Many IT professionals ask me when Linux will finally "make it" on the desktop. How will they know when Linux has made it? What's holding it back? In what ways is Microsoft working behind the scenes to inhibit the adoption of Linux desktops?
|John H. Terpstra|
For some time, I have pondered and researched these questions. Then, a recent experience lifted the clouds of uncertainty. In part one of this column, I'll relate a true story of two Linux desktop purchasers who ran into multiple roadblocks. Then, in part two, I'll analyze those problems and discuss how Microsoft and electronics manufacturers and retailers created them. Finally, in part three, I'll predict a future that could happen, one in which a monopoly leads the U.S. IT industry to second-class citizenship, and the opportunity that could change that scenario.
Most people think that application availability drives adoption of a computing platform. While applications are very important, there are more factors at work, as the following story of two Linux newbies demonstrates.
A recent adventure
Recently, Joe purchased a new laptop computer. Because he had an older laptop that still functioned more or less adequately, he decided to purchase a machine that had Linux installed from the factory. He had heard that Linux does not suffer many of the problems with viruses, worms and malware, and his Norton AntiVirus subscription had expired, so there was nothing to lose in trying Linux.
Joe figured that since Linux is free, the cost of a laptop computer pre-loaded with Linux would cost less than one that shipped with Microsoft Windows. Wrong! The cost estimates he came up with were between $300 and $500 more for a system with Linux than for one with Windows.
Joe did a Google search to find Linux on laptop suppliers and obtained five price offers. Many Windows laptop specials offered a free bundled LCD monitor or a free bundled printer. No such offer was found for a Linux pre-loaded laptop.
Although Joe could not understand why it should cost more to purchase a laptop that has no bundled licensed Windows operating system than one supplied with it, he decided that it made sense to purchase the lower-priced system and just junk the bundled Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition.
After shopping around, Joe stumbled across a sweet deal and purchased an HP Pavilion dv1000 laptop. Joe's friend Dennis was with him that day and was suckered into ordering a customized HP zv6000 series laptop direct from HP.
Both Joe and Dennis were determined to try Linux and agreed that if Linux is ready for the desktop, they were ready to climb onboard. Dennis' laptop arrived 10 days after Joe had gone home with his purchase.
Joe installed SuSE Linux 10.0, while Dennis purchased SuSE Linux Professional 9.3. Dennis chose the 9.3 because he wanted the 64-bit support that was available with the AMD Athlon 64 CPU. At the time, a 64-bit version of SuSE Linux 10.0 was not yet available.
Joe's installation of SuSE Linux 10.0 was an immediate success. The built-in PRO/Wireless 2200BG network card worked perfectly. Well, it had one little problem: If he pressed the built-in function key to turn off the wireless card, it would not restart without a reboot. Even so, the video card and LCD display operated at the full 1200x768 resolution. Another small problem occurred when Joe tried to use the built-in digital media slots. He found they did not work, but he figured that was a small sacrifice.
Generally, Joe was impressed. His HP DeskJet printer worked the first time he plugged it in. SuSE Linux 10.0 instantly recognized the printer, asked him if he wanted to configure it, and in seconds he was able to print a test page.
Dennis was not so fortunate. He has been unable to get X-Windows working. It seems that the video chip set is not supported in SuSE 9.3, and he has not been able to get the built-in Broadcom wireless card to function (not even with the ndiswrapper drivers).
Needless to say, Dennis is not a happy camper. He will most likely reinstall Microsoft Windows XP Home from the recovery disk that came with the system. He feels forced to use Windows and believes Linux is simply not ready for prime-time use. He has seen a sad outcome to a project that started with great promise and expectation.
The plot thickens
Joe was so happy with his new Linux laptop that he decided it was time to install Linux on his old Windows laptop. This laptop has no built-in wireless card, so he purchased a Netgear RangeMax Wireless Router with a Netgear RangeMax wireless PC card.
Joe's installation of SuSE Linux 10.0 on the old 15-inch Sony Vaio RPG600, 1.8 GHz P4 laptop was another flawless installation. The screen worked perfectly at 1600x1200 video resolution. Joe was delighted with his second Linux laptop.
Unfortunately, Joe's story now takes a bad turn. The Netgear RangeMax wireless card could not be recognized by SuSE Linux 10.0. Joe called Netgear, which explained that the company does not support Linux. Joe was told that Netgear had no plan to provide Linux drivers for Netgear RangeMax wireless cards.
After returning the Netgear wireless network card to the store, Joe purchased a Belkin Pre-N F5D8010 Notebook Network card. The new card was able to recognize that an Ethernet controller had been inserted into the computer, but it could not find a suitable driver. Joe then found out that Belkin does not support Linux and that no suitable driver is available.
Joe did an Internet search, which revealed that Belkin's wireless card chip set is manufactured by Airgo Networks Inc. He found a link on the Airgo Networks Web site that offered hope. (You can see why by visiting AirgoNetworks.com.) Alas, this was a blind alley, because the General Public License Linux package only contains open source software (OSS) that Airgo Networks has modified and for which it has made the source code available.
Joe felt that Airgo Networks should be commended for its honorable handling of OSS, but he still had no luck there. When he called the company, he found out that no Linux drivers will be available for the Airgo chip set until late 2005 or early 2006.
Joe went back to the store to return another useless wireless card. Not one wireless card that was on the shelves at CompUSA or Best Buy listed Linux driver support, so Joe gave up. That's right: Not one wireless card currently sold at CompUSA and at Best Buy mentions that it is suitable for use with Linux.
The good news is that there is one wireless card that does work with Linux. A friend gave Joe a Linksys Wireless-G Notebook adaptor V3.0 card that works perfectly in his Sony Vaio laptop with SuSE Linux 10.0.
So Linux desktop computers cost more than Microsoft Windows PCs do, and it's hard to find devices and drivers for Linux. Is that such a big deal? Well, in this story of just two Linux PC buyers, such difficulties stopped one from using Linux and the other only succeeded by being very persistent. Multiply that by millions of PC users, and you have a big deal.
Joe had to pay for Microsoft Windows when he had no desire to use it, because he would have paid more for a machine without it. Why should consumers suffer cost increases to use a free operating system? Why are governments around the world so silent on this matter? Isn't it time for the consumer to be better informed of the graft and corruption in the IT retail industry?
There are layers upon layers of roadblocks being placed in the path of Linux. In the next installment, I name some of those participating in the blockade and how they're hurting consumers and businesses.
About the author: John H. Terpstra is chief technology officer of PrimaStasys Inc., an IT consulting firm, and a member of SearchOpenSource.com's Editorial Advisory Board. He is author of Samba-3 by Example: Practical Exercises to Successful Deployment, 2nd Edition and The Official Samba-3 HOWTO and Reference Guide, 2nd Edition.