More on Open Source. Much, much more.

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We have been discussing the relative quality of support in OpenSource v. proprietary software, and I am reminded of some other issues that we’ve spoken of before. We had a fight here some time back (in November) over the question of Black Boxes in research software (I won the fight), a topic which has been touched on in the present discussion. The code has to be exposed. (see also this for a specific example)

Another argument we’ve had is how a system like Linux is maintained vs. a system like Windows. Developers argue about this, but the truth is that since Linux and most of what is attached to it is OpenSource, the system can constantly be updated in a way that improves things (usually) going forward instead of simply building up code. (This is the question of a stable Kernel API vs. not.)

With respect to the business model, the difference between the two paradigms is astounding. To put it simply, a proprietary model allows and often encourages decisions that are just plain bad for the user. See for example:

In some ways, in the day to day experience of the end user, it is true that things like the Linux/MS difference, or more broadly the FOSS/Pirate difference is a cultural one. But certain truths are highly manipulated or overlooked.

For instance, Linux is grandma ready. It is a grandma ready as any other system has ever been. One of the reasons people think it is not is because they or someone they know encountered problems with installation. This overlooks another important truth: No arbitrary OS will install flawlessly on an arbitrary box. That has never been true. Of all the OS’s out there, a good distro of Linux will install easily on more boxes than any version of Windows that has ever, ever existed for all time up to now. That is a plain and simple truth that cannot be denied. For details, see this.

Open source is changing your life, even if you don’t know it. The maximum attained quality of the produce for OpenSource is always better when the project exists, in part because the requirements of the proprietary business model will interfere with best practices of development in almost all projects. OpenSource is usually more cost effective than proprietary solutions.

Since its origin, Open Source and Linux has been there to save us all!

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31 thoughts on “More on Open Source. Much, much more.

  1. So why doesn’t Linux/Open Source catch on with home users and businesses?

    I think it is because free is not cheap enough.

    For example, OpenOffice costs zero, but for about $150 (cheaper in academia) one can purchase Microsoft Office and get pivot tables and a presentation program that works.

    To most, the $150 is worth the price (MS Office is actually only worth $50, the extra $100 is due to advertising and brainwashing.)

  2. Actually, the current version of presenter totally works.

    Some would say that the data pilot kills excel pivot tables.

    Also, I quickly add, if you are willing to use a slightly older version of Excel than whatever is current, it runs better in Linux using Crossover than it does on most Windows machines. Crashes less, and it will never, ever, ever, bring down your system. It is very difficult to bring down the system in Linux. And then every other thing about the machine (printing, all other sofware, stabilty, security, networking, etc.) will also run better.

    It is kind of a shame that all that work went into developing Windows and the only thing holding up its market share is Excel …

    The reason that more people don’t use it is probably because if you buy a computer it has Windows on it. Unless you buy a Mac.

    Creationists often say that Satan put all those fossils in the ground to fool us. I always figured that was a lot of work for Satan. But somehow Bill Gates has put Windows on all those computers so he would have the market share. I’m starting to rethink the whole thing….

  3. If computers were sold with Linux and a full suite of opensource applications and training videos, etc. for a price of $100 LESS than the same computer with Windows, this would quickly kill Microsoft.

    No one wants to pay for evil if it can be avoided.

  4. I think it’s telling that a biologist would prefer an evolutionary software development model, where any peer can view the code and amend and ameliorate. Science would never have progressed as far as it has if every scientific principle had to be reinvented by each inventor. Likewise with code. Why not reuse the code that works, or improve it incrementally? The alternative monolithic software model rather seems like religion by comparison — religion in the dark ages, when only the clergy knew Latin to read the “good” book.

  5. Linux may be grandma-ready, but some peripherals aren’t Linux-ready.

    There are some nice printers and scanners out there that do all heavy numerical processing to the PC side. The protocol between the device and the PC side driver is proprietary, and the vendor only offers Windows drivers. E.g. Epson scanners used to support Linux out of the box, but the new models don’t.

    Such walled gardens will be broken, eventually, but the grandma will feel pissed when she hears that her shiny new scanner might start working with Linux maybe some time next year, when a kid somewhere has gotten interested enough to reverse engineer the protocol and write a driver.

