Archive | January 25, 2008

FUD Alert! Cheap Laptop Prices Misleading

An article from the Business Standard entitled “Cheap laptop price tags can mislead users” (by D’Monte & Shinde, Mumbai, India, January 24, 2008) warns consumers about the pitfalls of buying a cheap laptop in today’s market. It doesn’t focus on suboptimal hardware offerings, or limited expandability, or the defect-rate of cheap components, or even the impact of pre-loaded bloatware on the unit’s usefulness. I expected any or all of these when I first clicked on the link. Instead, it focuses on the OS cost component and how Linux is being used to bait customers on price point.

The authors (almost) immediately write Linux off in the fourth paragraph, citing the general lack of support for the OS (FUD Pattern #2), commercial offerings of Red Hat and Novell excepted. Once again, the business-centric concept of “good support” – evidenced by a toll-free phone number and a paid staff – is reinforced in the mind of the reader. This simple statement effectively obscures the wealth of online Linux support information and gives the OS a second-rate appearance at best. It also sets the stage for the remainder of the article, a discussion of the popularity of Microsoft’s products in India and the unfortunate piracy rate. The only disparaging remark about Linux after the fourth paragraph is that the affordable Vista Starter Edition has successfully displaced Linux on most new cheap-laptop orders.

On a side note, essentially all of the initial comments support Linux, several even calling FUD. I was impressed with these fourteen opinions…so strong and impassioned, so consistent in thought… so written by only five distinct users. I get the impression that the comment input-box was too small and that two comments had to be spread over eleven submissions. Still, many good points were made in these rants.

Cheers!
-Brandon

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Top 10 Linux FUD Patterns, Part 3

Linux FUD Pattern #2: Linux is not “officially” supported

When you hear the phrase “official support,” what comes to mind? Informative user manuals? A well-staffed call center? But what makes it “official”? This is the second item on my Top 10 List of Linux FUD patterns: the lack of “official” Linux support. The goal of FUD based on this notion is a mixture of fear and uncertainty, to make you believe that using Linux means having no place to turn when a problem occurs.

Generally speaking, “official support” for a product is provided by the entity that owns the intellectual property for the product and/or has the right to produce and distribute it. Products are typically sold or leased, both of which are types of business transactions; this implies that the entity in question is operating as a business. A third-party provider paid to support a product may be licensed by, or otherwise affiliated with the original vendor, but only the vendor’s fixes and upgrades are “officially” supported. “Official” support connotes a certain level of authority or expertise, but also implies consequences, usually legal or fiscal, for a failure to meet service expectations. This is the model used by businesses today.

Linux, however, is not a business-supported product (per se). Linux is not “owned” by a particular entity, nor does one particular entity retain the exclusive right to update and distribute it. It is licensed under the GNU Public License (GPL), which permits any software recipient to modify and distribute the software or derivatives thereof as long as the conditions of the GPL are not violated. This is coupled with the open source philosophy, but they aren’t exactly the same thing – an open source application may be licensed under something other than the GPL.

So then, who does “officially” support Linux? The answer is that Linux has always been a grassroots movement. Though it was originally created by one man, Linux is “officially” maintained by a community made up of individuals, groups, and yes, businesses. Different groups within the community support different parts of the system. These groups are commonly known as “maintainers” and usually include original authors or those to whom the torch of authority has been successively passed. For example, assuming the Wikipedia article on the Linux Kernel is not out-of-date, Mr. Torvalds still supervises changes to the core of Linux and has designated the maintenance of older releases to other individual maintainers. The parts maintained are typically called “projects”. Various entities, such as Ubuntu and Red Hat, bundle various system parts together as a unit and ensure that their respective distributions operate as expected, that is to say, that they operate well.

While maintainer and/or community support for a Linux distribution or a particular project may be “official”, technical assistance may not be readily available, on demand, free of charge, or for that matter, available at all. Most maintainers are polite and willing to help, but please remember that much of Linux has been contributed by developers and that support offered pro bono publico doesn’t help feed the family or pay the mortgage. This is where the rest of the community helps out, in the form of online support forums.

Paid support is available as part of the commercial offerings made by Red Hat, Novell, Linspire and others. Additionally, some of these companies offer professional services, such as consulting and training, though these services are typically meant for consumption by businesses, not home users. Any company offering fee-based technical support for Linux is free to set their own price, whatever the market will bear.

In an increasingly tech-savvy world, I think the difference between commercial and community-based support is rapidly decreasing. Consider the available courses of action that may be taken when a problem does occur with a commercial OS. Almost always, the first step is to search the Internet for a root cause, if not a full-blown resolution. This is often done as a cost-saving measure (easy fix) or so that the user/administrator can better explain the problem to tech support when a call is eventually made. Moreover, help may be actively sought in a multitude of discussion groups, mailing lists, blogs, chat rooms and other forums dedicated to supporting various operating systems. Another option is to consult with a friend or relative that knows about these sorts of things. Of course, the “official” vendor or (gasp) a consultant can be called upon, usually for a fee of course. At the discretion of the user/administrator, the problem may be eliminated by brute force: reinstalling the OS. (Actually, this last option isn’t all bad as long as no data were lost – it provides an opportunity to “clean house” and possibly upgrade to a newer release or move to a different distribution.) The order of preference for these alternatives depends on the facts and circumstances surrounding the problem, but they almost always rank from the least- to the most-expensive in terms of time, effort and cash outlay.

Hardware support (or lack thereof) often appears as diversionary FUD regarding “official” support. Hardware must be able to communicate with the computer at several levels, starting with the physical. For example, a USB device can be attached to any machine with the appropriate port, but to use the device the OS must know how to communicate with both the USB itself and the device on the other side. Obviously, this issue quickly boils down to device drivers and brings us back to a discussion of “official” software support.

Rest assured, common devices such as keyboards, mice and thumb drives, almost always work using standard Linux drivers. In other words, they don’t support Linux; rather, Linux supports them. Newer device classes for which no “official” Linux drivers are provided often suffer a period of incompatibility or reduced usefulness. For example, Wi-fi network interface cards are now going through the same sort of transition that consumer-class Ethernet cards did about six or eight years ago. Many times, this is because drivers have to be derived from messages sent to and from the devices, often requiring many hours of experimentation. A general rule of thumb: hardware compatibility problems are more common as the hardware becomes more exotic. For example, I experienced new levels of frustration with the big-name vendor of a certain USB-ready programmable television remote control for which future Linux support was promised and never delivered. But, the fact is, hardware vendors have the right to choose to support Linux or not, a decision based on supply and demand. The need to operate specific hardware may dictate which OS is used.

The best advice I can give is to ignore the FUD and adopt a pragmatic approach to defining your support needs. Your needs are specific to you. Compile a scorecard and do some research. Questions that should be answered include the following. What is your level of expertise with computers? Have you needed professional OS support in the past? Do you expect to need it in the future? Are you comfortable doing your own support work? Based on community-supplied information? Is your hardware “officially” supported or listed in one of the various compatibility lists? Do you use exotic hardware components? Have you tried running a Linux Live CD, especially Knoppix? When buying a new PC or laptop, have other users posted their experiences with the same model? Research never hurts, but just be on the lookout for more FUD!

Cheers!
-Brandon

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