OPINION

Linux Doesn’t Cost Anything – But Maybe It Should

Discussions, theses, theories and memes abound around Linux’s inability to gain traction in the desktop marketplace. Some think the Linux Desktop is too hard to learn (it’s not). Others say Linux Desktop is deficient (it’s not). Linux elite (or 1337) say Linux wasn’t really meant for the general users anyway (not true). Microsoft says Linux in general is evil (see the Halloween Memo) (oh, and by the way, it’s not).

I submit yet another theory: Linux isn’t expensive enough!

Free Is Bad? Why?

Why, you wonder, when all along we’ve sung the FOSS praises of GNU/Linux (hereafter referred to as the more simple “Linux,” with all deference to Stallman) and that Linux is free? What could be better than free?

If Linux Desktop is free and can’t gain more marketshare (estimates range somewhere around 1 percent Linux Desktop market penetration) then one or a combination of the above reasons must be why Linux fails. If Linux passes all points in the opening paragraph, what gives?

I found that answer in the first chapter of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini (I get no royalties or kickbacks for this — it just happens to be one of my favorite books). Simply put, Linux is too cheap. Read the first chapter — it’s eyebrow-raising! Substitute Linux Desktop for jewelry!

It turns out that when customers don’t know enough about a product, or the gestalt of a product, their only second best way to guess about the quality or value of that product is by price. It also turns out that for Linux Desktops and computers, how and why they work (or don’t), really is rocket-science hard. Heck, computers are what’s used to do rocket science, and general users don’t have the background to really know what determines “quality” in computers. This is especially true for the computer desktop.

Users know little about underlying technology that holds a desktop together, and they shouldn’t have to. That leaves users to more typical means to decide “quality.” One of the most universal is price. Since users can’t evaluate the technical underpinnings, they can decide that if it costs a lot, it must be superior. Or, in contrast (and this is Linux’s bane), if it is inexpensive (or FREE) it must be because it’s not as good.

But Is Linux Really Good Enough?

Glad you asked. Let’s revisit the opening common claims to Linux’s failings:

  • Linux is too hard to learn: Fail. Linux, especially Linux Desktop, couldn’t be easier to learn. In the last 10 years Linux usability work has exploded with ideas and implementations. A Linux Desktop may be different (think Ubuntu vs. RedHat, Gnome vs. KDE), but it’s only different. I’ve never had to abandon teaching someone how to use a Linux Desktop.
  • Linux is deficient: Nope. Not even close. As an anecdotal example, I recently connected an old XP laptop to my 1920×1200 monitor to make work on that computer easier. Alas, the video drivers available could not drive the resolution on my monitor — even after downloading and installing updates for XP and the vendor drivers. However, the Linux side of that dual-boot laptop happily fired up and handled the screen resolution perfectly. This is one example of many times I’ve seen Linux rise to a technical challenge while Windows failed.
  • This point begs more discussion. In future articles I promise to drill more deeply into this topic. For now, I submit that in my (more than anecdotal) opinion, Linux Desktop is far from deficient.

  • Linux wasn’t meant for the general user: Uh-uh! Geek elites are confusing technical obfuscation of what is possible to do (Unix command line, etc.) with what is transparently easy to do today on any Linux Desktop (browse and manage files, surf the Internet, write and manage documents, handle e-mail, etc.). Linux can be as difficult as you want it to be to learn, but for general desktop use and day-to-day tasks, Linux Desktop couldn’t be more appropriate for general use.
  • Linux (per Microsoft) is evil: Consider the source. ‘Nuff said.

Why Don’t Linux Servers Suffer Same Fate?

The users of Linux Server technology are extremely technical, and with good reason. They support technology on which businesses run.

Users of Linux Server barely blink that Linux is free — they’re much more interested that Linux is excellent. Their measuring stick is based on deep technological understanding, and hence they do not need to look to alternate valuations. And in the server market, Linux thrives in spite of being free.

Any Examples?

What about Mac OS X? I won’t argue the nuances of good, better and best, but really? Is OS X that much better than XP, Vista or 7? I happen to think OS X is better and Mac systems are well-designed and implemented, but is a US$2,000 MacBook Pro really $1,000 better than a comparably configured Windows 7 laptop (I’m being generous — you can find $600 comparable machines)? Much of Apple’s finesse is their marketing and the cachet it creates.