  6. Or grandma can just get smart and buy a sane-compatible scanner.

    There are linux drivers for Epson scanners. I think your info may be out of date.

  7. So why doesn’t Linux have a higher market share? JL said:

    I think it is because free is not cheap enough.

    I think you’re close on this one, but not quite. I think it’s because free is too cheap. Most people are convinced that anything free is not going to be worth their time because you can’t get something for nothing. A lot of people out there think that if you’re trying to give them a “free” operating system on a disc, that it is actually a pirated copy of something that costs money. The non-geek public really doesn’t have a good concept of FOSS.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I think another reason is that some members of the non-geek public don’t understand terms like “operating system”. I’ve had conversations with people who pose questions like, “That’s the modem, right? (while pointing to the PC case)” Educating people about the very basic ideas about computers is necessary before getting into things like operating systems and office suites. We geeks have a problem in that area, in that we often assume that people have a certain basic knowledge about computers.

    JL mentioned:

    If computers were sold with Linux and a full suite of opensource applications and training videos, etc. for a price of $100 LESS than the same computer with Windows, this would quickly kill Microsoft.

    Unfortunately, systems sold with Linux and open-source software often cost more than systems sold with a proprietary operating system like Windows. Why? Companies like Dell, HP, Acer, etc. get large discounts and/or kickbacks from Microsoft, AOL, etc. in exchange for including the proprietary software on the PCs that they sell. AOL free trial? It’s there. MSN free trial? It’s there. MS Office free trial? It’s there.

    Lassi Hippeläinen said:

    Linux may be grandma-ready, but some peripherals aren’t Linux-ready.

    I think this is still one of the biggest problems we face as Linux users. There are some hardware manufacturers out there who realize that Linux exists, and some even go so far as to try to provide drivers and utilities. Logitech has a Linux team working to provide better support for their webcams. Of course, compiling the current software from source isn’t something Grandma’s likely to want to tackle. It’s getting better, but we’ve still got a lot of work ahead of us.

  8. Creationists often say that Satan put all those fossils in the ground to fool us. I always figured that was a lot of work for Satan. But somehow Bill Gates has put Windows on all those computers so he would have the market share. I’m starting to rethink the whole thing….

    Try new Microsoft Fossil 7! Installing it in your back yard is easier than ever, now that the kit comes with a shovel!

    Oh, and make sure to get genuine Microsoft Fossils, not those illegal pirated Piltdown Man replicas.

  9. For instance, Linux is grandma ready.

    Oh yeah, what’s Linux? That’s not a jibe, there’s a whole stack of different distros and how is grandma supposed to choose between them? And which desktop thingy to use, KDE, Gnome, something else?

    Excessive amounts of choice can be disabling when one has no mechanism for identifying a good choice. I think the most helpful thing for getting Linux to go global would be if there was one main distro (for “don’t care” desktop punters), one main desktop, one main browser and so on. Plus distros that existed for a specific purpose (small footprint, real time use, heavy networking and so on).

    Maybe Ubuntu will do that, but it would be really good (for the market penetration) if there was one mainstream desktop Linux called just “Linux” in the same way as there is one mainstream Windows or Mac OS at any one time.

    Me, I’m on Windows 99% of the time and my Linux system rarely gets fired up. Why? Because my clients and their software use Windows exclusively, so it makes sense to stay compatible, and emulators are never a good idea (if only because any problem arises, any support person is going to point the finger at the emulator before admitting it might be their software – I would!). Why not Linux for other stuff? Because Windows and its software does what I need, browse, word process, spreadsheet. Some Linux-boosters don’t get it – the OS is a tool, not a goal.

    On open source being great – I have yet to see that. Some stuff is good, some is appalling, and help files and documentation are rarely adequate in my experience – but I might be out of dae on that. Asserting the idea that open source is super does not make it a fact.

