Linux Doesn't Cost Anything – But Should It?

Linux is easy to learn, highly capable of fulfilling a typical computer user’s needs, and 100 percent free. So why is it that Linux still has such a miniscule share of the overall desktop market? Maybe its gratis nature has been keeping it down. It seems that when consumers don’t know enough about a product, they judge it by its cost — and “free,” at least on a subconscious level, translates to “not as good.”

Free Is Bad? Why?

Why, you wonder, when all along we’ve sung the FOSS praises of GNU/Linux (hereafter referred to as the more simple “Linux,” with all deference to Stallman) and that Linux is free? What could be better than free?linuxbasic
If Linux Desktop is free and can’t gain more marketshare (estimates range somewhere around 1 percent Linux Desktop market penetration) then one or a combination of the above reasons must be why Linux fails. If Linux passes all points in the opening paragraph, what gives?
It turns out that when customers don’t know enough about a product, or the gestalt of a product, their only second best way to guess about the quality or value of that product is by price. It also turns out that for Linux Desktops and computers, how and why they work (or don’t), really is rocket-science hard. Heck, computers are what’s used to do rocket science, and general users don’t have the background to really know what determines “quality” in computers. This is especially true for the computer desktop.
Users know little about underlying technology that holds a desktop together, and they shouldn’t have to. That leaves users to more typical means to decide “quality.” One of the most universal is price. Since users can’t evaluate the technical underpinnings, they can decide that if it costs a lot, it must be superior. Or, in contrast (and this is Linux’s bane), if it is inexpensive (or FREE) it must be because it’s not as good.

But Is Linux Really Good Enough?

Glad you asked. Let’s revisit the opening common claims to Linux’s failings:

  • Linux is too hard to learn: Fail. Linux, especially Linux Desktop, couldn’t be easier to learn. In the last 10 years Linux usability work has exploded with ideas and implementations. A Linux Desktop may be different (think Ubuntu vs. RedHat, Gnome vs. KDE), but it’s only different. I’ve never had to abandon teaching someone how to use a Linux Desktop.
  • Linux is deficient: Nope. Not even close. As an anecdotal example, I recently connected an old XP laptop to my 1920×1200 monitor to make work on that computer easier. Alas, the video drivers available could not drive the resolution on my monitor — even after downloading and installing updates for XP and the vendor drivers. However, the Linux side of that dual-boot laptop happily fired up and handled the screen resolution perfectly. This is one example of many times I’ve seen Linux rise to a technical challenge while Windows failed.
  • This point begs more discussion. In future articles I promise to drill more deeply into this topic. For now, I submit that in my (more than anecdotal) opinion, Linux Desktop is far from deficient.

  • Linux wasn’t meant for the general user: Uh-uh! Geek elites are confusing technical obfuscation of what is possible to do (Unix command line, etc.) with what is transparently easy to do today on any Linux Desktop (browse and manage files, surf the Internet, write and manage documents, handle e-mail, etc.). Linux can be as difficult as you want it to be to learn, but for general desktop use and day-to-day tasks, Linux Desktop couldn’t be more appropriate for general use.
  • Linux (per Microsoft) is evil: Consider the source. ‘Nuff said.

Why Don’t Linux Servers Suffer Same Fate?

The users of Linux Server technology are extremely technical, and with good reason. They support technology on which businesses run.
Users of Linux Server barely blink that Linux is free — they’re much more interested that Linux is excellent. Their measuring stick is based on deep technological understanding, and hence they do not need to look to alternate valuations. And in the server market, Linux thrives in spite of being free.

Any Examples?