Furthermore, is “FREE” Linux, in comparison, as stature-less in value? Again, without getting all fanboy about any of the three, it’s clear in my opinion that Linux Desktop competes on par with 7 and OS X. But users looking for options wonder “Why free?” and shuffle Linux down the list — free must mean inferior!

Also consider the new Droid smartphones. Their Android operating systems are Linux-based. And the Droid smartphones are as expensive as Apple’s iPhone, as well as all other smartphones. People, these are Linux-based! And they’re wildly popular! And expensive. And popular. And Linux.

But Linux Has to Be Free!

Yes, Linux is Open Source and Linux is free. But there are myriad ways to combine the free Linux with added value. Water is free too (kind of), and you don’t find people hesitate to pay a buck-fifty for 12 ounces of it because it’s in a pretty plastic bottle! There are ways.

Then how?

I wish I knew, but I’m in the opinion business. I do think Linux Desktop gains main street cred when someone finds a way to cut, polish and mount a Linux Desktop diamond in the rough. Polished, packaged and priced like a real product, Linux Desktop offers attractive marketing opportunities. Linux Desktop is ready for prime time. Linux Desktop needs to look, feel, smell and cost like prime time. We’re more likely to proudly show off our shiny new desktop we bought. And that is how we create a Linux Desktop buzz.

Linux Desktop buzz is what’s been missing. Really. And the company that finds a way to create the buzz puts Linux a chip shot away from real market share. Linux Desktop — it’s going to cost you. And it should.


Elbert Hannah lives in the Chicago area and does production and scheduling support for a large financial firm. He wrote the most recent edition of O’Reilly’s Learning the vi and Vim Editors. He has used Linux and worked actively in the open source community for over 10 years. In and around the house, he has more than 10 instances of Linux and as many versions and distros. He doesn’t like technical religious wars and prefers things to be sorted out by merit. He loves the Beatles and thinks the greatest album recorded is Abbey Road.

14 Comments

  • Heard of Venus Project?

    I know it sounds hilariously impossible to achieve to many, but just think… everything free… and all you do has its use in general society. Open Source is the first step -in modern society that is.

  • Linux is free. Free OS gives people around the world that have no money or limited resources with intelligence a way to link up,study,chat,download,learn,and research anything even on an outdated junk box computer using puppy if they have too.In this age of poor economy why would arrogance come into play. If you like Windows use it.If you like Linux use it.Putting a pricetag on linux won’t win your argument.Argue on your own quarter.

    • I’ll take apart your statements one by one, okay? "most people won’t be able to install either of them." FUD, total FUD. Just two weeks ago my 67 year old dad, who is about as clueless as they come, installed Windows 7 by himself. Hell any 12 year old can install the latest windows, it only asks three questions!

      "if the hardware is older than a year or two, Windows 7 probably won’t install at all." FUD. I just got done installing Windows 7 HP on a circa 2004 P4 desktop. Worked perfectly with NO trouble. Can you say the same on any Ubuntu install? Because I tried a dozen machines and had exactly ONE work OOTB, and that was an old 1.1Ghz Celeron. Yeah, like anyone wants that. Next?

      "And good luck finding any hardware drivers from Microsoft Update" FUD. Haven’t used windows since XP, have you? Hell MSFT Update even downloaded drivers for my off brand USB TV Tuner, and it don’t get more niche than that. Anything else?

      "Windows is terrible on Servers as well as Desktops. sure, it might *just work* depending on the version of windows and the hardware you’re installing on … right up until it *just breaks* " BWA HA HA HA HA…total FUD! You want to talk about "just breaks" look at a Dell Ubuntu OEM. Look at the repos. Notice that Dell does NOT have Canonical’s repo in there? Want to know why? Because their QA is so p*ss poor that if you update an OEM that is bloody supplied with Ubuntu…it breaks completely! WOW, great quality there! You know how many times I have had that happen with windows? A grand total of once, and that was because the guy bought some off brand sound card that was already out of business. Anything else?

