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The Corporate Hoax on Linux Revisited, or I Said It Once...

By Elbert Hannah
Nov 2, 2010 5:00 AM PT

The very same corporations that are making small fortunes with Linux servers give short shrift to Linux Desktop, I argued in a recent article, setting off a spirited discussion.

The Corporate Hoax on Linux Revisited, or I Said It Once...

Many of you responded with counterarguments, siding -- surprisingly -- with businesses. Perhaps not surprisingly, I continue to maintain that my original centention -- that corporations are playing a cruel hoax on the Linux community -- is valid. Furthermore, it warrants scrutiny by those very companies I am calling out.

To fortify my case, I'll respond here to some of the reader comments in opposition to my views.

Following are some excerpts of the feedback on my original column, in no particular order, along with my rebuttals, such as they are.

I Never Promised You Easy

"I love how some think you can just magically drop Linux in and all will be hearts and sunshine, do you HONESTLY think if it was anywhere near that easy corps wouldn't have tried it? Linux succeeds in servers because they are controlled by these things called "admins" that have actual educations built around that OS and are paid big bucks to remain current."
I never said it was easy. What in IT is ever easy? And, *why* does it need to be easy? As for the admins "paid big bucks" to run the Linux Servers, why can't they do the same for Desktop? I suspect there is a motherlode of Linux expertise just waiting to be tapped. Didn't you ever wonder where the Linux Server expertise originated? Something's got to be the chicken or the egg.

Also, this aligns with my original article in that I'm not claiming that Linux Desktop is or should be easy -- and that is a reason for companies to switch. My point is that since companies reap the rewards of free Linux on their servers it would seem equitable, ethical and responsible to pony up and re-invest back into the Linux Desktop universe. Get something for free? Pay it forward. I just think it's a good thing to do that also happens to carry with it great potential in returns on productivity of desktop users.

Not Much Office Expertise to Lose

"Here is some of the 'fun' you would have replacing windows with Linux on a corporate desktop -- Retraining, Oh Lord is THAT one gonna cost you! The workers know MS Office like the back of their hand, despite the sugar coating OO.o is NOT MS Office, and any Excel Junkie will tell you other than Writer it isn't even up to MS Office 97 yet.

"Then there are the 'mission critical' apps and macros, most of which will have NO Linux equivalent. So enjoy the money sink there and maybe with enough $$$ you can have new ones written, that is of course if your supplier doesn't have patents on the software that makes any attempts to clone it a litigation minefield.

"If the firm uses a lot of macros who is going to convert them? And can they? And what is the cost? And are there show stoppers you did not consider in a critical application?"

The "we use Microsoft Office" argument is probably the most common -- and egregious and specious -- reason offered to not move to Linux Desktop. Bah! Hogwash! I especially bristle at the claim that workers "know MS Office like the back of their hand... ." Personal experience tells me otherwise.

I would rate myself a 4 on a scale of 10 in my Office expertise. But compared to what level I see others in the workplace know, I'm a 10, easily. People use Office applications at about 5 percent of the suite's abilities. That is, the depth and breadth of use with Office products is so minimal that little stands to be lost in a conversion to an alternative. Heck, this is easy to test *without* trying Linux -- set up a test group on Windows with OpenOffice.

As for the corporate muscle memory embedded in esoteric Word and Excel macros, yawn! Really? The closest I've seen to anything like this happens when groups break off and "roll their own" using Excel macros to write their own applications. Yes, some of these applications become important, but my experience has been that specialized "critical" applications in Office create nothing but maintenance and standardization nightmares. I mean, who writes these apps? I don't know of *any* IT department that anoints this as accepted practice.

The rest of the customized detritus in Office apps is most certainly convertible to OpenOffice. It's worth the time and effort to do.

One more observation -- what I've seen with complex macros in Office is their drain on resources as they rely on features not present in other versions of Excel, Word, etc.

Drivers Are a Non-Issue

"Hardware and vendor support? Try none whatsoever. Most corps aren't buying expensive workstations for the typing pool, they are buying dirt cheap Dells and HPs, and guess what? Those have NO Linux drivers! Yay! And who is gonna support it? Canonical? Not likely as they will probably sub contract it, no support equals no sale in corporate land."
Actually, companies don't buy dirt cheap computers. They typically contract with manufacturers for the best price because of volume, but the computers they receive are typically a notch up in quality of components because companies don't have time to deal with "dirt cheap" hardware.

As for "no Linux drivers," I'm not sure where that comes from. Yes, there is some hardware out there with no readily available Linux drivers, but I'm hard-pressed to name any. I'm sure readers can provide their lists. Still, I've seen no evidence Linux is more deficient in available drivers. Anecdotally, my personal experience has been the opposite.