What about Mac OS X? I won’t argue the nuances of good, better and best, but really? Is OS X that much better than XP, Vista or 7? I happen to think OS X is better and Mac systems are well-designed and implemented, but is a US$2,000 MacBook Pro really $1,000 better than a comparably configured Windows 7 laptop (I’m being generous — you can find $600 comparable machines)? Much of Apple’s (Nasdaq: AAPL) finesse is their marketing and the cachet it creates.
Furthermore, is “FREE” Linux, in comparison, as stature-less in value? Again, without getting all fanboy about any of the three, it’s clear in my opinion that Linux Desktop competes on par with 7 and OS X. But users looking for options wonder “Why free?” and shuffle Linux down the list — free must mean inferior!
Also consider the new Droid smartphones. Their Android operating systems are Linux-based. And the Droid smartphones are as expensive as Apple’s iPhone, as well as all other smartphones. People, these are Linux-based! And they’re wildly popular! And expensive. And popular. And Linux.

But Linux Has to Be Free!

Yes, Linux is Open Source and Linux is free. But there are myriad ways to combine the free Linux with added value. Water is free too (kind of), and you don’t find people hesitate to pay a buck-fifty for 12 ounces of it because it’s in a pretty plastic bottle! There are ways.
Then how?
I wish I knew, but I’m in the opinion business. I do think Linux Desktop gains main street cred when someone finds a way to cut, polish and mount a Linux Desktop diamond in the rough. Polished, packaged and priced like a real product, Linux Desktop offers attractive marketing opportunities. Linux Desktop is ready for prime time. Linux Desktop needs to look, feel, smell and cost like prime time. We’re more likely to proudly show off our shiny new desktop we bought. And that is how we create a Linux Desktop buzz.
Linux Desktop buzz is what’s been missing. Really. And the company that finds a way to create the buzz puts Linux a chip shot away from real market share. Linux Desktop — it’s going to cost you. And it should


  • Nope, you can get a Linux that costs something by getting a brand name linux like: Novell’s SUSE Linux. And as a by product get even more support….

  • What makes linux attractive is that the licensing cost; but to get anything like Enterprise level Support and code enhancement isn’t. I can relate a major outage with a customer who found out that their business wouldn’t run until someone from the linux community fixed a bug and all they could do was send an email to the forum.

  • Ironically, Linux might do better in the market if it cost a non-trivial amount! I agree that “Free = you get what you pay for, so $$ from MicroSloth /must/ be a better product” hurts Linux a great deal. SuSe, RedHat, etc. technically charge for /support/, not Linux itself, but they’re not going great guns, either (as a percentage of the market). Price aside, however, there are other issues even more important in keep Linux off the desktop.
    Microsoft came to own the desktop by dint of its predatory illegal monopolistic practices (e.g., if you want to bundle Windows with your PC, you can’t offer any other OS; if you offer device driver support to the Open Source community, we won’t ship your drivers with Windows to support your peripherals out of the box; etc.). They’ve gotten so big and rich, with so much mindshare (can your Average Joe name any other software company?), that they can laugh off any attempt to rein them in.
    For your average desktop user, what matters is that your PC /will/ come preloaded with Windows. To switch to Linux means even hearing about it, then obtaining a CD or downloading it, and installing it. Then comes dealing with the often poor documentation (the bane of most OSS), lack of support for many “WinPrinters”, “WinScanners”, etc., and learning different applications (e.g., OpenOffice instead of Office). When an old PC doesn’t run the latest Windows and/or applications, or has just slowed down too much, most people will just discard it and buy a new one. They wouldn’t even consider loading Linux on it to get a few more years of service out of it.
    So, it’s much more than price (or lack of it) that keeps Linux off the desktop. There’s an insurmountable lead in mindshare that just isn’t going to be overcome.

  • While this is an interesting point, I don’t think it’s accurate at all. With all of the marketing that is behind OS choices such as Windows and Apple flying across all media outlets, it’s no wonder that desktop Linux gets little market share. People have grown up on Windows, and find just about anything else uncomfortable. No one likes a learning curve. Those common users who do know about Linux only heard about it from a geeky friend years ago and what they heard is that it’s difficult to learn. That assumption is no longer true. Getting past the stigma of it that was laid down for at least a decade is no easy task. If I wanted to install a machine for my grandma that “just works”, I’d install some flavor of Linux.