  10. I’m not quite a grandma yet (my kids should really get on that… C’mon guys!), but when it comes to the whole computer thing, I feel like one.
    I would like to use open source software out of principle, but given my knowledge about computers, I don’t feel competent to set it up, prevent it from breaking, make sure my internet and word processor works, not delete all my files in the process, etc.
    It’s a path of least resistance thing. The computer comes with microsoft programs on it, and the only thing I know about computers is not to fuck with them. When I buy a computer, I give a kid in our neighborhood a few $20s to set the whole thing up for me, just to prevent myself or my equally incompetent (don’t tell him I said that) husband from messing the whole thing up.
    It has nothing to do with support. As far as I know, Microsoft has NO support unless you pay for it, and even then, I would imagine that it probably sucks.
    I think that it’s just that a lot of us in the grandma-mentality when it comes to computers are so happy that the damn thing is currently running that we’re terrified of changing anything.

  11. Every single person I work with uses Windows or a Mac except one. I use Linux. We are compatible. Please to with the “you have to use Windoze to be compatible” crap.

  12. re: how is grandma supposed to choose

    In my experience, choose what others use (especially people you may ask for help), or ask a knowledgeable friend for advice.

    re: the OS is a tool, not a goal

    The OS may be a tool, but the goal is for it to do what the user needs and not get in the way. I have found free software to be better at this than proprietary.
    One example – in a few recent instances of being forced to use microsoft, I find all the little popups and warnings and messages that it presents very distracting. I don’t want to deal with all these little details – I want to do my work. Other operating systems handle this more cleanly and in a MUCH more user friendly way.

  13. Big time fan of Linux, but every time I sit down to create a new box it’s a hassle.

    Someone pointed out – which distro?
    I’ve worked with RedHat, Ubuntu, SuSE, and some offbrand minimal router distros.

    Installation – I’ve built more boxes than I care to remember, often pieced together out of old, scavanged parts. When I stick my windows CD in it almost always works. When I stick a Linux CD in, there is almost always a Hassle. Point in case, I bought a brand new, high end Dell laptop, came with Windows. Installed Ubuntu for a dual boot and, whap, no driver for the fancy laptop video card. Had to search and figure out that Ubuntu thing that lets you load a Windows driver… come on!

    Linux is for people who like to fiddle and figure things out.

    There is no sounder platform than BSD and Unix based OS’s, but they are not grandma ready by any stretch.

  14. Installed Ubuntu for a dual boot and, whap, no driver for the fancy laptop video card. Had to search and figure out that Ubuntu thing that lets you load a Windows driver… come on!

    Uh, something’s setting off my spider sense on this. I think it’s that the only such project I know of is NDISWrapper, which only does wireless cards. I hope you mean “had to search for how to install the binary drivers for my ATI or NVidia card”, because in that case, that’s more the fault of the manufacturer trying to build binary blobs on top of an open system, thus breaking the system’s “openness”, forcing distro developers to make it an optional component. At least in the case of the newest Ubuntu (and the version immediately prior), a helpful prompt appeared on first boot suggesting that I could install NVidia drivers simply by clicking in the notifier and then clicking “install now”.

    Me, I’m on Windows 99% of the time and my Linux system rarely gets fired up. Why? Because my clients and their software use Windows exclusively, so it makes sense to stay compatible, and emulators are never a good idea

    Me, I’m on Linux 100% of the time, and my VirtualBox Windows XP install gets fired up (with a _fully functional_ Windows XP, missing only DirectX support!) about once every two weeks when I want to use Windows-based tools to build Windows MSI installers, or use ActiveDirectory extensions, without remoting directly into my DC. Even then, if I wanted to do so, I could just remote into that DC and do what needs doing without ever booting VirtualBox. I experience no compatibility issues whatsoever with my fellow IT members, clients, or site management, and they all use Microsoft products religiously. I even have several Linux-based servers in play that they don’t even realize are Linux, including a free Ghost-like network boot cloning service (FOG), a DNS cacher, some web services, and a Samba server for a very large file share.

  15. Phaedrus: AAAAGGGGHHHH!!!!

    You took hardware that had been selected to run Windows … by computer engineers working for a big-ass company … then proven that this hardware runs Windows better than Linux.

    In another brilliant experiment, you took random parts from a bunch of computer that certainly (and don’t try to bs your way out of this, please) were running Windows, and you pieced them together an proved that they still worked with Windows, but not so well with an arbitrary operating system.

