Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Linux on Dell

If reports of a death can be exaggerated, so can reports of a birth. Linux advocates have been predicting the rise of their favourite kernel for years but, almost as the sound of the advocacy has faded, Linux penetration has been rising quietly and inexorably. The advocates don't need to shout so loudly now. They are getting somewhere.

About 8% of the readership of this blog use Linux, but from a less refined sample the figure might be lower. That's still double what you would have expected two years ago. Although Wal Mart has been shipping computers with Linux pre-installed for years now, and despite aborted attempts to do so by Hewlett Packard a couple of years ago, it's still hard for the average consumer to find a machine with Linux ready and waiting when they buy.

When the only computers on the shelves run Windows, that's what people buy. When a manufacturer has to pay a license fee for an operating system whether or not it ships it with a computer, it's going to ship it. The "per processor" licenses were just one of the techniques MS used to develop and enforce a monopoly, and they've paid the fines that went with the territory. Examination of the accounts of the Canopy Group led some to speculate that Microsoft had paid a quarter of a billion dollars in an out of court settlement to Canopy's then subsidiary Caldera (no longer trading under that name, and deeply unworthy of a link, for one reason or another...) over restrictive practices relating to DOS. That's the same kind of figure Microsoft paid into Apple stock to settle litigation over GUI design "inspiration". But so what? By the time they had paid out, tens of billions had been earned. Breaking intellectual property and anti-trust laws can be profitable in an industry that moves so fast that by the time you have come to court, the issue is irrelevant.

Of course, this has led to them being detested, especially by people who know about computers in detail. This famous rant is technical in places but explains what the main body of complaint against this particular corporation consists of. It includes this metaphor:

Picture this: you buy a newly-built house from a real estate company. As soon as it starts to rain, you discover that the roof leaks. When you complain about it, the real estate company either ignores you or they tell you that this kind of roof is a brand-new innovation; the sort of house they used to sell never had such a beautiful roof. Instead of fixing your roof they promise that the next house they'll build won't leak. Eventually they complete their next house, three years or so behind schedule, and you have to pay a hefty price for it... only to find that it comes with a patched roof, and now the water seeps through the walls instead. The new house has an extra wing added to it that you didn't ask for, but as soon as you enter it the floor collapses, and if you try to save yourself you find door jammed.
Why have people put up with this? Well, some didn't. The spread of internet access and the Free Software Foundation allowed computer scientists all over the world to collaborate on programming projects, and so many were so annoyed at the state of the computer market that they developed an operating system entirely for free. No, they developed several operating systems for free. And the application software to go with it. It has been an unprecedented effort. In no other industry have top flight industrial and commercial products that rival or exceed those made by the world's top corporations been developed voluntarily by academics and professionals in their spare time.

If you're not a computer dork, just think about that for a moment. That's how bad Microsoft has been.

The state of the market has had some stability for the best part of a decade now: computer engineers choose Unix, or Unix-like systems like Linux. Consumers use Windows. Designers, the stylish cogniscenti, and people who understand fabrics, use Macs.

But that might be about to change:
Computer maker Dell has chosen Ubuntu as the operating system for its range of Linux computers for consumers.
[...]
Michael Dell, the founder, chairman and chief executive of Dell, is himself an Ubuntu user. He has the operating system installed on a high-end Dell Precision M90 laptop he uses at home.
So do I. I use FreeBSD for servers, OpenBSD for security, FreeBSD or Ubuntu Linux for desktops and laptops, Mac OS X for servers, laptops and desktops and NetBSD for my digital watch. NetBSD runs on almost any piece of electrical equipment...

I haven't owned a Windows computer for years, and I don't want to again. Windows is nowhere near as bad as it used to be, in fact Vista is less than five years behind the opposition and with the latest Internet Explorer can even display png graphics properly. But it seems like a hell of an expensive way to compromise my personal security and privacy while making perfectly good equipment run surprisingly slowly.

So good for Dell, but don't underestimate the behind the scenes arm twisting that has gone on to try to stop them doing this. Microsoft plays hardball, and it has needed a player as big and secure as Dell to take this step properly. WalMart isn't exactly a minnow, which is why they've been able to do it, but Dell is bigger in computers.

It's actually overdue. Linux isn't difficult to use. It's a hell of a lot easier to diagnose and fix if there's a problem. It's vastly more secure. You can do everything you can do with Windows, including running Windows itself and Windows software - emulation of hardware allows virtual machines to be run on the desktop, inside which you can run Windows proper, and software emulation allows many Windows programs to be run just like any other program.

