Informative Speech about "Free Software"


Hello. My name is Joachim Breitner and I'm an exchange student from Germany. I arrived a month ago and will stay for the second semester. I joined debate club, since we do not have a such thing in Germany. You will hear now my first debate tournament speech, which is over "Free Software". But let me start differently.

You probably heard of the viruses "Code Red" and "Nimda". These worms have infected several thousands of computers and web servers in 2001. But not every site was affected. Major sites like the search engine google.com were not severely harmed. What made them different from other web sites, what made them safer?

While we are talking of google.com, let us have a deeper look. According to their web site, google.com makes 150 million searches per day in its 2 billion web page index. This index is created by a so called "cluster", a network of several computer doing the same thing, consisting of more than 10,000 single servers. How can they manage a system with 10,000 single computers, what can be so customizable?

A totally other thing is the internet access for a school. Nowadays standard, not so in 1994, when at my school a teacher build up a internet room without any government money - just with donated hardware. How could he do that, if Operating Systems cost more than $500 in the shop? What is so cheap, that it is free?

Topic "Free Software"

The solution to these questions is Free Software. Before I explain, why this is so, I will tell you a bit about software development and the history of software and Free Software. But first I have to explain the expression "free". "Free" can mean two things in English. There is free meaning "It does not cost anything.", and there is free like freedom. The community around Free Software usually sais: "Free as in Freedom of Speech, not as in Free Beer."

To understand this whole topic, you have to know a bit about software development. If I would show you a computer program in the way the computer sees it, you would see thousands or millions of numbers. On the other hand, the computer cannot understand the source code of the program, which is a human readable text expressing the computer's operations in an abstract way. A computer program called "compiler" can translate the human readable to the computer readable form.

If you buy Software like Microsoft Windows, you get the computer's code. You have no way to find out, how it works or to change anything. You only have the right to use it. We will be talking about rights quite a bit.

The idea behind Free Software says that Software should be like Speech or opinions. Everybody can express them, can take other opinions, change them a bit, express them. Nobody owns opinions. Sometimes "Open Source" is used instead of "Free Software". This is done to avoid the ambiguous "free" and express the main part, the availability of the source code.

History of Software and Free Software

In the beginning, software usually was coded only for one kind of computer - like the PC or the Macintosh, only that in that time, there were much more different kind of computer architectures. Nobody cared about Software being stolen or copied, since it was mostly software for one special task.

First computer networks started to exist between Universities in 1961. In this time, the expression "Hacker" was born. A Hacker is basically someone who enjoys exploring the way computers, computer systems other computer related things work or who is a passionate or quick programmer. To use Hacker for somebody that tries to steal information and destroy something is wrong, "Cracker" is the correct word for these people.

1969 is an important date in the history of computer. In this year the ARPANET connected different computer networks for the first time - the Internet was born. Perhaps even more important was the development of Unix. A Bell Labs hacker called Ken Thompson worked at a projected called Multics. The goal was to create an operating system that hides most of the internal work from the users and even from the programmers. The company gave the project up, but Thompson kept working on it and calling it Unix. Dennis Ritchie invented a new programming language called "C" for use under Unix. Until then, operating system were written in assembler, that is nearly writing the numbers of the program by hand, to achieve the best performance. Thomson realised that computers were fast enough by then, and he wrote Unix in C. Since C is an abstract language, suddenly you could use the same program on different computer architectures. This is what we call portability.

But since Thomson worked for Bell Labs, they had the rights for it. They sold licences to other companies and universities, and soon there were several partly incompatible Unix versions. Although you always got the source code with the program, some companies restricted the use of the code. You could not always change the thing the way you want to and tell others about your improvement.

One person, Richard M. Stallman, also known by his initials and login name RMS, began the development of a complete free Unix system written in C and he called it GNU, which is a recursive acronym for "Gnu's not Unix". He founded the Free Software Foundation to support the development and he encouraged other hacker to join the movement and help developing the software. He also defined Free Software. He says, that there are 4 freedoms.

By 1991, he had a complete operating system. The only thing missing was the kernel. The kernel ist the part that connects the software to the hardware and the network protocols. In the early 1990s, proprietary Unixes were so different, that the whole UNIX tradition died away. Mot the press was thinking that the Unix story was played out. RMS could not help it - he had a good free operating system, but no kernel. This is where Linus Thorvalds and Linux came in.

