Thursday, June 10, 2010

Avoiding the Microsoft Tax

I need a new office notebook. Yesterday, while working on something a thin bright blue vertical line appeared on the screen. It's still there this morning. I guess the TFT display is going on the fritz. Well, this Toshiba Satellite M60 is 4 1/2 years old and has been in heavy use 10 hours a day 5 days a week for nearly all that time, so I can't complain. Time for a replacement. The trouble is, I use Linux on my work PC and it doesn't seem to be possible to buy a high-spec laptop with Linux ready installed and working on it.

Obviously, I'd like to avoid paying for a copy of Windows I'm not going to use. If you've ever seen it on sale, you'll know that the cost of a copy of Windows is quite substantial. Since, thanks to Microsoft's obsessive copy protection, it will be an OEM copy locked to the hardware and without installation media I won't even be able to install and use this copy under VirtualBox if I want to.

But also, as it's a work machine, I'd like to buy one on which the operating system is supported and all the hardware works with it. I've installed operating systems far too many times in my life to have any enthusiasm for doing it one more time, and I know from experience that laptops often contain hardware that isn't supported out of the box by Linux.

When we bought a new laptop for Olga a couple of years ago I bought a budget HP laptop that came with Windows Vista - which ran so slowly it took two hours just to finish it's automated initial setup routine. I installed Linux but had an anxious couple of hours as I couldn't get the wi-fi adapter to be recognized. I did in the end, and the chances are that any problems with whatever system I got this time could be resolved after hours of ferreting through support forums. But that long ago ceased being fun and I would really prefer to avoid it.

However, it is virtually impossible to buy a PC or laptop with Linux installed and supported. Dell appears to offer a small selection of laptops preinstalled with a long superseded version of Ubuntu. There is also a firm called The Linux Emporium that offers a limited range of Lenovo laptops with Ubuntu installed on them. But they have nothing that meets my spec. This old Toshiba has a 17in display with WGXA+ 1440x900 resolution and I'm not going to settle for anything smaller. So it seems the only way I am going to get what I want is to buy the laptop I want, pay the Microsoft Tax, throw away Windows and do my own Linux installation.

Is it any wonder that Microsoft enjoys such a virtual monopoly when people who buy PCs don't even know there is an alternative? Why hasn't the EU done something about this? It has taken months and cost millions to force Microsoft to install a screen that lets people choose what web browser to use, despite the fact that a) the browser market already has healthy competition and b) switching browsers later on if you want to isn't a problem. But it has done nothing about a situation that forces people to pay for a Microsoft operating system even if they know enough not to want one. Even if computer manufacturers don't want to offer Linux because they don't wish to support it, they should at least be required to offer the OS as an optional extra so those who don't want it don't have to pay for it.


Jay Dighsx said...

Not sure what your feelings about Dell are but they've got Linux laptops:

And if Ubuntu isn't the flavor or linux you like I would bet that if you bought one that had Ubuntu on it you'd have a pretty good chance of getting something like Mint to run.

I've about had it with Windows. I've got it on one machine, and only because I have to support some apps that run on it. But everything else I've got is Linux now.

Take care and 73
Jay aka KD8EUR

Alex Hill said...

Netbooks normally do enough for me and almost all of mine have come with windows xp preinstalled and with odd partitions. One of them has had ubuntu installed (net book remix) and it did a very good job of making all the hardware work. So thankfully no hours and hours of searching round for driver fixes.

Another has Windows 7 which is ok and a necessary evil for my studies

The last has stayed windows xp as its running faros and as far as I'm aware there is no beacon monitoring software for linux (I wish there mind you!).

It is a shame that you can't just buy the hardware without any preinstalled OS or you get an equal choice of windows, linux or Mac and presumably Google Chrome when that gets released. It would save a lot of time removing the OS and any 'guff-wear' from the manufacturers who have commercial tie in's with software suppliers.

Unknown said...

Jay, I reckon that Dell web page is a left-over from when they did sell Ubuntu laptops. When you click on the "Shop for Ubuntu laptops" button you get 3 pages of systems all of which run Windows 7. There is no option in the selection panel to specify Linux at all. Dell did offer Linux PCs a couple of years ago but I guess they stopped for lack of demand.

Alex, I have two netbooks actually, one is the original Eee PC that started it all, which runs Eeebuntu. But the cramped keyboards drive me crazy and the small screens give me a headache. With my fat fingers and failing eyesight nothing but a full size keyboard and big screen will do for full-time use.

Jeff Davis, KE9V said...

It's rubbish to blame Microsot for this supposed tax!

Any PC maker in the universe can build systems without Windows. They don't because even after twenty years of Linux pundits clamoring about "total world domination" only a miniscule percentage of desktop users have chosen to use it. Those who build PCs understand how the wind blows in the market and they want to sell PCs which means they need to sell them with Windows on them to be successful.

Your demand is similar to that of someone who demands that the EU force an auto manufacturer to offer their cars in a particular color that no one other than you wants to buy and you don't want to be forced to pay a premium to have such an oddball color.

