Linux does Windows

Desktop open-source operating systems are ready for prime time and available from Wal-Mart. But if they look and act just the same as software from Redmond, what's the point?

Published March 3, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

Sam Hiser, a technologist who spends much of his time promoting open-source alternatives to proprietary software, has an interesting way of describing the main difference between Microsoft's Windows operating system and Linux, its open-source competitor. "It's something I call the 'Windows pucker,'" Hiser says. "That's the feeling Windows users get when they're about to open a fifth program and they're so worried, they're clenching up their butt cheeks because they just don't want the system to lock."

Even if you haven't thought about it in such graphic terms, Windows pucker, or a sense of dread very much like it, is probably something you've come to expect from life. Computers -- whether PCs or Macs -- aren't perfect. Sometimes applications blow up. You'll try to do something complicated, like play an MP3 while you're opening a PDF document, and you'll inadvertently awaken some demon deep inside the machine, and you're screwed. The anxiety, Hiser says, is constant, a background stress that most of us don't ever quite notice and might think of as a necessary evil of the modern world, like a two-hour daily commute or PCBs in the drinking water.

But life doesn't have to be that way. "You don't have Windows pucker with Linux," Hiser says, echoing one of the main arguments of people who prefer Linux to Windows -- that the open-source system is more stable than the proprietary one, and that people who use it forget about such routine Windows occurrences as "crashing" and "rebooting." Linux is, very simply, built to be solid.

But if Linux is so great, why do the overwhelming majority of computer users boot up Windows every day? That's a question many open-source advocates have long puzzled over. Though some blame Microsoft's illegal business practices, the best answer is probably this: Using Linux is perceived as no picnic. To the extent that Windows users ever think about Linux, they picture an OS deeply unforgiving of novices. You've got to be some kind of shaman to use Linux, typing in occult commands to get it to do the simplest thing. If you've never used a computer before, Linux is not the OS you start with.

That's the popular thinking, anyway -- but there are now a number of open-source developers and businesspeople trying to change the perception that Linux is just for experts. Easy Linux on the desktop is not a new idea, but it's becoming increasingly popular among developers. And the two most prominent versions are built by companies that are unashamed of copying the look, feel and business strategy of their main rival, Microsoft.

These firms are Lindows and Lycoris. Each sells a version of Linux that's easy to install, easy to use, and compatible with all sorts of third-party peripherals and applications. The companies have managed to break into Wal-Mart, the ne plus ultra of American retail, where their OSes come preinstalled on several low-cost PCs.

Desktop Linux systems like those offered by Lindows and Lycoris would seem to have a lot going for them. People who only want a PC for a few limited uses -- using e-mail, browsing the Web, and working in a small number of office applications -- may find it hard to justify the extra cost of Windows. Because of this, Michael Robertson, the founder of Lindows, believes that sooner or later Microsoft "will cede the bottom 25 percent of its business to a lower-cost provider" like his firm.

But does anyone believe that Linux has a chance of becoming the dominant operating system for everyday computer use, or even nearing parity with Microsoft? No. When you talk to proponents of Linux on the desktop, it's surprising how resigned they seem to Bill Gates' hold on the PCs of the masses. The desktop Linux companies are putting up a valiant fight against a moneyed enemy, but they're really only vying for second place, looking to get some respectable share of PC sales. Why this attitude? Because, at least in America, Windows is more than software to run your computer; the operating system is an institution, and, a bit like the internal-combustion engine, it is firmly entrenched in the economy. Entire industries have been built up around the ubiquity of Windows, and those won't fall easily. Windows pucker isn't going away anytime soon.

But the disappointing thing is that -- unlike Apple, another Microsoft rival -- the desktop Linux companies have in the face of the Redmond behemoth decided to build systems that resemble, as much as technically possible, every aspect of Windows. These OSes look like Windows and work like Windows, and they're meant to appeal to people bred on Windows who'll find fault with any part of the system that doesn't behave like Windows. Lindows and Lycoris say they're offering consumers a choice, but if you use their machines, you'll see that there's nothing really innovative about the software.

Still, there's one good thing about having an alternative to Windows, even if the alternative's a kind of Windows Lite -- Microsoft might have a reason to improve its software. Competition, finally, is making its way into the world of desktop PCs.