    Sorry. D-minus for experimental design.

    Imagine grabbing a bunch of random computer parts form computers that previously ran Windows and trying to install Mac OS X on that. Then, when it does not work you blame Apple rather than your own dumb ass. That is the same thing.

    Starting at point zero, with a blank piece of paper, you can design far more configurations of hardware using far more different pieces of hardware to run Linux than to run Windows. That. Is. A. Fact. Butchering up and recombining computers that were all originally put together to run Windows will ALWAYS run windows with fewer problems than Linux. And the reverse would be true as well.

    The. Reverse. Would. Be. True. As. Well. Remember that.


  16. Butchering up and recombining computers that were all originally put together to run Windows will ALWAYS run windows with fewer problems than Linux.

    I respectfully ask for something to back up this assertion (I have anecdotes that run counter to this, but I am looking for something better than those).

  17. My wife is a grandmother. She and I both use Linux, and neither of us has touched a Windows machine in over ten years. I keep both our computers fed and happy, but I am by no means as proficient as the average professional IT guy. It’s not a big deal. Way back in the nineties, when I used Windows, keeping our computer working right was a big deal. Okay, not every person of my generation wants to do this, but Linux should not be assumed to be out of reach just because it involves some unfamiliar territory. I imagine many of the people who would be confused by Linux are confused by Windows. Some distributions are so easy to use – Ubuntu – that there’s really not much reason to continue to support the evil empire.

  18. re: Linux and BSDs, it used to be said that BSD is for people who love Unix, and Linux is for people who hate Microsoft. Might still be true for some of us.

  19. anonymous: Well, OK, it is quite possible that the hardware did not work with windows either. But the argument I’m making is not an empirical one, it is a logical one. Is it not clear?

  20. I have anecdotal evidence to back up Greg’s claim, using, of all things, a several-year-old Compaq machine. I was able to run the Ubuntu 6.10 live CD (which is an admittedly older distro now) on it, and had every single aspect of the machine running without doing any tweaking whatsoever. The sound card, the network card, the video, all worked out of the box.

    Then I tried putting Windows XP Pro on it. This was a VLK CD, so it wasn’t the original Compaq template discs with all the crapware, which is good normally, except that the template discs came also with all the drivers. As they weren’t available to me, I had to spend hours downloading all the drivers from various sites as the model of Compaq wasn’t being supported by HP any longer. Then it wouldn’t read my USB flash drive, because the USB host controller drivers weren’t installed and they used some crazy stack that the XP default install couldn’t handle, so I had to find a blank CD to burn the drivers onto. If I hadn’t had another computer to use to do the downloading and burning on, I would have been up the creek.

  21. I don’t know Greg, I found it highly disappointing that you love the iPod. If there were a Satan, an embodiment of pure evile, it would be called iPod. I am not a fan of mp3 players, that refuse to let me do what I want to do with them – such as just putting the media I want on it, by direct file transfer.

  22. @21: Yes, I think I understand your claim, and (as I mention below) it is true that using the gift wrapped system restore disk (or moral equivalent) getting a microsoft OS installed on a computer should be easier than installing something else. I haven’t had to deal with that much horrible hardware recently (eg. winmodems), but it can be an issue – especially for people who do not (or cannot) plan ahead.

    @22: That contradicts his claim (if I am reading everything correctly). The claim is that computers sold with microsoft work better with microsoft and while I would expect that they SHOULD, my experience is much like yours – you have to do everything just so or it fails.
    I suppose I should point out that this is not a general failing of proprietary software – I have experience with apple, sun and dec all managing to get multiple versions of the OS to work on various permutations of hardware (though generally limited to what they want to support).

  23. I don’t know Greg, I found it highly disappointing that you love the iPod

    The iPod is fine, it does exactly what it is supposed to do, and the iTouch has interesting features.

    If my sister worked for Android I might have an android. But she works for Appple so I have an iPod.

    I am very very ambivalent. Don’t be too surprised if this baby gets jailbusted at some point…..

    (There will probably be some interesting blogging about that)

    So there’s no love here. Just some playing with technology.

    @22: That contradicts his claim (if I am reading everything correctly).