I'm not shilling for Microsoft here, but I fail to see the logic in blaming them because most PC makers don't want to build PCs without it.

73, Jeff KE9V

Unknown said...

I think you're wrong there, Jeff, though it would be better to hear it from a system builder. I believe Microsoft offers system builders a much lower unit price on copies of Windows if it includes Windows in the price of a system instead of offering it as an option. No major system builder can afford to pass that up since, I agree, the market for PCs without Windows is far less than those with it. (But that's largely because most people aren't even aware there is al alternative.)

I think Microsoft is capable of offering all kinds of incentives to manufacturers to discourage them from offering PCs with a competitor OS or without Windows, just as Intel used similar tactics to discourage vendors from using AMD processors.

Jeff Davis, KE9V said...

Julian. You are correct that Microsoft offers a deep discount to OEM's who sell only their operating system. But what you propose (EU involvement) is a bit of a solution looking for a problem like the Euro debacle over the MS browser. PC users have always had the option to install a browser other than IE, my opinion is that if they don't know and understand that they shouldn't be allowed to own a computer! It's nuts that Microsoft had to pay millions of dollars in penalties and have its name dragged through the mud because a few Europeans didn't understand how to download Firefox... or more likely they were simply jealous at the success of a US corporation -- your pick.

Having said that, I'm in the same boat as you. I've been looking for a pre-configured laptop with fairly high-end specs that ships with Linux (Ubuntu, Fedora or Debian are all okay with me) but have found nothing like that.

And that's why I think you and I are simply out of step with the market. If there were a LOT of folks like us then someone would have launched a hot-rod company offering custom laptops running Linux. The fact that no one has done that, at least not with much success, tells me that the problem is not Microsoft -- there's simply too little interest for what we want to make it a viable business.

73, Jeff KE9V

Unknown said...

There were a few things that the EU bureaucrats didn't understand, but it wasn't how to download Firefox. It was that Opera - which started this - had a valid case that it's low market share was due to IE's unfair domination when in reality it was because it was a rubbish browser and you had to pay for it when the competition was free.

Yes, you and I are in a minority, but it's still a sizeable minority given the number of PCs out there. I just checked my web stats, the percentage of visitors using Linux is the same as those using Mac OS - 2.5%. Is the interest in Macs too small to make a viable business?

I think the Linux share is noteworthy given that those users had to go out, download the system and install it themselves while Mac users could just buy their systems ready to go. But the Linux share is hardly going to increase when ordinary users aren't even made aware of its existence. Microsoft is ensuring that most people don't get to hear about Linux.

I don't see why on a new PC you couldn't have something similar to what MS has been forced to do with browsers. The first time you start it a screen comes up: do you want to install Windows or Linux? If you purchased Windows you'll pick that, type in the license number and it will go through its installation like it would anyway. If you pick Linux then that will install. It would be perfect - if people didn't like Linux they could go back to the dealer, buy a license and re-do the installation process.

However Microsoft doesn't want Windows to be seen as an optional extra. They want it to be seen as an integral part of the PC, like the BIOS. So they use their market dominance to make it worth a system vendors' while to ignore that small part of the market that wants Linux.

That's why I call the Windows license fee the Microsoft Tax, because like death it is unavoidable.

Steve GW7AAV said...

I would love to take the Linux thing by the horns, but although I have installed numerous version of the Linux operating system on the a number of machines and I have a hand version of Unbuntu on a bootable memory stick I cannot get it do what I want.

The memory stick is great because I can use someone else's PC and have all office, photo tools and a browser that I am familiar with.

On my own installations I just cannot get any programs to install. I have followed step by step instructions and the software tells me it is installed, but nothing in the menu and no .exes to click on.

I have the latest Unbuntu but of course their are no proper drivers for the graphics card so max resolution is half what I use under Windows.

I play games and I once installed a version of Unbuntu for gamers. The best thing on it was a version of Quake that looked like it was written for a Commodore 64.

I grew up on Commodore and Amiga but the transition to PC was easy enough even in the days of MS Dos. Maybe I am too old but the Linux learning curve is steep, certainly for the general public who are no where near as computer savy as me.

Microsoft have produced some rubbish in the last few years. Millennium, XP, Vista but I love my Windows 7 at least until they screw it up with some up-date or other.

Theodore said...

Its interesting that the OS wars are still simmering slowly. At the risk of exposing myself as a Microsoft fan, I must say that I have found that Windows works as well as or better than Linux.
I was a UNIX support person for 20 years, primarily on Solaris/AIX etc, but with some Linux of course.
I have set up my share of Linux on notebooks and have managed to get most of the hardware running, usually after much VI work on the usual configuration files.
But did I expect the average Mom and Dad to get a Linux PC running - no way.
And of course, Linux has its own version wars.
Remember Linux or any UNIX system is not maintenance free, and although it is great to be able to bend it to your will, let us not forget the primary purpose of the operating system.

