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11/04/2004 Archived Entry: "Linux as a religion?"

One of my favorite writers on LewRockwell.com is Gary North. I find his take on the economy and investing both refreshing and shrewd, and when one of his articles appears on the site I usually click through to read it. So perhaps it's unfortunate that he chose to defend Microsoft, and call Linux users "cultists", on the same day that I was fending off a deluge of viral emails sent by compromised Windows systems.

In fairness, Mr. North is right about many things. Microsoft does have a 95% share of the desktop market, and will have a majority share for years to come. Apple has missed countless business opportunities with misguided products and marketing strategies (such as shutting out small-scale developers); I think his analysis is largely on the mark here. And Linux has suffered in the past from the not-for-average-users mentality, although I suspect Mr. North has not seen a recent (within the last two years) Linux distribution.

"In marketing, the guy who establishes the brand name first usually holds it. When he establishes the market itself, he does hold it."

Odd that Mr. North should make this statement after using Visicalc as an example, and admitting that he still runs WordPerfect on DOS. VisiCalc established the spreadsheet market. WordPerfect stole the market from WordStar, the program that established the word-processor market. Both were later dethroned by Microsoft's marketing clout.

"Then there are the Linux cultists. This OS is free, i.e., does not charge you to buy it."

This is one of the most common mistakes made about Linux and open source software. Perhaps the Free Software Foundation should have set up shop in France, because in the French language you have the words gratuit and libre. In English, that's "free as in free beer" vs. "free as in freedom." The free in Linux is libre, meaning you're free to use the software, examine the software, and modify the software. (You're even free to distribute it to others, under certain terms.)

"There is no technical support unless you pay some distant programmer or a local geek who enjoys being offbeat."

Except perhaps for the "offbeat" remark, this statement is as true of Windows as it is of Linux. Have you ever tried to get tech support from Microsoft? I did, once, a few years ago. "Sorry, you have an OEM copy, you need to talk to the dealer who sold you the computer." Dealer: "Sorry, that's an operating system problem, we can't fix it."

Linux is like everything else: you get what you pay for. If you want basic support -- the kind you get with Windows -- you buy Linux from a distributor and get one or three or six months of telephone help. Or -- like Windows -- you can buy an extended support contract. Or if you're a small business, you can hire support from independent firms; there are many. Most studies of TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) that were not funded by Microsoft find that the cost of Linux support, at every level of enterprise, is similar to that of Windows.

"Linux is constantly being rewritten by independent programmers. It is not owned by anyone. No one is in charge. Hardly one makes a profit. It requires that a user learn a programming language so arcane that it is regarded as difficult to learn by Microsoft programmers."

True, false, false, false, and doubly-false. While it's true that Linux is constantly being improved, there are periodic "releases" that provide a stable base for end users. (Also, the upgrade path, should you choose to follow it, doesn't require you to reinstall the entire operating system.) GNU/Linux is in fact owned by many people (most of it is copyrighted). Each major subsystem (kernel, web server, etc.) has a development team that is "in charge." Many make a profit. And the user is not required to learn any programming language; besides which, the languages used in Linux (mainly C and C++) are not "arcane" and in fact are usually taught at the introductory level in computer science. (I don't doubt that some Microsoft programmers find it difficult to learn, but I rather think this speaks more about Microsoft's talent than about a language I learned at 18 years of age.)

"Every other suite of business programs is in the shadows. Yes, you can get an open (free) source business suite that does the same things: Open Office. But what businessman would bet his firm's survival on an unsupported program that hardly anyone knows how to fix if there is a crash?"

First, perhaps Mr. North is unaware that OpenOffice is the "free" version of a commercial product, StarOffice, which is still sold and supported by Sun Microsystems. If you want support, you can buy StarOffice for a very reasonable sum, and you have a large corporation to call on for help.

And without the word "unsupported", his question could equally well be addressed to Windows users: What businessman would bet his firm's survival on a program that hardly anyone knows how to fix if there is a crash? What do you do when your Windows computer fails? Do you know how to fix the software? Does your programming staff (if you have one)? No, at that point you throw yourself on the mercies of Microsoft's tech support. And you bet your firm's survival on their competence.

You also bet your firm's survival on Microsoft's business practices. Perhaps, as a home user, Mr. North has never been subjected to a BSA audit that can cost a firm hundreds of thousands of dollars. Perhaps he's never had his software disable itself because of a hardware upgrade. He's surely never had to sign up for "Licensing 6" which requires perpetual payments and prevents you from selling the assets of your company. But as a DOS user, he -- like Windows 3.x, 95, and 98 users -- has certainly experienced having the company that sold you the software unilaterally terminate all support, with no hope of ever obtaining third-party support.

Like Mr. North says, " Businessmen would rather pay a few hundred dollars for a universally used program for which there is an army of programmers who can fix it when there is a breakdown and there will be a breakdown. It's digital, after all. What a businessman wants is competition among digital repairmen, not free software."

Here I agree. Businessmen do want to pay for supported software, and they can: that's why Red Hat and SuSE and Mandrake and Xandros and Lindows and so many others exist and make money. And in the Linux world, unlike the Microsoft world, there is competition among digital repairmen. You own, not rent, the software; and if you don't like the quality of service, you can take your support contract elsewhere.

And if you really want user-friendliness, a profit-driven corporate manufacturer, and a mass-marketed product -- and still have reliable software that doesn't turn your computer into a zombie for the endless transmission of spam and viruses -- you can buy a Mac. They're not just for artists anymore.


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