Linus Thorvalds started developing a Unix kernel more or less for fun in his semester brake. He published his first results in the internet and gladly accepted contributions from others. Linux grew fast, and his success does not necessarily lie in its quality - by that time, other efforts were more advanced - but in the way it was developed. Until the, all big projects, and a kernel is a big project, were developed and coordinated in a very small and tightly-knit group of people. Linux evolved completely different. It was developed by a huge number of hackers all over the internet. Quality was ensured by releasing new versions every week or month, and receiving feedback within days. Two years later, Linux was stable and reliable enough to compete with other Unixes and killing most small Unix vendors.

The last decade had one big topic: The internet. With the World Wide Web, the internet became popular. With the internet, the hackers that made it got into the press, and with them, Linux became popular. Companies selling Linux distributions like Red Hat had impressive results at the stock market. Red Hat's shares rose by 272% the first day, VA Linux's shares even by about 1000%. These Companies took Linux, the GNU-System and other mostly free software, put them on one (or more likely up to 6) CDs and distributed them through computer and book shops. This complete system is called GNU/Linux, since these are the two most important parts. The software on the CD still remained free, and you pay only for the effort of collecting, burning and printing a book; you can use one copy in 10,000 servers if you like.

For the internet, you need web servers. The most used web server ist Apache, maybe the second best known free software product. It was developed in 1995 and now hosts more than half of the web sites out there. It is famous for its performance, safety and flexibility. For these reasons, IBM decided in 1998, that Apache will be its software suite central. They do not have to pay licence fees, but they started to delegate some employes to help developing Apache. This code is part of Apache and therefor freely available. This way, everybody gets the best out of the deal: IBM, the customers, the Apache group and the free software community. At my home, an Apache web server is running. Without paying for it, but totally legal.

Not only Linux was commercialized, commercial products have been "freed". The most famous example is Netscape. Once the most spread internet browser, after the massive attack of Microsoft and it's free (as in beer) Internet Explorer, Netscape was nearly wiped off the Windows and Macintosh computers, and it's development could not keep up to the Internet Explorer. The anti trust trial against Microsoft was not fast enough and did not help Netscape. In 1998, Netscape Communications, the company behind Netscape, announced that they will give away the browser suit for free - no surprise so far - and also will open the source. This stunned the industry. This is a big step, for they did not own the code anymore, it was free. The only special right they had, was to take the code, put commercial parts to it and distribute it under the name "Netscape 6" while the Free Software part was called "Mozilla", the original and internal project name of Netscape. By now, Netscape 6.2 is a state of the art browser again. Netscape was the fist to do so, but others followed. Sun Microsystems for example gave away their full sized office suite "Star Office".

This is the end of my history lesson. I will now have a shorter look at the advantages of Free Software.


Free Software is safer. If a software has a weak spot that could be exploited, and no kind of software is perfect, it is so long insecure until the vendor fixes the problem. With traditional software, someone has to tell the vendor, he has to reproduce the problem, trace it down in the source code, fix it, build a new version and distribute it - maybe for money. This takes at least some days. With free software, the one that finds the problem can have a look at the source code, tell everybody about the problem, and soon somebody will has a solution. The maintainer of the projects has a look at it, builds a new version and distributes it. This can be done within some hours.

Free Software is faster, has more features and gives you what you need. Since the users themselves can actually be involved in the development process, the can easily add new features, improve the code and search for errors. And if they do not have the ability for that, they can talk to the developers, who are usually much closer to user than big anonymous companies.

Free Software is more compatible, sticks to standards and supports a variety of choices. If two programs do not work together the way they should, and at least one of them is free software, somebody that needs it can make it. You do not rely on whether the vendor of one software has the other software on their support list. That is also the reason why Free Software sticks to standards. If it did not, somebody would have a problem with that and change it. And since Free Software projects can take code from other projects and use it for their own, two projects of one kind will actually improve from each other, instead of trying to push the other one out of the market.

Free Software is the only way to real security. Only when you know what's going on you can be sure there are no backdoors or security holes. This is why more and more governments move to Free Software in critical areas.

And last but not least, Free Software is also free as in beer, or at least very cheap. You can build an IT infrastructure for a whole institution without paying for software, and you have everything you need. Workstations with internet browsers, office programs, graphic design, games, software development tools, servers acting as web servers, file servers, print server and so on.


I am at the end of my speech now. I hope I could give you a deeper view in a movement that has the potential to change the computer world as we know it. There would be much more to talk about, like the threat that software patents are for Free Software, and other problems.

I tried to give you an objective view. I could have done it as a persuasive speech, with a lot of ideologically things to say. But my goal was to inform you about the existence of the whole thing, and if you come into a situation where you have to decide about what software to use, I want you to know that there is this thing called Free Software. And if you have further questions, I would be glad to answer them during our free time here.

By the way, although I prefer free speech, I don't mind free beer at all. Thank you for your attention.

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