      "pening up bash and typing `dmesg` to see kernel messages is a whole lot simpler than learning wtf an ‘event viewer’ is or memorizing all the clicks you must make to get to it. " Good Lord, do you even hear yourself? Do you actually think ANYONE uses Event Viewer? There is NOT ONE single problem in Windows that can’t be solved by GUI. AFAIK the same goes for OSX. Can you say the same?

      Whether you like it or not, the public has spoken. Here is what happens when the public deals with Linux users: "I do NOT want CLI, or to learn Bash! I just want it to work!"/But Bash is leet!/ "I do NOT want CLI!" /But CLI is more powerful!/ "How much is Windows 7 again?" You won’t listen to the public, instead you try to force the public to like what YOU like, but they don’t, never will. Walmart tried, couldn’t give them away. Dell now hides their Linux offerings in the back with a big warning making sure they know it isn’t Windows.

      I stand by my statement, Linux is good for some jobs, great at others, but a desktop for a normal person is NOT one of them, not even close. Tell you what, bookmark this and watch my prediction come true: Windows 7&8 will both be hits, OSX will continue to make inroads, especially in the consumer space, while Linux numbers will STILL be below the margin for error! Why, because you refuse to listen to the customers, that’s why! They don’t WANT Bash, or CLI, or "fixes" or any of that crud! Listen or fail, your choice.

      • Ahhh…something else I looove about FLOSSies, the total arrogant attitude! For your info Mr. FLOSSie I have NO trouble with CLI, and while that is a nice strawman you are attacking it doesn’t change the facts: FACT-Your mother could NOT have picked up Linux without you to tech support her! FACT-Customers DO NOT WANT CLI! If they did Apple, who is about as anti-CLI as they come, wouldn’t rule the mobile space with an iron fist. FACT- Instead of doing what a successful company would do, which is have some focus groups and then listen to the results, you instead try to FORCE everyone to do it YOUR way, as opposed to actually listening to the people. Why?

        Allow me to answer that: It is because Linux is a SERVER OS, and you and everyone here knows it. A good 85%+ of the apps on Linux are written BY geeks FOR geeks and frankly without CLI the whole thing would fall apart like a badly built house of cards. And how many Linux machines have you sold at retail…hmmm? One? None? Because Heaven forbid someone with 15 years selling machines, who has watched time and time again as your product fails, should have any insights. Nope it must be all MY fault, because I don’t drink the Koolaid!

        You want proof, here it is. If Linux is a desktop OS you should be able to treat it like a desktop OS, so take the "Hairyfeet Challenge"! From this moment you are NOT a Linux geek, you are Joe Normal. There will be NO CLI allowed! You will now open three browser tabs, this will be your three virtual shopping trips. Remember, no cheating and NO research, because normal folks don’t study like it is a test just to go shopping! Ready?

        Place these three things in your basket, one of each for each store and to get an accurate result buy on at least two by price alone, as that is what normal folks do. Place one AIO printer, One USB TV Tuner, and one USB webcam. These are the three biggest sellers at mine and most shops ATM, so that is what normal folks would likely get upon a new PC purchase. Now that you have done your shopping, go to Ubuntu forums and try to find how many are supported. Remember you are a new user, so NO CLI, because a new user isn’t gonna use that complex mess of gibberish without screwing something up! Go on, I’ll wait…

        Total fail, yes? You’re lucky if you have 30% of the devices work, and even then only if I allow CLI, which as I said with no spellcheck, no autocomplete, and such a foriegn interface the odds of them getting it right aprroaches zero pretty quickly. I’m sure your mother isn’t firing up Bash to fix that problem with "update foo broke my sound" is she? No, that would be you. And you can’t compare the mess that is Linux to OSX, because the number of devices OSX has to support can be counted on your fingers. Oh and NO local shops support Linux, because we have all found the answer is usually "LOL, buy another "insert device here" or "maybe they’ll fix it in the next rev". No thanks.

        There is a REASON why the ONLY place you see Linux sold is on the web. It is because it is an OS BY geeks and FOR geeks, and frankly just isn’t worth the trouble. At the $35 an hour I charge it only takes 3 hours worth of Linux BS for it to cost more than a copy of Win7 HP, and I got news for you: Customers don’t give a crud about "free as in freedom" they just want it to work and to continue working. And right now with the insane 6 month release cycles and p*ss poor QA Linux don’t fit that bill, not even close. NO SALE.

