NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, April 2003
Linux vs Windows
by Jim Haynes
submitted by Ken Hreha, NWA-PCUG
(click to email author)

I tried to summarize what was said at the February NWA-PCUG meeting and added a few points that were not mentioned.

For the homes and small businesses that can use them, it's hard to beat the machine you can buy off the floor at Wal-Mart, with all the software that comes with it all installed and working. The economics of mass marketing are such that you probably can't save any money buying an equivalent set of hardware with no software pre-installed.

However - for the slightly larger number of users, or when software upgrading enters the picture, Windows software costs start to dominate. For large users, such as educational institutions, the software costs can be enormous.

Traditionally when you got Unix you got everything - thousands of application programs. Traditionally when you got DOS you had a bare-bones system and you had to pay and pay for applications to do the most ordinary kinds of things. With Windows a lot more stuff comes bundled, but you still can't do much without additional Microsoft and third-pary packages. Microsoft has a dilemma that they don't want to bundle in something they can sell for extra money, but they have to bundle in something to get people to upgrade. They also have the dilemma, as did IBM in 1970, of whether to bundle something that has previously been supplied by a third party, possibly putting the third party out of business and raising antitrust questions.

Microsoft is facing a fundamental problem that the number of new and replacement PCs cannot keep growing at the rate it has in the past. How can they keep the revenue coming in? Companies in the Linux distribution business may have revenue problems; but the Linux software system as a whole doesn't care about revenue. Some experts have argued that as the Linux "market" grows it will have to have more revenue to sustain itself. But who cares whether the Linux market grows, so long as those of us who want it have it?

We pretty much agree that Unix/Linux are a bit rough around the edges for desktop use, but improving fast. And some of the things missing from Linux/Unix are things that very few people need.

Availability and Compatibility of Software:
Some software, such as income tax programs, are likely never to be available for native Linux. (At least until Linux has a lot more market share than it does now.) Solutions to that are: keep an old Windows machine around; have a dual-boot machine; use something like VMWare or Crossover or WINE; or do your taxes on the web.

Some badly-written web pages work only with Internet Explorer, or require plugins that are not available for the Linux web browsers. Microsoft of course would like to keep it that way, for the sake of their monopoly, and is eager to see such kinds of incompatibilities flourish. Which relates to -

Microsoft talks a lot about the importance of standards; but what they mean is standards they can unilaterally set, can change capriciously, and can keep proprietary. Linux is not as standardized as it should be and as it will be; but a real effort is being made and the standards are all open.

There is the point that in Windows you are always the superuser; in Linux the amount of damage you can do is limited to your own account most of the time. However there have been security attacks that get into super-user space by exploiting holes in programs that run with privileges.

There is the debate whether keeping the source code secret makes it harder for crackers to find vulnerabilities; or keeping it public allows a lot more good guys to look for the vulnerabilities before they are exploited by the bad guys.

Microsoft has a notorious history of favoring functionality over security. An example is the ability to email someone an executable file and have it execute automatically when the mail is opened; or the ability to find and execute automatically a file on a floppy disk or CD ROM as soon as the medium is inserted. In a closed business environment these may be useful features; but in the hostile world of the Internet they have proven devastating.

There is the fact that Windows is a more attractive target simply because it is a much larger target.

We have to wonder whether Microsoft is looking out for our security or whether they are themselves collecting information we wish to keep private.

Then there are the various kinds of third-party spyware that abound in the Windows world. Linux spyware is not impossible, but what it can do is in principle more limited.

For those who are really concerned there is the NSA security enhanced Linux. (And there are paranoiacs who say you can't trust anything that comes from NSA not to have trapdoors, even though you have the source.)

New Hardware:
Windows has the edge in accomodating new hardware, simply because the hardware makers have to make it work under Windows or they have no market. Linux is slower to accomodate new hardware, and in some cases cannot accomodate it at all because the manufacturer keeps the necessary programming information secret. Before buying new hardware you have to be somewhat careful to be sure it is supported by Linux.

The Best of Two Worlds: Commercial software comes ready-to-run, but you have to take what you get. Traditionally Unix software came in source form, and you had to compile it yourself; often you had to make a few changes to get it to compile on your platform. With Linux most of the software comes pre-built; but if you want to change it you can get the source and do so.

Rumors and Falsehoods:
"You get what you pay for." That is about as generally true as "The best things in life are free." For some developers, "The work is its own reward." And if you go back to the earliest days of computing you find free software and charged-for software that comes with source; sharing was a big thing in those days.

"Linux is unstable." This goes back to the very early days of Linux when there was a new kernel every day, sometimes. But even then you didn't have to install every new kernel that came out. For years now we have had the even-odd system in which there are separate tracks for stable production and developmental kernels.

"Linux is more buggy than Windows - just look at all the bug reports and fixes." Well, sure, Linux has no reason to hide its bug reports; and people make fixed and improved things all the time. Microsoft has its reasons not to publicize its bugs, and to bundle fixes into large service packs rather than sending them out one at a time.

"Because of the GPL, Linux is poison for a commercial software developer." Lawyers have widely differing opinions about the GPL. If you are a commercial software developer, ask your lawyer. The rest of us don't worry about it.

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