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Langa Letter: Following Up On Linux's Achilles' Heel

Fred Langa addresses criticisms of his recent review of Linux problems.

The flames have mostly died out and the smoke is clearing: The response to the original Linux's Achilles' Heel article was astonishing.

Many readers offered posts that were helpful, thoughtful, and informative. My sincere thanks to all who wrote in that vein! Other posts were, well, somewhat less helpful, and revealed deep misunderstandings about my original article. If the fault were mine--if my words were unclear--then I apologize. But I suspect that, at least in part, there may have been a problem on the receiving end of the information exchange, at least among some of the more fanatical Linux supporters.

For today's article, I've read through all the myriad original posts and extracted what I think are the main areas of controversy, the ones that are ripest for clarification and comment.

Let's start with an excellent, thoughtful and pro-Linux post from reader Rick Spencer on the general issue of Linux hardware support:

Fred: Linux will never be directly equivalent to Windows, for many reasons. There is no "Linux Corp." like Microsoft to centralize information and resources; the development process is completely different; the philosophy is completely different. This creates a completely different computing environment.

As an analogy, say you worked for Coca-Cola since Windows 95 came out, say as a bookkeeper. Your job has evolved since then, but you worked in the same building, on the same campus, in the same office, doing the same job.

Now, nine years later, you take a job as a bookkeeper at Pepsi-Cola, across town, the same tasks and duties, but your environment has changed. You drive a different route to work, park in a different lot, walk a different route to a different building, use a different security procedure to get inside, go to a different floor, different office, different computer, printer, photocopier.

Many of the things you took for granted at Coke are not even there at Pepsi. Pepsi has things that Coke didn't. You cannot expect them to be the same.

Linux and Windows compare very much the same as this analogy. Some hardware isn't supported in Linux. On the other hand, it is trivially easy to select hardware that is supported, and build a modern, high-performance PC that' is completely Linux compatible, but because it is a different environment, you have to make your choices differently. Some manufacturers do not care and make no effort to achieve Linux compatibility.

In another example, Windows XP allowed my scanner to work "out of the box" but required downloaded drivers and software to use the advanced features. The advanced features worked with Sane and Xsane with several Linux distributions "out of the box"--not that this proves anything.

In the end, if one makes the choice to use Linux rather than Windows (as many have) they must realize that they have moved to a new environment where the rules of engagement are slightly different. Hardware compatibility cannot be assumed, as it can be with Windows. For many, this is a show-stopper. That's fine. Make an informed choice, and stay with Windows.

But if Linux doesn't work with your hardware, it isn't because Linux doesn't measure up, it's because Linux is different, and expecting Linux to be the same as Windows is completely unrealistic.
-- Rick Spencer

This may surprise you, but I completely agree with Rick's main point that "...Linux is different, and expecting Linux to be the same as Windows is completely unrealistic." Unfortunately, many Linux vendors are now setting up that very expectation in their marketing, packaging, and pricing. I think this is a horrible mistake, practically suicidal.

Remember, my original article was prompted by an experiment with a commercial Linux distribution that costs about as much as Windows. Both Linux and Windows were supposed to work with the test hardware, but only Windows actually did work. And despite the best efforts of the Linux vendor's tech support, nothing could get the installation fully working. (The exact problem was a failure with the sound system. You can revisit all the gory details.

When Linux is free, or nearly so, there's no reason to complain if its hardware support isn't quite up to Windows' level, or if there are other rough edges: You're getting a great price on a very good operating system, and the low cost more than makes up for any shortcomings.

But when a distro of Linux costs about as much as Windows, it's entirely reasonable to hold it to the same standard, and expect the same level of hardware support. Trouble is, that support just isn't there yet for Linux.

And that's my issue with many of the commercial Linuxes. It's not that "Linux is bad" or any such silliness. But by setting Microsoft-level prices, some commercial Linux vendors have set up a comparison they cannot win, at least not yet, because Linux cannot yet match Microsoft's levels of hardware support. Any Linux vendor that tries to charge Microsoft-level prices will inevitably be perceived as offering a lesser product.

To me, the answer is obvious: The commercial Linuxes should reduce their prices. That will instantly reduce the expectations of the end-user community and avoid the direct comparison to Windows' level of support. Linux will again be a bargain, and issues like incomplete hardware support and other rough edges will matter much less.

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