  • We give Microsoft a rough time about multiple versions of Windows. Yet Linux takes the cake when it comes to its many distro’s.

    I think Linux versions like Red Hat and Suse have had some success because they have professional support and charge something for this. People want someone to complain too when things do not work. They don’t just want a forum to post a problem and hope a answer comes soon and is written in a language they can understand.

  • There are three simple reasons for the lack of Linux on the desktop.

    1, Inertia selling… PC’s come with windows so that becomes the OS of "choice." Likewise "free" software pre-installed becomes the product of default use and experience.

    2, Children… If you have a child you have to have windows, the worlds fastest internet connection, the best graphics card, etc. Not because they need it, but because they want it! Most kids are gamers, the most popular games don’t run on Linux. My son (now 19) grew up on windows (point 1 again) and windows games; doom, hexon, quake, duke nuke-em 3D, WOW, hotmail, etc. He has no problem with using Linux or linux software, except that it’s a pain to multi-boot every time a program needs directX/windows.

    3, A huge number of "application systems" are still descendent’s of VB/Access/Office, and although they may have been re-factored many times and while the DB may have moved to a backend SQL server, the "PC" part is still very much the same windows application; which again relates to point 1!

    Neither windows nor Linux OS/Applications are any easier or worse to use or learn, the learning curve moving from one to the other is negligible, the business support costs and skills are identical and equally specialised.

    It is not cost/price/usability/data (Office) formats/quality/etc… its inertia!

  • Objectively, Linux is easier to install and to use than Win7 on a desktop – see a side-by-side comparison at http://ricegf.com/index.php?page=review&review=0001. Certain apps aren’t available, true, but as Android has proven, apps follow market share.

    The reason Linux is rocking every computing sector *except* desktops is simple marketing.

    Cray *markets* Linux as the OS of choice on their supercomputers – and Linux holds over 90% share. IBM, HP, Oracle, and other major vendors *market* Linux on their servers – and Linux holds a 44% share. HTC, Motorola, Samsung, LG, HP Palm, and now Nokia all *market* Linux on cell phones – and Linux holds a 15% share that is rocketing upward, while Apple’s share is flat and Windows is dropping like an anchor in mid-air.

    Dell does sell Linux on desktops – but only if you explicitly look for it, and even they they try to talk you out of it. It’s a case of *anti*-marketing. With due deference to System76 and Zareason, no first tier vendor markets Linux to the desktop, largely (it appears) for fear of reprisals from Microsoft and their (shall we say) aggressive marketing machine.

    ASUS is an even more interesting case study. ASUS marketed a Linux-based netbook, and sales exploded. The president then apologized on-stage with Ballmer glowering in the background, dropped Linux and pushed Windows XP, and Linux’ share of the netbook market dropped to around 33%. Did Linux suddenly become too technically challenging for the average consumer? Of course not – it became *unavailable* from mainstream vendors.

    As much as it pains this engineer to say it, but the best technology simply doesn’t win – the best marketing of a "good enough" product does.

    Can Linux gain double-digit market share on the desktop? Probably not as long as Microsoft makes competition cost-prohibitive for the major marketers through restrictive licensing terms, although Intel’s MeeGo is a fascinating product that, if properly marketed, may prove me wrong.

    But it doesn’t matter as much now. By 2014, smartphones will be the dominant means of accessing apps and the web, and Microsoft kin never dominate that market as they have the desktop. (Sorry, but I just love puns… 🙂

  • Linux is taking off and free is a fine price, but the desktop is not the location. Android phones are the first good foot in the door for Linux. You mention OSX, but you fail to point out that Macs really gained popularity once the iPod and iPhone became successful.

    Now with Google’s operating systems of Android and Chrome, Linux has a fighting chance and a huge backer. Google’s partners like HTC/Motorola/Verizon have been doing a great job of marketing FOSS. Give it time the Android phones are an excellent first step.

    • > Take the latest Ubuntu and Win7 HP DVDs, and then pick a random person that is NOT a CS grad or tech. Have them install each in turn.

      most people won’t be able to install either of them. by saying they’ll be able to install Windows7 is giving them a whole lot of extra credit.

