Doghouse – Linux on Laptops

Doghouse – Linux on Laptops

Article from Issue 236/2020

Maddog examines the complicated relationships between laptop manufacturers, computer stores, and Linux users.

It was recently announced that Fedora was going to be supported on Lenovo laptops [1].

Some GNU/Linux people complained that it was Fedora. Some people complained that Lenovos were "expensive." Some people complained that there might be "bloat-ware." Some people just complained. No wonder some manufacturers and store owners hate free software people!

I have more than a few deep scars from 50 years in the computer industry. I am about to teach you several lessons. Don't bother arguing with me … I am right … you will lose.

First lesson: Computer stores do not sell computers.

Just as grocery stores do not sell groceries. They sell shelf space. The faster the items fly off the shelf, the more profit the stores make. Yes, they have low-priced items to help get the customers in the store, and high-priced items for the people that want to buy those, but they want to see those low-priced, low-margin items fly off the shelf. The higher-priced, high-margin items can stay around a little bit longer – but not very long, because shelf space is precious.

In the early days of GNU/Linux, 90 percent of the desktops were Microsoft, 7 percent were Apple, and 2-3 percent were "everything else."

Imagine 10 people coming into your store. Nine want Microsoft and eventually take a laptop off the shelf, because the laptop is running the OS they want.

The one Apple person comes in, curses you because you do not have "Apple stuff" and goes running off to the Apple store. If you do happen to carry "Apple things," they will be happy because "Steve" tells them they will be happy. They buy it and run off.

Now (and particularly in the late 1990s) that "Linux Guy" (and it is almost always a guy – sorry) comes into the store and wants to know if "linooks runs on this laptop" (it may or may not) and wants to stick a homemade CD/DVD or USB stick into a display laptop to see if it works.

Right. How does the store owner know this will not destroy his Windows distribution or insert a virus?

Maybe the "leenux guy" does not want to do that, but he has a piece of paper with scribbling on it, and he starts asking all sorts of questions. How much cache does the laptop have? What is the model number of the CPU? What is the make of BIOS? And the questions go on and on.

Which brings about the second lesson.

Second lesson: Computer stores do not want you to ask questions.

Just like modern food stores are not there to tell you how to cook potatoes, modern computer stores are not there to answer questions about computers.

They used to answer questions. When computers were new, the stores would hire these geeky guys (sorry, it was almost always guys) who loved to spend hours talking about the minutiae of computers with customers.

Over time, those guys often became programmers (and made real money) and were replaced by people who would simply tell you the price of the "big box" and help you carry it to the car.

Sure, in some places, these technical people still existed, but they were kept in the back room repairing the computers that people brought in.

And, as the margins on the units dropped, the store owners found out that, if one simple question was asked, they mademoney, but, if two questions were asked (or one complex question), they lost money.

Third lesson: Those Lyenux people are insufferable.

When you buy a Microsoft system, that is just the beginning of what you need to buy. You then have to buy security software, database software, office software, games, Adobe suites, and many other things that are "additional" and high margin. Do you really think it costs $400 for that shiny plastic disc and cardboard box on the shelf? Heck no!

Now the Linux guy comes in and looks at the box of Red Hat or SUSE on the shelf.

Store owners found out that by the time they got the box that supported Red Hat 5.2 … well Red Hat 5.2.1 was already out, so they could no longer sell that box, and they had to return it. And people came in the next week and complained that while Red Hat was only at 5.2.1 the kernel inside was Linux 2.3.1 and not Linux 2.5.3. Boxes of Red Hat (and SUSE and others) stayed on the shelf until they were returned to the manufacturer.

Also these "Linux guys" did not need virus software, or databases, or Adobe products. No after sales.

Fourth lesson: The "Microsoft tax" isn't as simple as you might think.

Now let's say a miracle occurs and one of the "Linux guys" comes in and buys a laptop from you. Let's call this guy "Geoffrey." Geoffrey actually exists, and I happen to know him. I have met his mother and father and eaten at their table. He is a really nice guy.

The time was February of 1998, and Geoffrey had purchased a Toshiba laptop. That Toshiba had Microsoft installed for all the reasons mentioned in Lessons 1-3, plus the fact that Toshiba had what is called an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) "bundling" license that said (in effect) every Toshiba laptop going out would run Microsoft. The concept of bundling is normal in the computer field.

Bundling reduces the costs of manufacture and marketing. For the software company, it means that they have to advertise less, they get more copies sold, etc. A bundling license can mean that the OEM (and eventually the customer) pays a very small fraction of the list price for the software.

In the licensing of the software, Toshiba made a "mistake" and told Geoffrey that if he did not want to use the software he could tell them, and they would return the money for the operating system.

The result of this "mistake" was an almost year-long set of letters back and forth. Eventually Geoffrey received a check of Aus$110 from Toshiba.

It also meant that many Linux people proudly walked into their nearest PC store demanding a return of their "Microsoft tax."

As an OEM, Toshiba may or may not have actually made their own motherboard. If they did, then they were probably the ones that applied the software license to the board. If not, they may have bought a board plus license from the motherboard supplier. Almost certainly none of the retail store owners paid the license; they got the whole thing as a lump, so how do they separate the cost of the license from the cost of the hardware?

There is really no reason why the license would not be tied to the CPU and "flow" to the motherboard and laptop. More units of "license bundled" means a lower cost of the license.

Unless the OEM actually creates a line of computers that only runs GNU/Linux, how can they make a decision about leaving off the "Microsoft tax" software?

Important here is the wording of the bundling license, which – in the case of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC)-- said that all of a particular model number (or name) of computer would run their bundled operating system.

The lawyers have to determine what you can do. Normally this means creating another line of computers with a different name or model number.

What does this mean? You may have to change the mold of the case, so it no longer has the name of "Multia," but instead is called the "Universal Desktop Box" (UDB).

You have to change the documentation. You have to put new entries in your catalog; you have to change your marketing; you have to train your sales and support people.

All of this to sell just a few extra computers to "Linux guys," who did not want to pay the same "Microsoft tax" that Microsoft people are willing to pay.

Digital did all of this so we could sell a bunch of UDBs. Each one cost us somewhere in the thousands of dollars to manufacture, and we ended up getting $50 apiece for them, sold in quantities of 10. I own about four.

I am not complaining that "Linux guys" did not want to pay the "tax", but I just want you to understand what is behind the "tax" and how it flows.

When it comes to bundling, Microsoft is a special case: Microsoft was proven to be a monopoly (bad), bundling helped them to maintain that monopoly (bad), and they religiously enforced their contracts (I personally experienced this in real life).

Why have I written all of this? To explain why the recent announcement that Lenovo will put Fedora on some of their laptops is a good thing.

This will likely put into every "PC Store" a well-known brand running GNU/Linux "native." You will know that every device will work and work better than if Lenovo did not do any software work at all and just shipped the operating system from Microsoft.

Lenovo people will be trained to support Fedora on their laptops. Their sales people will sell it. PC stores will be able to have Lenovo GNU/Linux laptops right next to Lenovo Microsoft systems, but perhaps $60-$70 less.

Device drivers organized by Lenovo will flow upstream and will help other distributions that also would like to work on Lenovo hardware.

I know that other OEMs (Dell, Toshiba, and others) put GNU/Linux onto their desktops and laptops.

My point is that instead of griping about the model and distribution, let us thank them and encourage more distributions and models. Better yet, if they meet your needs, lets buy those systems.

Carpe laptop!

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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