  • No. It’s more about pre-installation than anything else. Now the OpenSUSE comes on $100 ASUS (and soon Google) NetBooks this will change rapidly. Open source is already dominating Internet 2.0 (SmartPhone, iTVs, eBooks, iDVDs, STBs, HMCs, etc.) via Java and Android. Cheers. Walls.

  • Every Linux distro I’ve become familiar with is still not ready for typical users, including Ubuntu (the current “easy-to-use” favorite). The Linux user is a power user by nature. Such users are perfectly happy delving into the terminal and editing conf files and really would have it no other way. I can’t honestly expect users like my mom and dad to open up the terminal and “sudo nano //someconf” in order to change a setting somewhere. OS X came a long way in offering a very simple dialogue (you try to do something you can’t, and you get asked for credentials in a GUI window).
    Many Linux communities pride themselves on offering huge repositories of software. Anything outside of these repositories can be expanded into by simply registering additional outside sources. All of this just confuses the hell out of Joe-computer-user. Joe here wants to run some new app and he’s faced with things like “dependencies”, dev versions, open-source or commercial (both in the default repositories)….sorry, but you’ve lost Joe user. He’s running back to the safe ignorance of Windows or OS X.
    These arguments aren’t negative things about Linux, per se. It’s just the nature of the beast. Linux is very powerful and is like a complex car where nothing is sealed away from the would-be home mechanic. The hard truth is that not everyone out there wants to fix their own car, or in this case, have extremely detailed control over every facet of their computer. The large majority just want to listen to music, upload their camera photos, etc. and be on their way.

  • I think in this day there is enough information available. People charge for interfaces and support sometimes.
    My personal opinion: This was created gratis by people and should remain such. If it did not exist the net would be much less democratized.
    Simple solution: Make a version of Linux and charge for that version. Basically what you offer is an interface and support.
    FREE, by Chris Anderson, editor of wired, covers this general subject and even perhaps this specific issue: How do you make money in a digital world?

  • I agree with Bill. Firefox is free, Internet Explorere is free, gmail is free, yahoo is free, youtube is free, most people use a free version of LinkedIn.
    In my experience, free is better than cheap. The free sunshine is safer than a cheap fake tan. A free walk in the park is better than a cheap walk on a treadmill.
    Free is not bad. With cheap, you get what you pay for. Cheap software is usually very bad. Free software can be good.
    1. Windows comes packaged with cheap computers.
    2. Much of the software that we “need” for work only works with Windows or Mac.
    Other than that, I’d use Linux. And as I use more and more open source software anyway, I might make the switch to linux very soon.

  • Until consumer electronics companies fully support linux, the desktop will not be ready for prime time. I’ve just had a similar argument on one of the lists I frequent about iPods and iTunes. Their assertion that they could download whatever they wanted using applications such as Rhythmbox completely misses the point of iTunes. For me it’s great, as most of what I want to do is take my 70’s prog rock with me when I go out. For 90% of itunes users, that’s just not acceptable.
    Linux is dominant where it is currently best suited, in the back office… running sites like this, doling out services. With the likes of compiz, it can look pretty ( don’t get me wrong, my desktop has been linux for years, but that fits in pretty well with my non-standard job requirements ), but without the in-depth support of the consumer electronics industry, it’s just dead in the water.
    My $0.02,

  • Depends what you mean by “cost”. It takes time and effort to build the expertise for a start, and that is a cost.
    We have come to expect that any software comes with some level of support, fixes for serious issues, and future development. Something tta is “free” doesn’t have the revenue stream or the implicit contract to ensure that will happen – and while the open-source community might say “of course we will”, they could just as easily decide that the new open source product that appears next week is a better route and switch to that.