Desktop Linux's main selling point over Windows is its low price tag, but determining whether its lower dollar cost is worth some of its disadvantages turns out to be not a very simple thing to do. The price difference between a Linux system and a comparable Windows system may be a couple hundred dollars -- but what exactly does that mean to a typical computer user? To some people, Windows may seem to have certain advantages that justify its extra cost, while others say that Linux, because of its reliability, is even cheaper than it appears.

On Wal-Mart's Web site, you can buy a bare-bones PC running either Lindows or Lycoris for $199. These machines -- equipped with a 1-gigahertz processor, a 10-GB hard drive and an Ethernet card, but no monitor or modem or floppy drive -- are most likely the cheapest new retail PCs on the planet, and during the last holiday season, both companies sold out of them. The identical Windows system -- all of the machines are put together by the hardware firm Microtel -- sells for $300. On average, though, buying a Linux machine rather than a Windows machine will save more than $100, say Linux advocates. That's because with Linux, you'll use a lot of free software and you'll need to upgrade your system less often than with resource-hungry Windows, so the long-term costs of owning a Linux machine are probably less than those of owning a Windows system. "Our average consumer will save about $200," says Jason Spisak, Lycoris' marketing director.

There is, though, a cost to using Linux, one that even the desktop Linux companies will freely discuss. In the words of Paul Murphy, a computer consultant who has written extensively about the costs and benefits of both systems, Linux has a "hassle factor," mostly having to do with new software for the system. Lindows and Lycoris have each built good online services to make sure their customers can easily install software that the companies have preselected for their systems. (Lycoris' service is free, while Lindows charges an annual fee of $100.) But Murphy and others point out that it's still easier to find and install new software for Windows. That has partly to do with the way Linux software is distributed, and the desktop Linux firms are trying to address it; but it's also true that much of the retail software industry is geared toward Windows.

"There are definitely people who come to us and say, 'I have these three or four programs, and I really want to get rid of Windows but I want to run these things -- can I run them?'" says Joseph Cheek, Lycoris' founder and president. "Our strategy is to try to move them to Linux alternatives. For instance, if they're using Office XP, we tell them, 'Well, you can run our ProductivityPak."

Still, Cheeks says that people often ask, "'How do you get this software?' That's a big question for people who are used to going to their local store and buying a boxed copy of software. All of a sudden you might not be able to do that, and some people say they really need to have that."

From a simple cost-benefit analysis, then, you'd have to ask whether desktop Linux's low price is worth its hassle. For some people, the hassle might not matter too much -- cost is king.

Miguel de Icaza, an open-source developer who founded Gnome, a Linux desktop environment, says that he doesn't think Linux will topple Windows as a mass-consumer OS anytime soon, but he believes Linux is well suited to certain environments where software needs are limited and low overhead is essential. These are large companies and government agencies that "want to simplify large-scale deployments, they want to easily administer hundreds of systems, and they can identify a few tasks that the computer will be used for," de Icaza wrote in an e-mail. Such tasks require basic software -- for office work, Web browsing, and e-mail -- and "for all those 'major' uses, Linux is an acceptable solution, as those applications exist today, they are usable, and they inter-operate with the Windows-side universe."

"In short," de Icaza added, "call centers, retail, accounting, secretaries, engineering, imaging, modeling and others have needs that are addressable today, and given that the scope is finite, and well defined, Linux will work there."

Many PC sales analysts say that for home users, the price difference of $100 or $200 between Windows and Linux is not going to push people over to the open-source OS. Few people who consider a $300 or $400 Windows PC too expensive will decide that a $200 Linux PC is what they want. "It's very hard for me to believe that for the one-third of households that don't have a computer, price is the main impediment," says Steve Baker, an analyst who tracks PC sales at the research firm NPD Techworld. "You can buy an entry-level Windows PC for less than $500, and there's lots of places where you can get free financing if you can't come up with $500. So I don't know that price is the main barrier for those people."

Michael Robertson, of Lindows, believes just the opposite. "Cost is always a factor in any buying decision, and it could be the huge factor here," he says. When Robertson looks out at the PC market, he sees an endless opportunity for low-cost machines, even among people who might not have thought they needed a computer, or for households where, in the past, just one PC seemed enough. To Robertson, the logic of his business seems plain. "It's not a very secret recipe for business," he says. "When you lower the cost of an item, you see more demand." After all, whether you have a lot of money or a little, why wouldn't you be interested in a $200 computer?

