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  • Linux fans should thank Bill Gates

    Posted by ken on September 2nd, 2004 (All posts by )

    And as an enthusiastic Linux, Java, etc. fan, I’ll go first…

    Wait a minute, you say. Bill Gates? Isn’t he the Devil Incarnate? Isn’t he the sworn enemy of Linux?

    I don’t know how he feels about Linux, and you don’t either… for all you know he’s got a Linux box at home he uses every chance he gets. (Actually, if I were Bill Gates, I’d use Linux every chance I get… if the competition isn’t going to even keep any secrets, you might as well learn all you can….)

    But I do know if Windows or something very much like it didn’t exist, that sweet Linux box of yours would cost about 10 times as much. And it would suck.

    Which puts that whole deal where most manufacturers would preinstall Windows and make you pay for a license whether you wanted it or not into perspective. Yeah, it’s kind of annoying to buy $200 “training wheels” with your box that you’ll just strip off and throw away. But it’s more than offset by the $20000 savings you’re getting courtesy of Windows and all the people who keep buying it.

    What have I been smoking? (“I’ve been smoking the truth, man!”) Well, it all comes down to our old friend “economy of scale”; the more computers that get built, the cheaper each individual one will be, both because of amortization of fixed costs and because it pays to invest more R&D in a large market than a small one, and that R&D itself yields cost and performance improvements.

    Now most users are running Windows rather than Linux, not because of any nefarious designs of Bill Gates, but because they are not geeks and never will be. Non-geeks will not start running Linux in great numbers even if we strung Bill Gates up from the nearest lamppost and burned every copy of Windows in a big bonfire. If Windows or something like it didn’t exist, most non-geeks would not buy a computer at all; they spend most of their time on interests that have nothing to do with programming, administration, or tinkering with technology, and will not willingly take the time to learn Linux no matter how much we wish they would. And, non-geeks outnumber us, by at least a factor of 20 to 1. Anyone who tried to sell a computer only to Linux fans would have to charge at least 10 times as much per box, and the box itself would be comparatively primitive because of all the extra R&D that didn’t go into it.

    If you want to see what the computer market would be like if the non-geeks stayed out of it, take a look at the market for personal aircraft. The things are outrageously expensive, absurdly difficult to fly, and 40 year old planes are still considered worth owning and flying; the new ones aren’t advanced enough to blow them out of the water the way a new computer relegates even 10 year old computers to museums and junkyards. That’s because personal aircraft are only sold to committed enthusiasts, who are willing to invest large amounts of time and money to learn the primitive, user-hostile interface, get official permission to use the craft, and of course to buy the craft itself, whose price is kept high by the small number of units that can be sold to enthusiasts (aircraft-geeks?) like themselves.

    The aircraft industry’s Bill Gates hasn’t come out with an easy-to-use interface for aircraft, and he’d lose his shirt if he tried, because non-enthusiasts wouldn’t be allowed to use it under current law and enthusiasts already know how to use the current user-hostile interface. That’s what would happen to the computer market if someone had stopped Bill Gates from “taking over the world” (i.e., selling huge numbers of computer operating systems to people who otherwise wouldn’t buy a computer at all, thus motivating all those non-geeks to pay the lion’s share of the fixed costs for hardware that would otherwise fall on Linux fans such as ourselves… much of which we couldn’t afford to pay and therefore wouldn’t get invested in developing the really nice hardware we enjoy today).

    Yeah, he screwed with Java and now Web application programmers are usually stuck using clunky JavaScript and HTML to paint their GUIs rather than the nice applets we should be using. But again, without the non-geeks buying and using Windows machines, those applets would have a much smaller audience, and everyone (including Web programmers) would lose out.

     

    14 Responses to “Linux fans should thank Bill Gates”

    1. Val Says:

      I am gadget inclined and have tried Linux several times: Red Hat (twice), Mandrake (three times), SuSe, Libranet (twice), Lycoris. Except for Lycoris, which is a reliable and easy to use imitation of Windows, all of them gave me enough trouble to never return for more, but I insisted and burned myself every time. Lack of standards, editing /etc/X11/XF86Config, the always buggy Gnome or the bloated Windows-like KDE, RPM (like DLL) hell, DOS-like verbiage that’s still different among the many brands, newer hardware not recognized or impossible to install, etc., seemingly forever. Never again for me.

      Windows was a mess until XP came along and I can’t remember how many times I reinstalled 98 or ME. However, I currently have XP (including SP2) installed on my very old 300MHz Dell laptop and it has worked flawlessly since the beginning. Security is still a problem if you’re not well covered behind a good firewall and antivirus, but with free ZoneAlarm and Avast! that’s a thing of the past.

    2. Sylvain Galineau Says:

      Ken, if you haven’t already, check out Spolsky’s thoughts on operating system biculturalism.