  • Linux costs.
    Any implementation costs. It is not the software, but the people that support it that cost. All of the claims of marketing aside, I have never seen software install itself, and support the end users.

  • As what I know of Linux, GNU/Linux I may say, is a Unix clone. And Unix was and is still, not a Desktop OS ( or am I wrong ). Moreover in early 90s. there was not much craze of Desktop Computing, even windows was evolving at that time. So I personally think that Linux was never intended to be a Desktop OS, but it can suits the need pretty well for sure (at-least now), though it should not be compared with any other OS out of its Family. Mac OS is desktop variant of Unix and no doubt is far more applauded than windows.
    And though original Linux ( The kernel ) is still free but yet there so many variants which cost quite a lot, e_g Red Hat Enterprise Linux. But yes, if you can get something for free, and its good enough I do not think I will pay for something, which is no where near its class.

  • Linux may also cost, if you want a CERTIFIED distribution and someone to call if something goes wrong.
    the problems are:
    – lack of applications
    – lack of user friendness (more in the past)
    – not so well known because of lack of marketing
    – mainly education related
    – lack of confidence into community-driven products

  • Following three reasons behind Linux lagging in desktop market, come to my mind.
    1. Despite all their efforts to make Linux distributions, friendly enough to reach core of consumer hearts, developers still design and develop their products targeting power users.
    2. Despite influence of information technology since its inception in developed countries and its popularity in third world countries, the majority of the population on our planet still needs simple solutions and therefore general users across the globe prefer comfortable technologies/products with shorter learning curve.
    3. Microsoft had employed excellent marketing strategies to popularize their products, which Linux masters failed to follow and cash upon.

  • I don’t think so. I am excited that the wireless drivers work with the new Ubuntu 10 on my Dell netbook and that is great. I actually love to use Linux now, but it still seems that there is this huge repository and updates that never ends. The biggest hangup is not being able to use the big bucks software for windows on Ubuntu. Other than that, I could probably to all my web design in Ubuntu with Gimp, and several IDE’s for PHP or HTML and so on…
    Anyways, no, It’s free, I like it that way, it shows what teamwork can do…. for free!

  • No, its open source.
    I use it, so I disagree. Its product marketing is all. My Ubuntu has the look and feel of WIndoze without the added cost.
    Clarification added 3 days ago:
    WAIT, you mean the Mini will no link to secure infranets, I know the Broadcomm drivers were piss poor and even with WINE I never could connect secure to my server. Ok, will check, but why run windows, its slow and really eats the CPU, guess you have to use for some Microsoofter version of software?

  • free is the most misunderstood word in english , it also means “Free as in Freedom ” . with GNU/Linux you get freedom to copy , make changes ,redistribute and charge for it too .
    thats what major distributors like Redhat, Novell Suse, Ubuntu do , they charge for there services not Software, as a customer you have a choice to either pay them and get a copy of GNU/Linux which is supported by these companies or get *Free* Copies like Centos, Fedora , Open Suse .. which are supported by communities , again we can argue on the point that the bandwidth we use , the time we spent etc costs money … it will lead to the same point as there is nothing like free in this world.
    coming back to the desktop market , people are not aware of the options and capabilities with modern day distributions they are still stuck in the age old myth of Linux/Unix equates to command line interface, these ditributions have far better support as a desktop OS than what it used to be a decade and half before .
    Free vs Properitory development and marketing models works in different ways , i am sure you cannot judge or count the numbers of Linux users across the world just because its not sold or supported by one vendor .

  • Bill D'Camp

    For your everyday enduser it isn’t so much that they think Linux isn’t as good because it’s free, most buy their systems with Windows pre-installed and have no idea how to replace Windows with Linux. Since you cannot go down to your local big box electronics store and purchase a computer with Linux pre-installed instead you won’t find many everyday endusers brave enough to try it. Not sure if Dell still offers Linux pre-installed, but they were, although they did not really market that fact heavily. That’s what will make a difference in Linux on the desktop numbers.