"It's really like asking, Who flies Southwest Airlines?" Robertson says. The answer is that everybody flies Southwest Airlines. And that's exactly the same thing you're seeing with low-cost computing. We're seeing people say, 'I outfitted my whole school with the Wal-Mart $199 PC.' Somebody else says, 'I set it up as a media server in my house.' It's like, when you lowered the price of cars, who bought them? Everybody bought them. The poor people who couldn't afford one car bought one, and the rich people who already had a car bought another one."

Both Lindows and Lycoris sent me a copies of their software to review, and I thought that each worked pretty well. The installation process -- which many who buy preinstalled systems won't even need to go through -- took about 20 minutes for each OS, and the software seemed to recognize every bit of hardware on the old Pentium II machine I used for testing. Each connected painlessly to Salon's network and the Internet.

The first thing you notice about Lindows and Lycoris is how closely each resembles Windows. To achieve this effect, the OSes use the KDE graphical interface and some very unoriginal, though perhaps comforting, names, pictures and menu conventions. By default, the Lycoris desktop starts up with a shot of an idyllic meadow with clouds passing through a bright blue sky, a picture you've no doubt seen before. Instead of Microsoft's "My Computer" icon, Lycoris has "My Linux." Lindows sticks with "My Computer." Lycoris' Recycle Bin is the same shape as Microsoft's Recycle Bin, but Microsoft's is transparent and has friendlier glow. (Maybe a friendly glow costs more money?) Overall, Lindows looks a bit less like Windows than Lycoris does, but it works the same way. Following the Windows style, each system uses a main menu in the lower left-hand corner of the screen to start up favorite applications, and the desktop can be used as a main repository for personal files.

Neither Lycoris nor Lindows have been secretive about their desire to put a Windows face on Linux. Lindows is called Lindows for a reason, after all. A few months after Lindows started selling its software, Microsoft sued the company, claiming that some customers might mistake the name Lindows for Windows. (The trial is scheduled to start in April. In a pre-trial ruling, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour wrote last year that Lindows "certainly made a conscious decision to play with fire by choosing a product and company name that differs by only one letter from the world's leading computer software program," but he added that "one could just as easily conclude that in 1983 Microsoft made an equally risky decision to name its product after a term commonly used in the trade to indicate the windowing capability" of a graphical user interface.)

Initially, Lindows wanted to do more than offer a Windows look-alike -- the company wanted its software to run most Windows applications. Robertson founded the company to take advantage of Wine, a project that aims to get Windows software running on Unix-based systems. When Lindows was formed, in 2001, Robertson was predicting that within a couple of years, his software would run most Windows applications just like a native Windows system. Robertson, who was the founder and original CEO of, has had some experience shaking up huge industries, and his claims were given much play in the tech press. But a few months later, after recognizing the difficulty of running Windows programs in Linux and after a run-in with Microsoft's legal department, the company began saying that Windows emulation was not the company's top goal. Its Web site now says that Lindows "will not run Microsoft Windows applications at a level of quality we're satisfied with."

Lycoris never said that it wanted to run Windows applications, but it too is bent on copying the Windows way of doing things. The company is based around the corner from Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., and was originally called RedmondLinux. Joseph Cheek, the founder, worked at Microsoft for a year and a half as a network tester. It's not clear how much contact he had with the people working on Windows there, but he says that his time at Microsoft taught him a great deal about the software business. "A lot of the technical ways of building software I learned at Microsoft," he says. "The way they organize their time, for example. And I'm using a modified version of their build process and some of the same design goals that they had there. I'm borrowing heavily from things I learned there."

Microsoft has long been criticized for the way it plays fast and loose with other people's innovations. Countless times, the company has co-opted rival firms' ideas and, through superior resources and a keen disregard for fair, or legal, business practices, it has pushed its software to the top. It did this most notoriously with the Web browser -- but its portfolio of products abounds with examples of ideas it didn't come up with, but merely polished: Word, Excel, the Windows Media Player, its instant messaging software, its online service, and much of the Windows look and feel, including its Recycle Bin.

So what are we to conclude about the Linux world when the companies that are seen as having the best shot at toppling Windows on the desktop are doing (to Microsoft) just what Microsoft has done to others? Are Lindows and Lycoris selling out, or are they just getting smart -- joining Microsoft rather than beating it?