    My first reaction was that this does contradict, not support, my claim, but actually it supports it. The gift wrapped system installtion is the key factor here. That supports the claim.

    And by the way, a gift wrapped Windows install is useless two or three years later. If you wipe a system that is a few years old, your chances really are about the same. The reason my daugther has a nice HP laptop fully functioning with Linux (after an utterly painless install) is because my father-in-law could not get Windows back onto that computer because of this time delay issue. Drivers that needed to be installed so they could then be updated were being viewed as viruses, etc. etc. A total mess.

    He now drives a Mac, and Julia has the HP running Ubuntu. Everybody is happy but Microsoft did not contribute one iota to that happiness.

  24. You’re making my point, Greg, stating that Linux would run better on products not designed with Windows in mind. This is grandmother level compatibility?
    I, too, love the open source paradigm, and I hate Microsoft’s (and many other software vendor’s) business practices, and I’m agog at the lousy security that Windows provides – but it has been my experiences over many years that if I walk up to a strange computer and put in a windows install, it will generally work. I have done a couple of dozen Linux installs and they almost never have worked without tinkering. Geeze, the first thing most of them do is ask how you’d like to partition the drive – do know how foreign a concept that is to people like my Mom or Uncle? (I’ve fallen in love with LogMeIn which allows me to log on and avoid those painful conversation that start with, “there’s a gray box with a blue top and an X…”

  25. You’re making my point, Greg, stating that Linux would run better on products not designed with Windows in mind.

    That is not true. What is true is this:

    1) System X will run better on hardware chosen or designed to work with System X … Other combinations are potentially iffy

    2) All else being random, Linux runs with more hardware than any other operating system extant today or at any time in the past.

    That is all I’m saying. This has nothing to do with grandmother rediness, becuase we don’t actually expect grandma to build the computer on which she runs Linux any more than we expect her to build the computer on which she runs Windows.

  26. Yes, sorry, short on time for blogificating today, so I was admittedly unclear… the point I was driving at was that despite the hardware being built with Windows in mind, it was actually a painful experience getting it running without that “gift-wrapped” Windows installer. Yet, the Ubuntu installer was as pain-free as you’d expect from an OS install, despite the hardware not being designed with XP in mind.

    If there were more pre-packaged hardware factory-built with compatibility with Linux in mind (especially if they didn’t go through all the trouble of making a custom reformat process the way they do with XP — just give a plain old Ubuntu disk and use hardware components you know work with it), then the install base of Ubuntu could very well include that all-important grandmother demographic with ease.

    The fact that the Linux kernel comes with modules for a far wider array of hardware than the XP default install, not to mention all the software goodies most distros come with for free and pre-installed, means the install process is far more likely to go smoother with Linux than with Windows on any given system. Yes, there are a few hardware components that are still a wee bit of a pain (I’m thinking extremely new technology and webcams, as all those previous trouble spots like wireless, scanners, sound cards, etc., are all mostly supported now), but for the most part, whatever you need to use is probably just going to work.

    Additionally, if you need to tinker, having a wider install base means you’re more likely to be able to find support on the street, so I’m more than happy to introduce my friends and co-workers to Linux whenever I can. Many eyes make all bugs shallow and all that.

  27. Jason: Right. In fact, any set of hardware needs to be co-designed/selected with the Windows installation. The simple truth is that for many people using windows, a change in system or hardware leads to loss of funcitonality. The best approach is almost always to toss out the old computer (giving it to someone who will install Linux on it, presumably) and just buy a new computer.

    People who WANT to use windows … who PREFER to use windows … should be willing to pay whatever is needed, including just buying new hardware when their system goes stale, because that is how the proprietary model works, and it is the proprietary model that workds. For these people. Who WANT and PREFER Windows.

    And I’m not really being snarky here. This is really true.

  28. I’ve tried Windows and Linux but my choice is OS X. So linux I think cuz OS X is linux. Apple provide great hardware with grate os and that will be my choice for rest of my live. Maybe the reason is that I’m graphic designer.

  29. Mac OS X is built off of FreeBSD, actually. It’s a Unix-compliant OS and features the Bash shell, though, so it’ll certainly feel like Linux proper when you start diving into its guts.

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