Why free software is a hard sell

Microsoft is not the only operating system, says Andrew Thomas; Linux has comparable programs and it's free. So why does nobody offer it on PCs?
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The Independent Online

If you're buying a new PC for Christmas, you can be sure of a wide choice. You'll have the pick of manufacturer, of the maker and speed of the chip powering your box, its graphics card, the monitor, printers, scanners, cameras, MP3 players, RAM, hard-disk size. And, of course, for operating systems, there's Microsoft and... well, you might try Apple, but then you don't get the same range of hardware choice.

So while you have a pretty wide choice in terms of what hardware you buy, when it comes to software it seems there's only one game in town. Is there honestly no real alternative to Microsoft, that convicted monopolist in the US which even now is being investigated by the European Commission over claims that it is muscling out rivals in the multimedia?

There is: Linux. Linux is a phenomenon. There is a global community of highly skilled techies capable of making this operating system sing, dance and, more importantly, run a good proportion of the essential web and e-mail servers around the world. The key to Linux, a version of Unix intended to run on Intel x86 chips, is that it uses an "open-source" model, so its users can suggest – or even write their own – enhancements to the operating system, which can then be incorporated in future releases. That was the intention of its creator, Linus Torvalds, when he first released it over the net.

Of course, the development of new versions of Linux follows exactly the same process used by Microsoft; the key difference being that the network of developers that came up with Windows XP is internal – solely comprised of employees of Microsoft and its key partners – while Linux isn't the property of a single company. Everyone can rewrite it to their own taste; everyone can suggest improvements. Try doing that with Windows.

The other key difference between Windows XP and Linux is price. An upgrade version of Windows XP Home Edition will set you back around £80; a copy of Linux can be downloaded from the web for nothing, or bought on a CD for a small amount that covers the cost of reproduction.

But unless you buy a new machine from a Linux specialist like GND Systems or Penguin Computing, you'll be hard pressed to find a company that offers Linux as a pre-installed alternative to Windows on its new systems.

Tom Guy, software marketing manager at the retail chain PC World, says less than 50 copies of Linux are sold across the UK each week, compared with thousands of Windows XP upgrades, and that none of the systems the stores sell comes with Linux pre-installed: "Linux is a very small percentage of our business. People want to buy software that's the same as, or compatible with, what they use at work. There's a comfort factor with Microsoft – a year ago most new buyers didn't know what an operating system was, but this year people want XP – they want their PC to feel more secure."

Yet Linux offers a stable, fast and attractive alternative to Windows. There are any number of alternative user interfaces available, it comes with a wide range of applications and it's completely free.

Chip giant Intel has reaffirmed its support for Linux on numerous occasions, but that support is far from obvious in the company's product line. While Windows users have a huge range of Intel software and utilities offering support for notebook PC battery management, enhanced disk caches, systems monitoring and management, there are no Linux versions of any piece of Intel software apart from one compiler for the Fortran language, mostly used for dealing with maths problems.

For while Linux has a large presence in the server marketplace, it doesn't cut it as a desktop operating system. That's not through any technical shortcomings of the product itself, but rather the technical shortcomings of users. Setting up the OS can be a scary process for users used to upgrading Microsoft products; there isn't much of a safety net. Some of the default settings make it all too easy to destroy the existing contents of your hard disk. And support for graphics cards, USB devices, printers, cameras and interworking with Windows machines leaves a great deal to be desired. It isn't that the drivers aren't available – in most cases they are – but a level of technical knowledge is required well beyond that of even an experienced Windows user. What is the driver called? Where do I go to find it? How do I install it? Who do I ask for help?

Among British manufacturers, that sort of hassle outweighs Linux's other qualities. Evesham.com looked at offering Linux on its systems, but according to a spokeswoman, "There wasn't enough volume for us to be able to afford the support costs we would incur. Demand from home users is virtually nil, though our own techies are quite enthusiastic in their own time."

Until last month, PC giant Dell did offer Linux as an option on home machines, but only in the US. "The European and US markets are different," says Steve Duignan, consumer marketing manager for Dell in the UK and Ireland. "We offered Linux on our complete range of home and business systems in the US, but only on business machines in Europe – we didn't see any demand for Linux at the SOHO [small office and home office] level so we never offered it here.

"About a year ago there was a very strong debate on whether Linux would step forward as a rival for Windows on the desktop, but for the last couple of quarters we haven't seen any consistent level of demand for Linux, so we no longer offer it as a factory-installed option unless you're in the market for 150 machines or more. The Linux market is very computer-literate, very computer-aware, and very small. When a new chip or motherboard platform, like Pentium 4 and Rambus comes along, we have to evaluate if we'll ship enough to cover the cost of testing it and whether peripherals will work properly. In the case of Linux, the answer was no."

So until Linux offers the same ease of setting up, ease of use and driver stability that Microsoft has achieved with Windows XP, it looks unlikely to pose a credible threat to Microsoft's dominance of the desktop.

At Dell, Duignan adds: "Microsoft suffered from inconsistent driver quality with Windows 98 and ME and often carried the can for the 'blue screens of death' [frozen blue screens from which the only escape was a forced restart] that were caused by badly written drivers from third parties. With XP there's a template for how a driver should work – the system is much more robust. We haven't seen any spike in support calls following the launch of XP. It's a real achievement, in fact XP could be the first Microsoft operating system that people don't talk about, simply because the user doesn't have to worry about it – it's like a TV, you turn it on and it works. All the time.

"The core problem with Linux is that you've got to work hard to connect USB drivers; really hard to find converters and filters to allow you to read and produce files in Microsoft Office format; and you'll struggle to find a Linux office package with anything like the quality of Office XP."

But he thinks Linux aficionados feel an emotional tie to the OS: "They like the way they can be creative, change things around. They feel attached to it. It's personal."

Perhaps Linux shouldn't be regarded as an operating system at all, but more as a sophisticated multi-player game with a large number of enthusiastic players. You can lose yourself in Linux for hours, tweaking here, updating there. It's great fun if you like that sort of thing. But if you need to produce a document, spreadsheet or presentation, you're still likely to be able to do it faster and better by sticking with the Microsoft devil you know.