Abstract

Today we will talk about why Linux is not the first choice of many computer users. We will explore the reasons commercial software is often chosen over open source software. This is not an attack upon any particular brand or type of software, but an exploration of what appears to drive the choices.

The great liberator the Personal Computer.

Today the computer is in common use in homes and offices both here in the US, as well as in much of the developed world. The Internet has become a universal resources for everyone from grandparents to children, from Doctoral students, to grade school students. Businesses have replaced much of their phone support staffs with web pages. Writers, musicians, artists, journalists, and creative people of every stripe are now using the web to distribute information. The cost of publishing a book has dropped to an almost insignificant price.

The driving force for this explosion in information has been the personal computer. Ever since the first PCs came along in the early 1980s, their uses and the number of users, has exploded. This has created a whole industry which barely existed 30 years ago. Today, you can purchase a complete computer ready to use for less than $500. This cost translates into many new users, using computers.

The computer has become so ubiquitous that I am often surprised when I visit someone who does not use the computer. Originally people started using computers at work and later realized that they were a good investment at home. Business today is highly dependent on the computer for many of it’s information creation, distribution, and archiving. I would say that many businesses could not imagine doing business without a computer.

Business Uses of Computers

Lets start by exploring what it is that computers do for a business. The computer was primarily targeted at businesses originally, just like the telephone was. (Yes I know that the first computers were used for military purposes. But once the wars were over the industry turned to business use.)

So lets see if we can enumerate the uses of a computer is a typical business.

  • Writing is probably the most significant use of computers in any business. Most written documentation is done today on the computer. This can range from simple memos, to product manuals and everything in between.

  • Data collection and analysis is common among most businesses. This can range from inventories, to sales figures, to market penetration. This was one of the earliest uses for the computer in business, and still constitutes one of the larges uses.

  • Communications is most likely the most common use of a computer today. Whether it is email, instant messages, or using the Web.

  • Dedicated tasks is sort of a catch all term for everything from security systems, to cash registers. These are the often simple computers which run specific tasks in a business.

In my opinion, these three uses constitute the bulk of what businesses do with their computers. I know there are many specialized pieces of software that a business writes themselves for specific tasks, but these often fall in to one of the categories above.

Home use of Computers

Computers used in the home are often not considered as indispensable as they are in a business. But if you have ever had to do without the computer at home you would understand it’s need.

Lets look at a list of uses around the house.

  • Communications is most likely the most common use of a computer today. Whether it is email, instant messages, or using the Web.

  • Writing is probably the second most significant use of computers in a home. Most written documentation is done today on the computer. This can range from simple grocery lists, to complete stories, and everything in between.

  • Games are often a major use of the computer at home. They can range from simple card games to complex role playing games.

  • Multimedia is being driven more and more by the PC these days. From streaming music, to playing DVDs, to web presentations.

  • Dedicated tasks is sort of a catch all term for everything from security systems, to washing machines, to home automation. These are the often simple computers which run specific tasks in a home.

If this list looks familiar, that is because many of the tasks are similar between business and the home.

I am sure there are a myriad of other uses, but I think this covers the core of them.

How do we choose a computer?

In the past the cost of the computer was a significant amount of money. Well at least $2000.00 or more is a lot to me. Today, the price of many computers is still in the $1500 to $3000 range for desktop machines. So buying a computer is still a decision which deserves some thought.

Many home buyers are more cost conscious than the business buyers are. Typically with a business, larger that say 30 people, the decision is made on a type and brand of computer considered acceptable. This decision can be made by the technical staff, but too often is made by management. This is a shame since too often management does not know how to make a good choice of computer based on it technical merits. The major difference between a business buyer and a home buyer is that the business is often looking a replacing the computer on a regular basis, while the home buyer will not plan on retiring the computer until it dies.

This decision to retire the computer in a business, is based usually, on the understanding that the newer software will need a more powerful computer to run. This expectation leads many larger companies to place a 3 to 5 year life expediency on the computers.