Servers Broke the 'Conservative' Barrier

"So I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but Windows rules the corporate land not because they like buying Windows licenses, but because the OS and software are pretty low on the price list when it comes to corporate purchases. Support, training, mission critical apps, all these things are much more important. And MCSEs are a dime a dozen, Linux gurus? Short supply and damned expensive.

First, you are living in Chicago and can't find a shop running Linux on the Desktop? Try the financial district tending to the CBOT. There are several firms that have acres of glass sporting of all things -- Ubuntu."

Actually, I work for one of the most prestigious financial firms in Chicago. And our standard for Desktop is Windows.
"As to your article proper. I think you miss both the gravity of the situation and the scope. I worked for a Fortune 10 Comm company as a desktop planner. Trust me when I say that all that sits on the desktop, the purchase cost of the hardware only ranks around line item number 6 or 7. And the OS, its cost consideration is down there about number 12-13. The lions share is support costs, maintenance. labor, another words all expense items. That metric won't change regardless of whether the OS is free or not."
I'm aware the OS isn't the No. 1 cost. Free vs. Microsoft's pricing is not the issue or discussion here.
"There is also another consideration. Businesses are a conservative lot. One of which is, especially for large firms, that you shove business risk onto your vendor(s) -- by contract. Who is going to accept that risk for Linux? Don't say Red Hat, they don't do desktop. Only one firm I know has ponied up to accept that risk transfer was HP. That was for a very specific case of the SCO litigation. Microsoft within certain limits accepts that risk for their products backend or desktop. For a large firm that means the convenience of one chicken to choke. That alone has immeasurable value to a firm."
What is conservative about businesses when they choose Linux Servers? Most arguments against Linux Desktop qualify as the same for Linux Servers. Yet companies know instinctively and by dint of reputation that Linux serves them well for their most critical computing needs.

And I've yet to know of any large-scale situation where any large vendor accepts risk for their software. As a matter of fact, their EULAs are some of the most carefully crafted obfuscations to beg off any responsibility for damages incurred by their software. I know companies like to think they have someone they can pressure, but the day-to-day reality is that their world would be about the same running Linux. And I still think a movement to Linux Desktops would spawn a support industry much like the Red Hat server support model. Why wouldn't it? Catch-22.

And why are companies insisting on conservatism around Desktop when they've solved the Linux Server riddle?

OpenOffice Requires Minimal Retraining

"Re/training -- massive black hole of cost. Your insurer is going to require you have certified staff. LPI and RHCE techs are still at a premium compared to MCSE's. That's just your IT team. There is also the cost of the entire end user community. Regardless of the hype, the application suites ARE different."
Again the canard! What about the retraining to the newer versions of Office applications? What about training to use the ribbon?

If you answer that you don't need training across the different Office applications, then either your users are not getting the benefit of the new and more powerful features, or they are intelligent enough to pick these up in their day-to-day. If you answer that you *do* have to train, what is different from training new versions of Office from training slightly different workalikes like OpenOffice?

I submit that getting users up to speed on OpenOffice requires minimal retraining. And considering the cost of a per-desktop license of Microsoft's Office Suite, the cost of retraining may be offset by the savings in the free software. Again, thinking long term here.

The Linux Staffing Opportunity

"Somebody please tell me an expeditious means to lock down the kernel? Or the modules? I can see in very short order IT support facing a technical drift in their desktops without a means to lock it down at some level."
Huh? Isn't this something already solved? How much drift is there in Linux kernels on the company servers? Why wouldn't this be the same management issue?
"Staff. Can you hire enough Linux savvy people? Personally I don't see it as [a] problem. But business can sometime screw up a known win by doing it wrong. So it becomes a worry."
I agree -- I don't see this as a problem. It's an opportunity. There isn't a major shop out there that doesn't have Linux support staff potential. Linux is popular because it's good. A quick caucus of the current IT staff would probably reveal a core beginning support team.

Perceived Risk vs. Actual Return

I'm glad readers raised these issues -- they made some good points. I don't dispute all of their claims -- I only ask and hope that companies look past some of the perceived speed bumps for longer-term return on their investments.

Maybe in these harder economic times, it seems even riskier to migrate to a new platform. But maybe, just maybe, these are the times in which the return on investment would be greater than ever. Linux Desktop is waiting.

Elbert Hannah lives in the Chicago area and does production and scheduling support for a large financial firm. He wrote the most recent edition of O'Reilly's Learning the vi and Vim Editors. He has used Linux and worked actively in the open source community for over 10 years. In and around the house, he has more than 10 instances of Linux and as many versions and distros. He doesn't like technical religious wars and prefers things to be sorted out by merit. He loves the Beatles and thinks the greatest album recorded is Abbey Road.

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