      > See how much hardware is working and how much is broken. Now tell them to "fix" the problems.

      if the hardware is older than a year or two, Windows 7 probably won’t install at all. And if you want to install XP on your Vista machine, I have one compound word for you: Slipstreaming. good luck figuring that out, regular ‘ol joe. I’ll cross my fingers for you.

      > You’ll see the Win7 hardware will be working, and if it finds weird hardware will contact MS Update and take care of the problem.

      This is nothing more than a sheer gamble of a statement. And good luck finding any hardware drivers from Microsoft Update, the stock only the occasional video driver and not much else. It’ll also be third-party software so who knows if it’ll break your system. updating linux’s hardware drivers is as easy as selecting a new kernel in the package manager, and voila (debian, ubunt).

      > Ubuntu is "trawl forums, know name/make/model of specific hardware, find "fixes" is they exist at all, "tweak" fixes to specific rev/make/model if not exact, pour it all into Bash and pray.

      that’s a terrible deduction. People are there to help you out of the kindness of their hearts (or maybe they have nothing better to do), and they are *people* that will talk to you about how to fix things. there are few places to go like that for Windows support. knowing your specific hardware is as simple as `lspci` in a command line, and they’ll tell you that. it’s not hard to type a short command by request and paste the output. a MONKEY could do that.

      > Linus is GREAT on servers, where companies like HP spend millions making sure it "just works" and server admins that live in CLI have no trouble dealing with "fixes" and "workarounds".

      Windows is terrible on Servers as well as Desktops. sure, it might *just work* depending on the version of windows and the hardware you’re installing on … right up until it *just breaks*

      > Linux SUCKS on a desktop unless you are one of the above I listed, and even then be ready to deal with "open up Bash and type" way too often.

      opening up bash and typing `dmesg` to see kernel messages is a whole lot simpler than learning wtf an ‘event viewer’ is or memorizing all the clicks you must make to get to it. CLI is better design for a lot of things. and there’s a manual, if you’re too afraid to read or just don’t have the time, stay with your Windows. Doesn’t mean Linux isn’t good enough for you, you’re just not prepared for Linux.

  • I definitively agree on your recommendation for a paid Linux desktop. What I’ve learned so far in my OSS career is the 1. you need a product (with support) and 2. you need a price. Without that no one takes you seriously.

    In terms of the desktop I see another reason why it’s not so easy: the coolest apps are not available, e.g. iTunes, games, Flash for AM d64, MS Office, aso. .. and if they are available, just wait for the next update to break them 😉 – In contrast the coolest server side apps are OSS and it’s a hassle not to run them on a Linux box.

    • I call BS!!!

      "If you needed it AT ALL you have failed!"???

      When I was a Windows use I used the command line all the time.

      When I use Mac OS now I use the command line.

      It is a choice. You don’t need to touch the command line in Linux if you don’t want too. Most post will tell you how to do something from the command line because it’s easier to say, "Just copy and paste this line into your terminal." Then it is to say, "First open this, now click on this. Go to this and look for this. Now, you should see this. Tab to this. and click OK."

      My Mother is 55 years old. She had never used a computer before. Last year I gave her an old computer running Xubuntu. She didn’t even know how to use a mouse. The only time I’ve had to go and help her with something since the first day was when she bought a printer/scanner and I had to show her where the scanning software was.

      "As a PC repairman"? There’s the problem. You are afraid that people won’t need you if they switch away from Windows. Don’t worry. I know most of your work is created by Viruses and you may lose some business if people switch to Linux. But, people will still need help. People still need to bring there Apples to the Apple store.

      I seriously don’t see how some one who works with computers could find Linux hard to use if My mother can do it. I think this is one of the big problems we face. There are to many people who claim to be good with computer and who charge others money, but really have no clue themselves.

  • I can think of 2 benefits of Linux becoming more popular and widely used.

    1) Hardware Companies would support Linux more.

    2) With any Open-Source Project, The more people involved the quicker it grows.

    But, Linux works great and Hardware support is pretty good (Could be better).

    Do we really need the rest of the world? I would love to see more people use Linux. I would love not to have to even touch a Windows Machine at work. But, Linux does everything I need. If others don’t use it, it’s their loss.