So what is wrong with this method of selecting a computer? Nothing really, except there is an underlying assumption that everyone needs a powerful personal computer. In fact some people in a company have more computer than they need. This is especially true of managers, who typically get the more powerful computers due to their status in the company. Another fallacy is that everyone needs a full computer. In fact, many business users would do better with a Smart Terminal than a full computer. The upside to this would mean more thought would need to go into the design of the system. But I am not going to go into this at this time.

So what does the home buyer do when purchasing a computer? From my experience, most people simple pick out something and buy it. Not many people consider what they are going to use the computer for, and how much computer they need. Sometimes people know that they need a computer with good multimedia support if they are into games. More often than not price is an important factor when choosing a computer.

For those of you who would like to know more about what you are looking at when buying a new computer I would suggest, Dave’s Guide to buying a Home Computer

How do we select our Operating System?

How many of you consider what Operating System will come on your new computer when you buy it? Most people hardly even look at the OS supplied with their new computer. Now some people say that we don’t really have a choice of OS when we buy a new computer. In the not too distant past, that was true. Today though, you can more than one OS on your new computer.

The question I have heard is, who cares what OS comes on the computer? I care, but most of you probably consider me the fanatic fringe for computer users. But is that true? or am I just a jump ahead of the average user?

The answer to why should people care about the OS is simple. The OS sets the baseline for all the software on the computer. Unless you are a programmer who writes his/her own code, you are locked into software compatible with the OS. Now it is true that not many people will ever install an operating system. So what ever comes on the box is what the user will keep using for the life of the computer. If you don’t believe this, just ask your friends, how many of them ever install the OS on their computer. Unless you hang out with a lot of computer geeks, the answer will be quite small if not zero.

This is unfortunate since users could avail themselves of a lot of interesting software if they were willing to dive in and replace the OS. Or as I have done, create a dual boot system, so they can go back and forth between the two and discover the differences. Yes, I know, I am a fine one to talk. Since I do this all the time, I suppose you think I can do an install in my sleep. But, believe it or not, I still make my share of errors doing installs. But I have learned from my mistakes, and part of what I am doing here is trying to share my experiences. But lets get back to our typical user.

So why don’t people either buy a new computer with Linux already installed, or install it themselves? Mostly it comes down to the fact that people think they can’t do it. Now to be honest, you can buy computers with Windows, Linux, Mac OS, or BSD already installed. For example I found the page, Preinstalled NetBSD Systems which lists 5 companies in the US who will preinstall NetBSD on the computer for you. For computers with Linux preinstalled you can check Vendor:Systems which seem rather old to me. I know of 3 Linux dealers not listed on this page, but it is a start. Interestingly, more of the vendors are not in the US. I do not think I need to list vendors for Windows or for OS/X since there are a number of vendors selling Windows or Macintosh computers.

Why are business people afraid of the Linux OS?

Lets take a few minutes to talk about why more people don’t use Linux. I will start by listing some of the reasons I know about, and maybe there are others.

  • Marketing is probably the biggest reason people, at least in this country, don’t know about Linux. When you have the financial resources to pay for ads you can push what ever message you want. It also gives the commercial software visibility that Open Source does not have. In many ways that is why user groups like this are important.

  • FUD or Fear Uncertainty Doubt are tactics used by commercial software vendors to discourage people from using Open Source.

    As an example of the type of fear spread around here is an article OSS Fear which explains some common misconceptions about Open Source Software. The original article is Here.

  • Misleading TCO One of the issues which comes up often when comparing Windows to Linux is what is known as TCO (Total Cost of Ownership).

    To illustrate the information and misinformation here are a few sites showing different sides of the story.

So at this point you are probably asking why all the talk about TCO, I am a home user and don’t care. The answer is that the real money in software is the business users. If Microsoft could keep a strangle hold on the business market, it would likely be willing to abandon the home market. This might sound harsh but the reality is that the home market for software is tiny compared to the business market.

