Why Linux Frightens Both the Software and Hardware Industry

Tuesday May 27th 2008 by Matt Hartley

Change is scary. Until you see more mainstream entities supporting Linux alternatives, the world will remain in the dark as to lower cost options.

Today's closed source software vendors have a very neat, tidy arrangement that works well for them on both the Windows and OS X platforms. Create a software application that solves a need, release updates and patches as needed, then collect the revenue generated from the sale of the software.

Then there is the PC hardware industry. Much like their counterparts in the closed source software realm, today's PC hardware industry is less focused on one platform only – it tends to focus on both OS X and Windows. Because both platforms have provided a well-developed means of ensuring compatibility through a consistent set of development standards, developing hardware drivers for both platforms is a painless experience for the most part.

So where does Linux play into all of this? There is little consistency from Linux distribution to distribution. In this piece, I will be exploring why I believe that the software and hardware industries fear widespread Linux adoption and what they will eventually have to do about it should things with desktop Linux come into fruition.

The hardware paradox

When it comes to hardware and peripherals, the only real constant I have been able to find is that supporting Linux is often less about compatibility and more about a company's view on supporting a third platform in the first place.

For instance, video cards and Web cams. When desktop Linux adoption was just beginning to pick up pace a few years ago, NVIDIA was already ahead of the curve in ensuring that they were providing solid driver modules for desktop Linux users. ATI by contrast, while providing driver modules of their own, did not provide modules that worked very well out of the box at all.

Over time, ATI has made significant improvements in this, but only after seeing NVIDIA overtaking them in a very serious way on this budding platform. The importance behind both video card vendors providing this kind of support stems from the lack of stable 3D acceleration support provided by existing open source video drivers.

Then there is Web cam support for desktop Linux. Despite efforts by Creative Labs, any real out-of-the-box Web cam support generally can be attributed to the work of this project. Why did it take a third party to provide this support for Web cams while we see video card vendors being more proactive with their hardware support? I have a few theories:

Development time and man hours

Desktop Linux presents a problem for many hardware vendors. To provide their own driver support to the half dozen popular Linux distributions, it means providing consistent support from distribution to distribution.

Now as I mentioned previously, most of the problem stopping this from taking place is the unwillingness of vendors to support that third platform option – Linux – in the first place. Yet at the same time, I have been told that these same vendors feel like they might end up supporting much more than just one more platform, as Linux has many popular distribution releases these days.

Then there is the method of the driver module installation itself. Because there is no uniform means of software installation for Linux, one must generally lean toward something like a .run file, as it can successfully bridge Debian, Red Hat, and other unrelated distributions.

Learning a lesson from HP

One company that has done a fabulous job at jumping over these annoying hurdles would be HP. The HPLIP project is one such example of finding a usable method of allowing the casual end user to install the HPLIP utility on nearly any distribution of Linux you can think of.

Now this might beg the question as to why more hardware vendors don’t bother to follow along with HP's example. The answers are numerous: Profitable outcome, office politics, loyalty to other platforms, the list goes on and on.

Coming back to my original point on company policy, money is certainly a motivator for not doing anything. Clearly, this seems to be a driving force. Yet despite this, these days some companies are finding themselves in an interesting situation. One based more on public image than actual sales. You might even go as far as to say that they are afraid of Linux adoption on any sort of large scale.

Why does the hardware industry fear desktop Linux?

Change, mostly. Being pushed to change and having to adapt themselves to work with a variety of different variations of the same unpredictable platform is not something that the hardware industry appears to be very motivated to do. Also there is fear of losing out should their product's driver support not provide immediate financial returns.

What will eventually happen is that those vendors who choose to work with – rather than against – desktop Linux, will begin to reap the rewards of a newly tapped niche market of enthusiastic users.

The closed source software angle

While the deliberation within the hardware world rages on, the world's closed source software vendors have a legitimate reason to be deathly afraid of the open source growth seen worldwide.

How does an industry selling a product compete with another group giving the same thing away for free? It's certainly putting CEOs and marketing departments into an awkward situation.

So how has closed source software such as Microsoft Office and Adobe's Photoshop managed to fend off their open source competition? Perceived value and localized availability.

See, I can go to my local big box store, find the office suite or photo editing software, then opt to purchase it. With the open source alternatives, however, I must have first have heard of them, then understand how to get the software onto my own CD to use it. Not exactly a very smart marketing strategy outside of geek circles.

In my mind, this is and this alone is what is keeping MS Office from being laughed out of many homes and college dorms alike. Imagine seeing Open Office being made available at your local coffee shop or bookstore? Loaded, self-installing and ready to go.

It is perfectly legal to do this, yet much of the open source community went nuts when another company tried something like this just a few years ago.

Choices must be made

So where does the hardware industry and the closed source software industry go from here? Is further Linux/open source software alienation the answer as it has been for many companies out there?

Perhaps these industries can simply wait and hope Linux will just "go away"? As you may have guessed by now, the answer is clearly to adapt – or accept a limited market share.

Based on what I’ve seen, the hardware industry will adapt long before the closed source software industry. Personally, I opt to take things into my own hands by voting with my checkbook. My feelings on the matter are as follows: provide what I need on the OS I choose to use, and I will happily pay for it. Don't, and I will go elsewhere.

Desktop Linux and to some extent, the open source movement, has yet to burst through the glass ceiling known as the mainstream media. Even when you consider the fantastic power of user generated media on the Internet today, in the end, the mainstream media remains in the driver seat.

Until you see more mainstream entities supporting Linux and open source software alternatives, the world will remain in the dark as to a lower cost alternative to what they are currently being asked to buy today.

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