Joseph Cheek, of Lycoris, says that he doesn't think about such things. "The impetus for creating this wasn't to sell against Microsoft," he says. "It was really just to see if Linux can be made simple enough so that other people can use it. I was tired of introducing Linux to people without a tech background and getting the reaction that it was too difficult to use." Cheek sees his software as a "steppingstone or a bridge between Windows and traditional Linux."

Some people may not care that they're stuck in a PC world dominated by one company, he says, but "we believe that there are enough people who do care, and we're also trying to appeal to the technical person who has some influence over non-tech people. For instance a Debian or a Red Hat user who wouldn't necessarily want our software for their own personal use but has three or four friends or relatives that they'd really want to convert to Linux. They wouldn't do it with their own favorite distro because it's too difficult. But if we could convince them to put a friendly version of Linux on their friends' computers, people would see they have a choice."

But one has to wonder -- what's the point of converting your friend to Linux if the only version he'll like looks exactly like Windows? If your friend is already using Windows, why would you put him through the ordeal of a transition? If it's only because you don't want your friend supporting a monopoly, you're not being much of a friend.

It certainly can't be a bad thing that Microsoft faces some competition from these Linux firms. And many people will find specific, practical reasons to buy desktop Linux PCs. A lot of software on Linux is better than the Windows alternative, and there is Linux's legendary stability, which Sam Hiser -- who worries about "Windows pucker" -- says is reason enough to move to the open-source OS. "I argue that the 'productivity opportunity cost' of using Windows is important. The productivity gains from Linux are massive. What is your opportunity cost of rebooting X times a week? People think of these things as a minor annoyance, and they don't expect productivity gains. But what happens is, if they started using Linux, they'd go, 'Holy geezum, we haven't rebooted in a month!'"

There's some evidence that Microsoft is responding to the competition (other than with litigation). In answering questions about desktop Linux, a Microsoft spokesman said in an e-mail that "while Microsoft is certainly aware of the competition from Linux and open-source software in the desktop market, our focus is on innovating Windows and delivering the greatest value to our customers."

Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a consulting firm that's not affiliated with the software company, thinks that Microsoft is already reacting to the Linux threat. He sees the improvements made to XP -- which itself crashes far less often than previous versions of Windows -- as an example of that. Cherry worked at Microsoft for a decade, and he says that although "nobody there has spoken to me about it, in general I think they do their best work when there's a competitor. If it was just the Windows guys left to think about what they're going to do with Windows, they wouldn't really need to think about what to do to make it better. The competition is good for everyone -- it's good for Microsoft, it's good for the consumer, and it's even good for the Apple folks."

There's a tradition, at Microsoft, for senior employees leaving the company to write a memo to the staff. When David Stutz, who was a longtime, well-respected developer at the firm, retired in February, he sent the staff an e-mail urging them to wake up to the very real threat presented by open-source software.

"Time is not standing still. Microsoft must survive and prosper by learning from the open-source software movement and by borrowing from and improving its techniques," he wrote. "Open-source software is as large and powerful a wave as the Internet was, and is rapidly accreting into a legitimate alternative to Windows. It can and should be harnessed."

Stutz told me that he thinks that Linux on the desktop will become significant. "There are a number of markets in which having something that is good enough and cheap is important," he said. "You can imagine in countries where there's not a lot of disposable income -- there's lots of examples like that. And in those cases, you don't need all of the stuff that you get in Windows or Windows plus Office. And I think Microsoft has a growing recognition that this is true. They're trying to move the desktop forward and there's lots of interesting things going on, such as the Tablet PC."

The best thing about the rise of Linux, though, is that Microsoft may be starting to recognize the legitimacy of open-source software. The company has long used legal and P.R. efforts to try to convince others in the tech industry that there was something faddish -- or, worse, "un-American" -- about open-source software. Maybe an open-source threat to its desktop line will change that attitude and force it to take rivals seriously.

"It's unlikely that Microsoft would ever try to put Windows in more of an open-source mode," Stutz said. "What needs to happen is for them to acknowledge that open-source is part of the landscape now, and because it's part of the landscape, to try and find ways of working with it. That seems to be what everybody else in the industry is doing."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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