    3. Addison Says:

      I’m somewhat at a loss at how to start this, because.. that was just so .. staggeringly… wrong.

      Aircraft are expensive because of physics, the FAA, and insurance. Reduce those three, and they get cheaper. You can buy a put-toghther, flyable ultralight for under $10,000. 40 year old planes are saleable because they still fly. And new ones cost $170k+. Not because there aren’t many of them, but because it costs millions to certify a new one, and the insurance (because when somebody crashes, you will be sued) is tremendous. Cirrus, who’s the most successful new plane maker right now is suffering from several lawsuits (that I think might have a point) due to deaths in almost-new planes.

      Quite aside from the OS stuff – which has been debunked quite often, yes, there’s a network effect, but Microsoft has done at least as much to stifle innovation and cost as they have to promote it.

      But to compare the two is completely off-base. “Experimental” aviation, where they don’t have to use “FAA Certified” parts do quite nicely at high performance for relatively low cost. The faster you want to go, the more it will cost you. There’s a almost-200 mph kit out there that comes with engine for just under $40k. But the existance of the ultralight market, or the Sport Pilot market (with most planes in the $35k-50k range) rather badly refutes your main point.

      Ok. Back to the OSes for a bit. Ken, are you aware of the Linux boxes Wal-mart is selling, apparently quite happily? Ever heard of Tivo? (embedded, granted, but it’s a linux box). Most people can’t figure out Linux, granted – most people can’t figure out windows if they have to. The network effect is powerful, but it’s lessening, as more and more people know how to do basic things with Linux. Almost all the students at my college have *some* familiarity with Linux – enough to help students configure it in the dorms.

    4. Sylvain Galineau Says:

      Addison, do you have specific numbers of Wal-Mart sales of Linux boxes ? And numbers for the sales of Windows boxes at the same store ? Customer satisfaction ? Any indication of who the customers are ?

      Also, as a college student today, you can speak for college students but I would not extrapolate that too far. Come to think of it, I would not be surprised to find Wal-Mart’s Linux customers to be college students…

    5. James R. Rummel Says:

      “If Windows or something like it didn’t exist, most non-geeks would not buy a computer at all; they spend most of their time on interests that have nothing to do with programming, administration, or tinkering with technology, and will not willingly take the time to learn Linux no matter how much we wish they would.”

      You bet we’re not interested in learning Linux!

      I’m a self defense instructor. You know how someone concerned with protecting themselves and others defines a junk gun? If it won’t work brand new out-of-the-box. Doesn’t matter if it’s the best thing ever after you tweak it and add after market parts. Doesn’t matter if you can configure it so it fits you like a glove. It’s junk if it won’t go bang right away.

      Linux is junk.

      “And, non-geeks outnumber us, by at least a factor of 20 to 1.”

      You’re fooling yourself. It’s more like 1,000 to 1. It just doesn’t seem that way to the enthusiast because they hang out in chat rooms and read blogs that attract other enthusiasts.

      James

    6. Robert Schwartz Says:

      Macintosh?

    7. Joseph Hertzlinger Says:

      Cf. “In the Beginning Was the Command Line” by Neal Stephenson

    8. Jim English Says:

      Addison,

      You wrote:
      “Almost all the students at my college have *some* familiarity with Linux – enough to help students configure it in the dorms.”

      Almost all have some familiarity with Linux? That would be…what, 9 out of 10? 8 out of 10.

      Enough to help students. Presumably these are not the same students who know how to help with Linux. So these students requiring support… 1 out of 10. 2 out of 10.

      It seems from this statement, that at the low end
      8 out of 10 college students either know Linux or desire to know Linux enough to attempt to configure it. Seems hard to believe. I take it you are not an Education major.

      Jim English
      Chicago

    9. Jim English Says:

      ken,

      Interesting post. Thanks. I think you overlooked a contribution Bill Gates has made to Linux development. As the “devil incarnate”*, he has provided an incentive for people to work on Linux without being paid.

      *If anybody knows of any other devil’s out there just starting out, I wouldn’t mind getting in on the ground floor.

      Jim English
      Chicago

    10. Ken Says:

      “You can buy a put-toghther, flyable ultralight for under $10,000. ”

      And go where with it?

      “40 year old planes are saleable because they still fly.”

      Yeah, and 10 year old computers still run, too. But no one buys them because you can get a more powerful machine for about $200. The fact that today’s airplanes don’t completely blow planes from forty years ago out of the water and relegate them to museums and junkyards is a travesty, and a sign of long-term stagnation.

      “And new ones cost $170k+. Not because there aren’t many of them, but because it costs millions to certify a new one, and the insurance (because when somebody crashes, you will be sued) is tremendous. Cirrus, who’s the most successful new plane maker right now is suffering from several lawsuits (that I think might have a point) due to deaths in almost-new planes.”