But Windows can't run all the ten thousand odd programs I can install with just a broadband connection and the patience to select what I want from a list.

I feel hamstrung with Windows (Mac OS X is also a form of Unix, so that's cool). But the real reason I avoid it is one of principle. I'm a free marketeer. I detest what MS has done to subvert and cripple the market. They have set back computer technology by years.

But the market has responded. And the market will have the last laugh.

9 comments:

TFI said...

They have set back computer technology by years.

Have they? Really?

It can be argued that the PC has come to end sometime ago, what is apple doing that MS isn't? Sure the UI is more pretty, but its not like there is a entire class of problems what one can solve and MS cannot.

All the inovation is going into chip design, mobiles, radio, hosted appilications and virtual machines. MS mobiles are not very good, and all these fancy new Google services etc all are designed to run in IE.

I don't really think that the arguement holds, I suspect that MS have driven it all forward by popularizing and lowering the price point at which us comsumers can put a PC in our homes.

TFI

Peter Risdon said...

"MS have driven it all forward by popularizing and lowering the price point"

The spread of computers has nothing whatsoever to do with Microsoft, and by coupling their software to constantly increasing hardware requirements, MS has raised the price point, not lowered it. What MS's monopolistic practices have done is ensure that most people using the rapidly expanding technology of computing have to use their products.

The fancy new google services have workarounds to enable them to run in the broken, non-standards compliant plethora of IE versions. When you're writing dynamic web services, you do the standards compliant version, then you put in the fixes for IE.

When a company like Apple innovates, then another company copies the innovations without the develoment costs, the ability of innovators to do research is diminished. Worse, MS has actually bought companies and closed them down to stop good technology reaching consumers.

Peter Risdon said...

When MSDOS achieved a monopoly, MS just stopped developing it. When IE achieved a near monopoly, MS stopped developing it. IE7 came years after IE6, and only after Opera, Firefox and all the other browsers had introduced innovation after innovation, which MS then copied for IE7. Meanwhile, users had been forced to use insecure, buggy browsers that couldn't even display graphics properly, and didn't comply with CSS2.

There have been MS innovations, but I can count them on the fingers of one hand. On the whole their strategy has been to gain dominance in one area of the market, then just stop others competing, stop development, and milk the consumers. They show 80% plus NET margins on some divisions - and you don't do that by investing in your product and delivering savings to your customers.

From the link I put in the main post:

"In 2005 Microsoft's annual turnover had reached $40 billion with an annual net profit of $12 billon.

This is what happens if a monopolist has been allowed to eliminate all serious competitors. By contrast, other Microsoft divisions such as Home Entertainment still have to compete with other players in the market, and these divisions declared losses up to a few hundred million dollars."

TFI said...

Bits I agree with, other bits no.

The spread of computers has nothing whatsoever to do with Microsoft, and by coupling their software to constantly increasing hardware requirements, MS has raised the price point, not lowered it.

To argue the point the other way, by disconnecting the software from the hardware it allowed 3rd party manufacters lower hardware costs. I spoke with someone that worked there back in the late 90's it was a nightmare to identify and automatically load the drivers for all this.

The only way MicroSoft could lower the price is to give away their software for free (or for less).

Even then, if I compare the lines of code in any 3rd generation console game at 50 pound a pop, vs an entire operating system (Vista) at 120 pounds, it starts to looks like more of a bargin.

When you're writing dynamic web services, you do the standards compliant version, then you put in the fixes for IE.

This isn't true, most people I know develop for IE then for the other browsers, simply because it is dominant.

As for the web standards, they aren't quick enough to define support of stuff. There is a highly amusing piece of dialogue where one developer introduces another to the benefits of XML, I'll see if I can dig it up later.

There have been MS innovations, but I can count them on the fingers of one hand.

This is shamefully true in the Windows space. That whole code stream is stagent. I've a copy of Vista and functionality it is just more of the same. However I assure that the small white box in my front room attached to my TV is highly innoviative (not as much as the Wii perphaps) and is the future of much of MS's home computing. The home PC is dying.

When a company like Apple innovates, then another company copies the innovations without the develoment costs, the ability of innovators to do research is diminished.

Funny that you chose Apple here, the same applies to any group. Didn't Open Office get developed with an eye on MS Office?