    At the same time, it was only a few years ago that Apple had the same market share of Desktops that Linux has now. So, there is still hope. And price maybe a factor. But, cool ads are what really got people using Apple products. That and frustration with Windows. I’m hoping that in a few years more and more people switch to Mac OS. Then, the people who don’t want to pay for there highly priced systems will see Linux and say, "Hey, that can do everything that Mac can do and it isn’t going to cost me an arm and a leg!"

    Let’s face it. People are getting tired of Windows. But, all the big Computer companies aren’t going to just go away (DELL, HP, ASUS, ACER, etc). I doubt that Apple will allow them to sell machines with Mac OS on them. Companies that have hundreds of employees aren’t going to be able to afford to buy an Apple computer for every desk when you can buy a pretty decent PC for under $500.

    Right now Linux would be the next alternative, even if it’s something like Android (and lets face it. It isn’t really the same as a really Linux distro).

    I’d like to see MeeGo take off 🙂

  • I enjoy the collective participation of the community.This is the ingredient that in my humble opinion is the spark that ignites the interest. Microsoft dictates their sold product and rightfully so while in linux, everybody gets to play because it is not sold.If you have to pay big bucks for the distro’s it will just go back to big business as usual. Linux communities empower people in their personal self taylored worlds and allow them to reach across the globe to common projects.

  • I got to call it how I see it, and I call BS. Sure Linux is easy IF you have a CS degree, or a background in comp sci, or a programmer, but how many members of the general public qualify under those terms? As a PC repairman I can tell you very little. When was the last time you used CLI in Linux, Mr. Hannah? Last week, today? If you needed it AT ALL you have failed!

    Let me give two examples from my own life. First case-here at the shop I was hoping Linux would be a "third way" so I installed Ubuntu on 4 machines, starting at 6 and going through 9.04 before giving up.Sound, wireless, video, there was always something that didn’t work "OOTB" and how could I fix it? with an easy GUI? Nope, the ONLY fixes were "open up bash and type" this mess of CLI which did NOT work unless "tweaked" for the specific chipset, rev, etc. Odds that a normal person could do that? ZERO. Oh and EVERY SINGLE UPDATE broke something. Heck try one of those Ubuntu Dell netbooks, see what the repos are set to. Notice the canonical repo is NOT included? why? Because if you update like you are supposed to, it breaks sound and networking! Brilliant! Canonical can’t even bother to QA their OEMs! What quality!

    Now lets check the second case. I bought my dad Win7 HP, and told him I would be by that weekend to install it after dropping it off. Never the patient type he decided to "DIY" and here is how it went: Win7 walked him through the install with a nice GUI, downloaded and set up all his hardware, and even pointed him to a free AV. When I showed up he had been running Win7 with ZERO problems, and this is a 67 year old man that knows squat about PCs!

    So I’m sorry Mr. Hannah, but I gotta call BS and if you’d think about it for a minute you’d see why I’m right. Linux is by a vast majority done by volunteers. QA and bug fixing is looong, booring, tedious work. Nobody "likes" to do QA and bug fixing, so what happens? It don’t get done. If you want proof I’ll be happy to give some: Take 3 "Best Buy Specials" currently on sale at any Best Buy or Walmart. Take the latest Ubuntu and Win7 HP DVDs, and then pick a random person that is NOT a CS grad or tech. Have them install each in turn. See how much hardware is working and how much is broken. Now tell them to "fix" the problems.

    You’ll see the Win7 hardware will be working, and if it finds weird hardware will contact MS Update and take care of the problem. Ubuntu is "trawl forums, know name/make/model of specific hardware, find "fixes" is they exist at all, "tweak" fixes to specific rev/make/model if not exact, pour it all into Bash and pray.

    Linus is GREAT on servers, where companies like HP spend millions making sure it "just works" and server admins that live in CLI have no trouble dealing with "fixes" and "workarounds". Linux is WONDERFUL in embedded, where there aren’t any driver worries and performance is the utmost premium. Linux SUCKS on a desktop unless you are one of the above I listed, and even then be ready to deal with "open up Bash and type" way too often. I’m sorry Mr. Hannah, but that is reality, not FUD. OSX and Win7 is easy peasy, Linux is CLI with a badly built GUI that barely scratches the surface.

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