OK, OK, I hear you, “I don’t care about the business market.” So lets turn back to the home and discuss software choice there.

Why should home users embrace Linux?

We spoke above about how most computers purchased in the US, come with windows installed. Which hopefully is changing, but slowly. What reasons would you give to a home computer user to use Linux instead of Windows. Here are some:

Now that we have looked at other peoples reasons for choosing Linux, lets see if we can discuss a list of our own. Now if you would like to add to this list, I would appreciate it.

  • Cost is probably the first reason that comes to most peoples minds when it comes to Linux. Cost is an issue from both the cost of the Operating System and the cost of application software.

    One difference that many people overlook when discussing using Linux is that Linux distributions usually contain all the software you will use. If you purchase Windows, you will often then need other software from Virus checkers, to Image manipulation software, to Desktop Publishing software, to backup programs, etc. All this additional software cost is not part of Windows.

  • Flexibility in Linux to change everything from it’s window manager to the number of services supported. Flexibility does not just come to those who can program the system, but also to those who are just willing to tinker.

    Flexibility also applies to how you use linux. For example I am writing this talk on my server but the computer running the application is my laptop. I am able to tap into another computer and run the application from there. In windows, you can use remote desktop to run on another computer, but you are actually running the entire application on the other computer. What I am doing is using the server to handle the graphics, and the laptop to handle the applications. Another gotcha in windows is that only 2 users can share a server using remote desktop. In Linux, you are only limited by the resources on the server machine.

  • Support is available from the distribution company, from user groups, from email lists, or from a paid subscription. This amount of support is unlike what is provided by any company.

  • Stability may not seem important in a computer which is used in a home. But I can tell you from personal experience how important it is. When I use a computer running Windows I usually need to rebuild it every 6 months to 2 years. The Windows OS collects settings and configurations from software added and then removed. The registry continues to grow and grow until it consumes a considerable amount of memory. The Linux I install on my laptop, which gets as many if not more programs added and removed just keeps going.

  • Upgrading your current OS or your applications is much easier in Linux than Windows. This is accomplished in Linux by programs line apt-get, yum, up2date, etc. These programs handle the whole process of upgrading your distribution and applications. This is a far cry from installing Service Patches and upgrade packages.

  • Security with Linux is currently much better than Windows. Virus writers either have not targeted Linux, or maybe it is just more challenging. In addition, the types of adware software is not currently targeted to Linux, again this could be luck, but might also be by design.

    When it comes to upgrading, lets not forget the time lag between a problem being found and the result being addressed. In windows, it could be 6 months, it could be never. In Linux on the other hand, a fix is often available within days of a problem being found. This rapid repair is possible when so many people have access to the code. If Windows was Open Sourced it could be fixed just as fast, since you would not need to depend on Microsoft to do the fix.

  • Freedom is the ability to change what you own. Now most home users don’t think much of this since they are not programmers. But it is important because it means that the software you have today can not go away. For example, suppose you were fond of a game, and the company who made the game went away. Now you upgrade to a new computer with a different CPU. With Open Source, you or someone else could recompile the game for the new CPU, and you would still be in business. Think about what would happen if you were using Windows, and purchased a new computer using an AMD RISC chip. You would have to replace ALL of your software, if you could find equivalent software. But if you were using Linux, someone could port the software to the new CPU and you could continue to use it.

How can we get the word out about Linux?

This is a Linux users group, which is not very big. Now I don’t mean to disparage you people, after all you are here. My question is really, how do we get more people to come to these talks?

We have talked about how commercial software can promote itself with Advertising. Some of the Linux distributions can do some advertising, but on a much more limited scale. The best way to promote Linux is through word of mouth. So how do we get more people to come to meetings like this?

I don’t have the answer, unless it is to appeal to all of you to bring a friend to the next meeting. Additionally, I would be open to suggestions of how to induce the other members of WPCUG to join us. So I am now going to turn the floor over to you.


Written by John F. Moore

Last Revised: Tue Nov 1 18:14:05 EDT 2016

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