The Hidden Costs of Linux Ownership

Tuesday Jan 8th 2008 by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
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The blanket term “Linux” and that cute little penguin Tux cleverly hide levels of complexity that would baffle M. C. Escher.

Linux might be free to download and install, and it might offer you freedoms that aren’t available from commercial software, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that everything about Linux is free. You might save money, but there are still hidden costs that need to be taken into account.

The first cost is uncertainty. It’s hard to measure uncertainty in any definitive way but that doesn’t mean that it should be ignored. When you take a copy of Windows XP, Vista or Mac OS X and you install it onto a system with the appropriate system requirements, chances are that unless you have a particularly bizarre configuration or a defective component, you can be pretty certain that the OS will install and things that you have installed (WiFi adaptors, network cards, graphics cards and so on) will work just fine.

After all, you’ve paid someone to come up with a workable product where most of the kinks have been worked out (OK, I admit, both Leopard and Vista were released with too many kinks still lurking within the code). The same when you buy a bit of hardware. Hardware is designed to work on particular platforms and if you go out and buy something, again being mindful of the system requirements, things should work out OK for you. This isn’t true 100% of the time, but given the billion or so PCs in use, the failure rate is surprisingly low.

Things just work, and given the complexity of that device you’re sitting in front of to read this, it’s amazing that computers hum along as reliably as they do. Mostly this is down to the principals of “survival of the fittest” being at work – if a company produces a product with too many bugs too often, that company is doomed.

But when it comes to Linux, things aren’t as straight forward. First off, Linux commands a tiny market share. Net Applications shows Linux web usage currently sitting at just under 0.7 per cent. That level of market share is far too small and insignificant to command much sway among software and hardware vendors. While Linux communities like to believe that this 0.7 per cent user base is bigger than it is, and some companies are now paying lip service to Linux, no matter how you look at it, 0.7 per cent is a small number. And even with the best will in the world, the amount of effort that vendors can seriously be expected to put into Linux, given the low market share, is not much. With profit margins getting ever smaller, supporting countless Linux distros just doesn’t make good business sense.

Another hidden cost is time. While it’s true that installing Linux has become quicker and easier over the years, the process is still far from perfect. Some severe problem areas still exist (for example, WiFi adaptors, which is very hit and miss) and if you happen to run into the tar pits, you can expect to be stuck there for a long time. Also, there are more basic things. While Vista and Leopard are ready to play DVDs out of the box, Linux users have to mess about with codecs and agree to legally indemnify everyone for using legally dubious codecs. Sure, you can buy software players, some of which are rather good, but the advantage of a free OS starts to be eroded if you instantly have to put your hand in your pocket.

Even support takes time as you have to post your request on a forum and wait for someone to come along and offer you a helping hand. The help is usually quite good and offered by knowledgeable people, usually giving their time away freely, but that still doesn’t help you if you’re working to the clock and you’ve promised someone that Linux is so much better than Windows. If you get a really obscure error message or particularly weird problem, you could be waiting for help for a long time.

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Another element that consumes time is deciding which Linux distro to use. Many in the Linux community still refuse to accept that the number of Linux distros available acts as a barrier to adoption. Sure, choice is a good thing, and sure, it seems that Ubuntu is making good progress when it comes to becoming the mainstream “People’s Linux” distro, and gOS has enjoyed success at the very-low-cost end of the PC market. But for users who have heard the term Linux, narrowing down which distro is right for them might take time, especially if they happen to get caught up in a religious war between two distro factions.

The blanket term “Linux” and that cute little penguin Tux cleverly hide levels of complexity that would baffle M. C. Escher. When Apple’s ad campaigns focused on the single Leopard version being easier for consumers than the myriad Vista choices, the company was onto something there. Too much choice is a major turn-off.

(In case you’re wondering, my advice to any Linux virgin would be to try Ubuntu, but then again by picking that distro over PCLinuxOS, openSUSE, Fedora or any of the other distros on offer, I’m probably being part of the problem instead of being part of the solution. With that in mind, just go out and download as many LiveCDs as you can and try each distro until you find one that suits you.)

These issues shouldn’t mean that people should abandon Linux, but these issues certainly are worth bearing in mind when deciding whether to give a Linux distro a go. It’s easy to allow that word “free” to overwhelm the senses, but it’s important to note that there’s more to attaining computing enlightenment than just downloading a free OS.

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