      Well, yeah it’s a problem that it costs millions to certify a new one, and that juries are eager to grant huge awards every time anything goes wrong, with planes or with anything else. But I guarantee you that the planes would cost significantly less that $170K per unit if those “millions to certify a new one” (along with the cost to develop it in the first place) were spread across a mass market rather than a niche market.

      “Quite aside from the OS stuff – which has been debunked quite often, yes, there’s a network effect, but Microsoft has done at least as much to stifle innovation and cost as they have to promote it.”

      I have yet to see any “debunking” of the fact that (a) non-geeks tend not to buy machines at all unless they can get something like Windows preinstalled on it, or (b) spreading the (considerable) fixed costs of hardware development and production infrastructure across a mass market as opposed to only the geeks has a major impact on the per-unit price. And I haven’t even mentioned the “network effect”, although it does play a role (but on the other hand, it also encourages the development of “bridges” to the items subject to the network effect, thus reducing the impact of the network effect). Nor have I seen any indication that Microsoft is “stifling innovation” to match the pace of innovation in any other industry; it would be nice if someone “stifled innovation” in the aircraft industry as effectively as Microsoft “stifled innovation” in the computer industry.

      You want to see organizations that really stifle innovation, take a look at the FAA, the FDA, the FCC, and other agencies of that sort. Bill Gates, last time I checked, does not run any of these.

      “But to compare the two is completely off-base. “Experimental” aviation, where they don’t have to use “FAA Certified” parts do quite nicely at high performance for relatively low cost.”

      So all you have to do to get a decently-priced and reasonably regulated aircraft is to buy it in pieces and put it together yourself? Brilliant! Let’s apply all those rules to groundcars while we’re at it… that ought to solve our problems with gridlock in a hurry. At any rate, you’re helping me make my point; the set of people willing to invest the time to learn how to build a fricking plane in their garage is extremely tiny compared to the mass market (it’s even dwarfed by the number of people willing to learn Linux), and each one is going to bear a much larger share of the fixed costs involved in selling airplanes in pieces than a consumer in a large market would. “Relatively-low cost” may be low relative to buying the complete and much more heavily regulated craft on offer in today’s niche market, but compared to what they would cost if they had had a large market, it’s still enormous.

    11. Ken Says:

      “Interesting post. Thanks. I think you overlooked a contribution Bill Gates has made to Linux development. As the “devil incarnate”*, he has provided an incentive for people to work on Linux without being paid. ”

      Yep. Good old competition. Works wonders when it’s allowed to.

      “*If anybody knows of any other devil’s out there just starting out, I wouldn’t mind getting in on the ground floor.”

      Well, if all goes well, the day will come when Burt Rutan or someone like him is accused of being an evil monopolist, by people scattered across the solar system. The absurdity of this will completely escape them. If all goes really well, such people will not be taken seriously by our leaders.

    12. Chuck Bearden Says:

      To James Rummel:

      Lighten up and rethink your analogies. There are plenty of useful things that require setup and configuration, and that doesn’t make them junk. I have never bought a sailboat, but I suspect that they don’t work “out of the box”. My guess is that you need to rig them correctly first. In fact, for all I know, there may be different ways to rig a sailboat appropriate to different conditions.

      If you want meaningful analogies to Linux & WinXP, try these: Windows is like a motorboat: most people can hop in, turn the key, and off they go. As long as they don’t have mechanical trouble, they are fine. Linux/Unix/*BSD are like a sailboat: depending on conditions and how you want to use them, they may require a lot of attention. It does take more skill and attention to sail than it does to pilot a motorboat, but sailing apparently has its rewards as well.

    13. Jonathan Says:

      Most people don’t want computers to be like sailboats or even motorboats. They want them to be like automobiles: get in, turn it on and drive. Windows computers are much closer to this ideal than are the alternatives, past or present. (And yes, you can use a Mac. But AFAIK the Mac has no advantage in terms of stability or, nowadays, ease of use. And it comes with handicaps in price, numbers of knowledgeable users — you might want to be able to ask someone a question without hiring a consultant or subjecting yourself to a tech-support ordeal — and useability with nonstandard software.)

      A cleaner analogy for Windows might be database software, which used to cost thousands of dollars and is now essentially given away by Microsoft.

    14. Chuck Bearden Says:

      I agree that most people want a simple computing experience. I didn’t get the impression that ken was tyring to evangelize for Linux in this posting, which is why I’m baffled that some chose to respond to him as if he were.

      On the desktop, Linux is still an OS for enthusiasts and IT professionals (see Eric Raymond’s The Luxury of Ignorance: An Open-Source Horror Story for the frustrations of an übergeek with OSS). For companies who have the right IT staff and certain needs, it can make great sense as a desktop OS. Outside of those limits, it isn’t ready for prime time as a desktop OS. I don’t think Ken was claiming it was.

      My Makarov goes bang reliably, but it doesn’t run Python code. I’m quite happy with both my handguns and my Linux box.