Explaining Open Source to students in 2015

When I bought my ZX81 it came with an embedded operating system called Sinclair Basic and when I bought a Commodore 64 it also ran some kind of Basic OS. At the time, I had no idea what an OS was or indeed what software was, simply because my...

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When I bought my ZX81 it came with an embedded operating system called Sinclair Basic and when I bought a Commodore 64 it also ran some kind of Basic OS.

At the time, I had no idea what an OS was or indeed what software was, simply because my exposure to computers hitherto had been to learn how to program them.

To me they were big machines that could be ‘programmed’ and now I had little machines that could do the same. I was unaware that I was writing software, though I knew my programming language had changed from FORTRAN to Basic.

Back then you bought such computers like you would any other gadget. You paid your money, got a guarantee, played with it and bought little extras if they were available. They did not need maintenance any more than did the cassette recorder.

Today, 30 years later, amazingly the situation is much the same. My little personal pantheon of gadgets include my Chromebook, my Sony e-reader and a Galaxy S II phone. I feel as ‘with-it’ as I did in 1982 (be envious).

As before, my gadgets are overpriced and came from high street shops with a guarantee and need no maintenance. Most purchasers of these and similar items, like me all those years ago, have no more idea what OS runs each, or indeed what it might be.

They would also have no idea that a war was fought over such operating systems and something called open source and Linux won and now quietly operates all of my gadgets as well as the World Wide Web and most of their cars. They know of Windows, but are not entirely sure what it is.

I know things have changed simply by lecturing students about how a computer works and looking at their baffled little faces (bless).

How odd it seems now, when I teach my students about the IBM PC and its clones that operating systems came to be separated from the hardware they ran; how DR-DOS once competed with Microsoft’s DOS, what GEM and Windows were and how you paid for them separately; how software came to be written and licenced for a particular operating system... it all seems so long ago.

They marvel when I explain that the first word processors to replace typewriters needed a kilobyte of memory, and within twenty years the very same words needed a million times more. They shake their heads when I try to explain how copyright and patents became all muddled up. Surely, they say, vacuum cleaners get patents and writing stuff gets copyright, what’s the big deal?

I get the biggest laugh when I tell them that grown people actually payed for restricted-use software that was available for free as Open Source and worked just as well.

They just don’t get it.

Electronic gadgets surely work because of magic stuff inside them that makes them work... just like 30 years ago?

I shrug, acknowledge the generation gap and say that to really understand you had to be there.

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