributed in raw source code to be compiled for each machine it needed to run on.

With the advent of the standardised IBM PC this suddenly became a none issue, and so software started being distributed in its compiled form - and in so doing became a 'black box'.
At the same time as this, some people continued to exchange the code for their software, in an open way, with allowed for further development of the code - but this was a small side line, up until the point people started to realise that big software companies had them over a barrel.

The biggest alternative Operating System distributed in an open source format is Linux, though there are many others. Linux is an open source operating system compatible with UNIX (an old operating system, which Mac OSX is also derived from) and supports most modern computers offering us all a way to free ourselves from proprietary operating systems on both PC an Mac's.

Linux is also used to create the 'Android' operating system for mobile phones, an exceptional alternative to the iPhone. Linux is also used in many other consumer electronics including tablet computers, set-top boxes for TV, PVR's and many other things.

Conclusions

Hopefully this short article has given you food for thought when it comes to the most basic area of security - who you trust. In future articles in this series we will introduce other pieces of open source software which you can use to set yourself free from the corporate world of computing, and regain control at the most basic level.

Next in the 'Set your computing free' series - a 'how to' for installing Linux on your home computer.

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