  • Padric O'Rouark

    We used Linux in an ISP I worked for part time. It was virtually maintenance free as our Email server but it could be hacked. So it was routed through another secure server on the T1. It was an amazingly small program for the high volume of traffic and it was blazingly fast. The bad news was the secure server had to be rebooted periodically (every 12-24 hours) to clear the system. This meant severing the linux based server from the tasked security server during the down times. The mail server never had to be rebooted so the down time was significantly reduced. Also, it was virus free.
    Nothing is free or as they say, you get what you pay for.
    I have played with it and found it works well as long as every system card in a desk top carries its own separate bios and ram, especially the graphics cards. These days it is quite common to port stand alone PC peripherals when you build your own computer so the only remaining obstacle is the software.
    You can get emulators and spend the bucks to get things like Microsoft Office so your work will not suffer incompatibilities. Dell will build a system and load Linux and there are charges involved because the media and versions have to be developed and the license allows charges for these services and the media used to install it.

  • Go ahead and buy linux, it is ok. There are several reputable “sellers” of linux, RedHat, Novell, etc.
    The thing is, they are not actually selling linux. They are selling extended service contracts that add value through customer support.
    There are less reputable dealers as well, that are charging big bucks for open source software with no value added. That too is perfectly legal for most open source licensed software (including linux).

  • Linux small share is due to other factors more than free being perceived as “not as good.”
    That Linux is free and open-source does contribute to a perception of being a “niche” product that requires more expertise than the average computer user has. And there is some truth in that–there is a bit of a learning curve to use Linux and most of us are content to use Windows or Mac, especially if that’s what we’ve used on the job or at college. We go with what’s familiar unless there’s a compelling reason to change.
    Not all Linux distributions are free. Several companies have packaged Linux with other open source software and created easy-to-install products for new users. For a price they get ease of installation, a familiar desktop interface, probably a manual, and some technical support. It bridges the “niche” hurdle for those who haven’t used Linux before–and perhaps also overcomes any perception that free software isn’t as good.

  • Linux was derived from UNIX around the Mid 90’s (see below link).
    It has simply not been around that long and it exists in an envrionment that does not foster corporate relationships with making money in mind.
    For reasons note by others here, the competing (and older) application generations had a corporate base (good or bad) and development involving strong competiton, intellectual property control and similar drivers. As a result they became imbedded in the user community and we all know how tough it is to migrate a mind set like that.

  • Well personally I’m opposed to Linux charging on the basis that it is what it is – and that’s the big selling point for Linux. It’s free.
    You take away that – and you’ve got another product just like everything else out there… and I’ll be honest… no Linux is not easy to use. If you doubt me just take a look at the several dozen studies on the subject with real people off the street. If Linux was as easy to install, easy to operate, easy to use as the other software out there… it would have a much, much, much bigger market share.
    Advertising does not win out over “Free” / Pricing. No matter what tactics are used in sales or marketing… it doesn’t beat free. If you doubt that for a second ask Google how they got so big. It sure wasn’t off their advertising model, it was because they were as good or better – and free.
    If Linux really was as good or better and free – believe me this would be a much different IT world.
    What kills Linux is not the “free” problem – what kills Linux is what you provided us in your question. “Linux is easy to learn, highly capable of fulfilling a typical computer user’s needs”… That is an assumption. It is based on a slanted belief of what it takes to learn a computer, a slanted belief of what will fulfill a typical computer users needs”. It is based on assumption – not fact.
    I’ve been involved in a number of computer user studies from preschoolers to adults – and what I’ve seen over and over and over, and this by the way does not just apply to Linux – but to software developers in general – my own “breed” if you will… is there is an assumption that they are the “average” user.
    It’s a bit like the writer who doesn’t understand why no one likes their books – their professors at college were all so impressed. Until they take a journalism job at a newspaper and discover that the average “reader” has a 6th grade education level.
    This is the reality of computer software development. We built machines for people who frankly do not want to know how they work, and resent the fact that you’re wasting their time forcing them to learn how they work.
    Understand there is a reason why an entire generation had VCRs with blinking lights. It’s not they couldn’t figure out how to program in the time – they didn’t want to program in the time.
    Just my 2 cents.