When MSDOS achieved a monopoly, MS just stopped developing it. When IE achieved a near monopoly, MS stopped developing it.

... and when they did it allowed others to come snapping at their heels, DRDOS and Mozilla etc. The thing about monopolies is that they cost a fortune to maintain, especially when the barrier to entry is so low.

"In 2005 Microsoft's annual turnover had reached $40 billion with an annual net profit of $12 billon ...

Agreed, but are they really a monopoly? For instance Google brand value is $66.4 billion and they spend *nothing* on marketing.

Basically, the thick client is dying and giving way to mobile phones, handheld devices. Standards enable Linux and co to run on other devices. Browser technology with Java is making hardware platforms irrelavent, companies like Google are making office programs that run in a generic browser.

MS most valuable assets are fast turning into a liabilities.

TFI

Peter Risdon said...

"it was a nightmare to identify and automatically load the drivers for all this"

It was really IBM's platform being available for other manufacturers to clone that has led to standardisation and ease of drive installation. Install Linux now and everything is detected and loaded automatically (though MS's hardware detection system is the best of the lot).

"The only way MicroSoft could lower the price is to give away their software for free (or for less)"

Eh? There's space between current pricing and zero.

"most people I know develop for IE then for the other browsers"

Plenty of developers do the opposite as I suggested. There's no empirical evidence, though, so we just have to disagree.

"the small white box in my front room attached to my TV is highly innoviative (not as much as the Wii perphaps) and is the future of much of MS's home computing"

It's just a container for existing technology, but it is their future I think, that and DRM.

"Didn't Open Office get developed with an eye on MS Office?"

No, Star Office, as it began, tried a whole different paradigm (a new virtual desktop). It was crap, though. Open Office has an eye on MS Office to a lesser degree than MSO had an eye on WordPerfect. They're both office suites, but OO is orientated towards open standards, whereas MSO tries to eliminate interoperability, even between versions of itself.

"when they did it allowed others to come snapping at their heels, DRDOS and Mozilla etc"

Wrong way round. The error messages in early copies of WfW3.11 and then the "compatibility" messages in W95 made people fearful of buying DRDOS and killed it (hence the subsequent litigation). That's when MSDOS development stopped.

Having killed Netscape (with a better browser, it has to be said), MS stopped developing IE. Mozilla was the rump of Netscape. Firefox is really a whole new Open Source development, and it has some very nice application orientated features that are underused right now (see Celtx).

"are they really a monopoly? For instance Google brand value is $66.4 billion and they spend *nothing* on marketing."

Isn't that a non sequitur? They're not a true monopoly like a government can be, but they have monopolistic power and abuse it. Marketing spend is neither here nor there.

"MS most valuable assets are fast turning into a liabilities."

Very, very true.

Phil said...

Linux is better and it is free. The applications are free. The support is free. It is stable and secure. It releases you from the software/hardware escalation circle that both MS and Apple use to suck out your cash. The world's biggest online businesses use it eg Google and Amazon. What is there to discuss? MS is a marketing exercise totally reliant on an ignorant customer.

Peter Risdon said...

Phil, exactly.

Mind you, FreeBSD deserves a mention. Yahoo runs on it. MS took its tcp/ip stack, command line ftp and other bits of code, perfectly legitimately under the BSD license. It dominates the Netcraft uptime surveys. For ISP grade servers, I prefer it.

And I should have mentioned Debian in the original post; it's always been my favourite base distribution (Ubuntu is built on it, of course).

Paul H. said...

Fine stuff. M$ deserves your broadside. ...And I'm impressed that you run NetBSD on your watch --- what d'you do on it? (Assuming that wasn't a joke which went over my head.)

"Install Linux now and everything is detected and loaded automatically (though MS's hardware detection system is the best of the lot)."

Wasn't aware that MS's hardware detection was better than the Linux kernel's, but you seem a good bit techier than I, so I'll take your word for it. Personally I find that the biggest pain about installing hardware and software and reconfiguring things on Windows is all the damn rebooting --- people don't seem to complain about this. Yet it's unnecessary: you can do pretty much anything on Linux (unless you're modifying the kernel itself) without having to reboot.

"I'm a free marketeer. I detest what MS has done to subvert and cripple the market."

I also. And it's good to hear that: most people seem to assume that being in favour of free markets means that one loves every large corporation on the planet.

Who are your top five worst offenders in this regard, by the way?

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