November 3, 2001

Community commentary: Linux shouldn't expect support from hardware vendors

Author: JT Smith

- By Adam Cutchin -
Hardware vendors really don't care much about Linux. It's nothing personal. If Satan himself handed Michael Dell a copy of Windows 666, Mr. Dell would no doubt install it happily if he felt it would move machines out the door. His responsibilities are to his stockholders, period. People asking for Linux desktop computers are a statistical anomaly, and that in itself could easily be enough to justify their disinterest. But I think there are other contributing factors.

The PC industry is having some of its worst times in over a decade, and for good reason. CPUs are gaining performance faster than software can be written to exploit their power. Hard drives and memory are cheap enough that a $200 upgrade will give you more of both than just about any user can realistically use. Gnome is pretty resource-hungry, yet my 2.5-year-old computer serves me well while running a Gnome desktop. Who truly needs a new computer to run their existing software these days?

So what would make life easier on the hardware vendors? One gets the impression Microsoft asked the same question, and as an answer offered Windows XP.

XP is much less likely to work with existing hardware than any recent Microsoft OS. It complains loudly about drivers not "signed" by Microsoft. Microsoft discourages its installation on machines more that a year and a half old. Linux bends over backwards to work on any system and support the most obscure of hardware, even if that meant running with no graphical environment (I've never seen it come to that -- X has great hardware support), whereas Microsoft places much higher demands on your hardware being up to date. Why shouldn't the hardware industry support an effort resulting in more upgraded hardware?

XP actively discourages users from upgrading their own hardware after the fact. If XP determines that your system has changed significantly, it will require you to reactivate it. For users without an Internet connection, this activation process is astoundingly inconvenient. XP makes a 50-digit hash code representing your current system state. You have to call Microsoft, read them the entire 50-digit number, and then have to enter a 42-digit number for XP to become active. You have to exchange 92(!) digits via telephone with another human being to use your $200 (to be fair, the home version upgrade of XP is $99) operating system.

Users with Internet connectivity will find the process a bit easier, but then again users with Internet connectivity will have XP try to sign them up with Passport five times before it finally stops asking. Hardware vendors can get around that by having XP key itself off of the BIOS serial number, ensuring you will never upgrade your motherboard. (Or if you do, it will cost you the price of a new OS on top of the hardware cost.)

Mandrake, Red Hat, or whomever, can offer a great OS for a great price,
but they can't offer the same sort of reciprocity the Evil Empire is
offering. The American consumer base has become so complacent that we
tolerate being insulted by Microsoft for performing simple tasks like
upgrading hardware, for not getting a Passport account or for playing MP3s (to
name just a few tasks). As long as we demonstrate a willingness to buy into
the monopoly, it's just not in the vendors' best interests to offer a
non-Microsoft OS on a desktop computer.

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