  • I personally don’t think the free-as-in-beer issue is a negative point for potential users. I do think free-as-in-speech is and, indeed, should be a big positive point. In my opinion what holds Linux back is people not giving enough consideration to the benefits of free-as-in-speech, preferring the ‘easy’ choice of staying with closed/proprietary solutions despite the inherent restrictions they have learned to put up with.

  • The fact that the average consumer doesn’t understand Linux (or rather unix distros more broadly) doesn’t make it a failure. Not everything in technology can be neatly packed into a WYSIWYG package, nor should it be. Some of the best technology advances have been free, including several Mozilla applications many of us use as well as tons of APIs.

  • This is a false assumption Ali..
    Since it will cost you too the TIME and EFFORT to get to know this beautiful operating system and the LEARN how to use it for your own purposes 🙂 just like any other operating system / software platform.
    If you want to find about more about the “linux counter forces” I suggest you dive deep into this website and read the [microsoft monitor] section::

  • Why linux when one can have better option in form of solaris 10 which is not only free of cost but more stable product than linux.

  • Great question Ali, and great discussion.
    I think the only reason Linux should charge from what I’ve read is if it needs the funding to expand its use, functionality or safety from hacking. From what I’ve read it has most things covered, and it is not really interested in being the biggest, being FREE to its users is most important, and it seems to have many supporters willing to help it grow and develop.

  • As Heinlein said TANSTAAFL “there aint no such thing as a free lunch” Linux does cost, brain power , involvement , engineering and support, but Not Licenses.
    That is the big issue software licenses that amount to highway robbery from large corporations. We do not own the software we are leasing it from them …

  • I totally agree with Lloyd McFarlin.
    Linux is not for regular users, and even some “power users” (as Lloyd calls them) have some fear and resistance to use it.
    I use several distinct operating systems personally and professionally, and most of them are really aimed to technical people.
    Sure my 5 years old daughter sees cartoons on YouTube using Chrome on openSUSE, but I had to set it up properly and I had to know what I was doing.
    Even the Linux distros that require less “technical skills” require some amount of technical skills.
    And as a tech guy, even on “non-technical required” systems as Windows and OSX, I get friends calling me when something “unexpected” pops up…
    It’s not a question of price but functionality, Linux is not ready to be used by the majority of people.

  • If it comes preinstalled people will use it. It is nothing to do with price or ease of use. When Chrome OS is available preinstalled then Linux will have a bigger market share.

  • The
    If a given flavor and version of Linux doesn’t work on someone’s machine who provides the support and can this resource be counted on to responsible for fixing the problem.
    People take what Mr. Softee sells and has pre-loaded onto machines because they provides some form of commitment to the product that they control. The average PC user is afraid of the Unix tower-of-babel.

  • Depends on what people want, quality or quantity?
    If quality, then yes, it should cost, this would “filter” customers numbers and drive more professional products on the market while keeping users privacy safe.
    If quantity, then no, it should not cost, this does not “filter” customers numbers, but does limit products quality and users privacy is more exposed.
    To give you a better clue about which one is winning and is going to win – How many great Albert Einsteins and how many common people are known to date?

  • Marc Edwards

    Free doesn’t work in a debt driven society. Many socialist countries have adopted Linux as the main platform. Bill Gates has too much special interest in government and large institutions (school districts, local, state, fed, armed forces, etc.) for these entities to change course. It is more a socio economic than practical issue.
    Apple already does what you are describing as they went to the Linux kernel years ago (circa when they went Pentium). Look how well Apple has been doing since then…

Leave a Reply