The OS is there to run the applications on the existing hardware, thats it.
It does not matter if it is Windows, Linux, Mac-OS, Stans-own-OS or any other flavour.

When Java came on the scene, I was doing cartwheels as it had the promise of finally relieving the application of OS dependence, but alas - SUN marketing did its usual work and killed that idea.
Now we have all the various "standards" of VM (virtual machine) architectures out there which are a mirror image of the OS wars.

I recently had to replace my notebook and it came with Windows 7 home premium.
I threw out about 80 percent of my programs due to incompatibilities, and the refusal to upgrade to pro to get XP compatibility, but as luck would have it the 20/80 rule applied and most of these programs where "just in casers".

After ten seconds I was running in familiar windows territory, and my applications are running fine.
No pain, no fuss, this would not be the case in Linux as the installation of applications when I was doing it was a study in masochism.
By the way, if you use the win7 system image utility to make a mirror image of your complete OS and make a repair disk (standard OS function), you can restore your PC to the saved state completely.
In this way you could wipe windows and install Linux, then if you wanted, you could restore windows easily to the imaged state. No need for nortons etc.

Despite what we would personally like the world to be like, nature follows immutable laws which appear as "attractors" some converge to a point, others are butterfly shaped, others chaotic.
In the area of DVD standards, VHS/BETA and Operating systems, I am afraid it is a point attractor.

Linux, Mac-OS and others will remain, unless something large peturbs the system, circling on the periphery of the Microsoft centre.

Unknown said...

Hi Theo. I don't think the reason for using Linux has anything to do with it being a better OS than Windows. I think most people will find that Windows best meets their requirements simply because it has a much greater choice of applications. That is the reason why, despite wanting to use Linux, I went back to using Windows on my shack PC.

However, many people these days buy a PC simply in order to get the internet, use email, watch videos, download and perhaps edit digital photos, download music and so on. Linux can do all that, and what's more do it with software that comes included in the distro. The problem is, due to Microsoft's monopoly of the market, those ordinary people who might be satisfied with Linux don't even know it exists.

My reason for choosing Linux for all our other computing needs was largely its freedom from malware. I got fed up with all the security scares, the endless critical updates, the hassle when some update breaks something else. I resent the cost of all the software needed to keep a Windows PC free of malware and the trouble that software causes: slowing down the system, conflicting with other software and giving false alerts on perfectly safe software. Don't even get me started with the hassles I've had because a few of these so called security products have begun claiming the free ham software I wrote and provide on my website contains a trojan.

Use Linux and you are free of all that. When Olga panics after reading about the latest security scare I can just say "relax, it only affects Windows users." Microsoft's failure, despite all its resources, after more than a decade, to build a more secure OS is one of the best reasons for choosing Linux I can think of.

Any "average Mom and Dad" who could install Windows could just as easily install a modern Linux distro such as Ubuntu. It's just as easy, and most of the time it just works. I agree "most of the time" isn't as good as Windows, but that isn't the fault of Linux. It's the fault of hardware manufacturers who choose not to support it. So for example with wireless cards - in my experience the most common problem - Linux has in many cases to use a kludge to enable it to use Windows drivers which, since they are copyright of the manufacturer, can't be included as part of the distro. There is a limit to the amount of hardware that Linux developers can write drivers for. Microsoft never has to do that, because the hardware manufacturers do it for them.

As for the trouble installing programs that Steve refers to, yes I too have battled with configure, make and install. But it really isn't necessary unless you want to run software straight from the developer, which most people won't. You just open the package manager, pick what you want and click Install. It goes and gets it, installs it and you are ready to go. It's easier even than installing a Windows program.

As I say, Linux isn't for everyone. If there isn't an adequate Linux alternative to a Windows program you want to run then you don't have much choice. Wine is pretty much of a dead loss and running Windows itself in a VM too much of a bind - although many Mac users do that to gain access to Windows programs they want to use. (continued)

Unknown said...

But Linux is not only suitable for those techy enough to get to grips with command lines and editing obscure configuration files. It would be just fine for the relatively undemanding "appliance" users who simply want to use the internet, email, write the odd letter and so on. Firefox looks and works exactly the same under Linux or Windows. Open Office is a perfectly good alternative to the expensive Microsoft version. And ordinary users will have no more need to edit a configuration file using vi than they would to use the registry editor in Windows. My wife has taken perfectly happily to her laptop running Linux and it has required far less support from me than it would have done had she been using Windows.

So all I'm asking is that something be done to stop the computer industry promoting the myth that Windows is an integral part of a PC. It isn't, you have a choice, and whilst the majority might still be better off with Windows, those that might not be aren't even being made aware they have a choice, and those that know there is a choice are still being forced to buy Windows.

LY2SS said...

Hi Julian,
even in my country there's a lot of choice of linux preinstalled notebooks. I'd say that situation is much better comparing to what it was few years ago when there were no choice at all. So IMO the whole picture is not that bad at all and if things will go at the same pace I think future is bright in this aspect.