Langa Letter: Linux's Achilles' Heel

New Linux distros still fail a task that Windows 95 -- yes, 95! -- easily handles, namely working with mainstream sound cards. That sends the cost of commercial, paid versions of Linux dramatically higher.

Fred Langa, Contributor

April 15, 2004

4 Min Read

A Common Problem
If you check the discussion boards for many of the distributions of Linux, you'll see that sound support is an extremely common problem, even when the sound system is listed as supported hardware.

And in fairness, let me state loud and clear that only one of the Linux distributions I tried specifically claimed compatibility with the sound system in question; the others gave the usual vague assertions of broad compatibility, but didn't specify this exact sound system. I'm not claiming "false advertising" or any such thing.

Many Linux fans will jump on that and say something to the effect of "What do you expect? If you use unlisted hardware, it's not Linux's fault if it doesn't work."

But remember, even Windows 95--nine-year old software, reviled in the Linux community as junk code--handled the exact same sound system perfectly. So did Win98, WinMe, Win2000, Win XP Home and Win XP Pro. In this case, reflexively blaming the hardware is simply a dodge. If Linux is a truly superior operating system, shouldn't it be able to do what a nine-year-old copy of Windows can do? Why is it still struggling with a problem that Microsoft solved roughly a decade ago?

All this is amplified now that some companies in the Linux community are charging Microsoft-level prices. When a free or low-cost distribution falls short in some area, one might shrug it off. But when a full-price Linux distribution fails to provide even Win95's levels of compatibility, and then offers poor tech support as well, Linux is hardly a bargain.

And the costs are actually worse than that: I've invested more than two full working days on just the sound problem, which has raised the real cost of Linux on this PC, so far, from its retail $90 to $90 PLUS two day's pay. That makes this install of Linux the most expensive operating system I've ever tried. (And after all that, and after trying everything that the XYZ paid tech support suggested, it's still not working right.)

I also see I'm not the only one starting to do the math, as this survey of 1,000 IT managers shows. According to that survey, it can cost three to four times as much as moving from one version of Windows to another. Linux doesn't have to cost that much, true; but it can. As my case shows, just because you have current, fully functional, utterly mainstream hardware doesn't mean you'll have smooth sailing with Linux.

Nine And Counting
I didn't want to mention a specific distribution earlier because the sound problem isn't limited to that one distribution; I didn't want to unfairly single out one company for a problem not specifically of their making.

With that caveat in mind, I'll tell you that the "XYZ" software in the above was Xandros 2.0 Deluxe. But again, none of the Linux distributions I've tried so far on this PC succeeded in getting the sound working. That includes majors, such as two versions of Slackware, two versions of SuSE, plus Debian, Xandros, and Lindows; as well as several specialty distros like Knoppix, Knotix, Morphix, and Gentoo. You can count that as seven major versions and four minors; or as nine distributions; but no matter how you count them, not one of those Linuxes fully worked. But every version of Windows since 1995 worked just fine on the same hardware.

I think the above empirically shows that, despite its many good points, Linux still has some huge, gaping holes--holes that Windows plugged almost a decade ago.

Bottom line: For broad hardware support, Windows is still much better than Linux. That's not bias--it's a demonstrable fact.

What's your take? Have you run into hardware that Windows natively supports but that Linux doesn't, or vice versa? What compatibility issues, or successes, have you encountered? Is "Downgrade your hardware" a reasonable strategy to make Linux work? Please join in the discussion!

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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