If you’ve spent any time on a Linux forum, you know people there love to debate about Linux v. Windows v. Mac OS X. Throw in the term user-friendly or easier, and you’ll likely fan the flames so they can be put out only by a discussion thread closure.
One type of objection Linux defenders often raise is the idea of a fair comparison. For example, someone may assert that Windows “just works” out of the box and that Ubuntu is difficult to install and doesn’t detect everything. To be fair, a Linux defender responds, people generally buy computers with Windows preinstalled and preconfigured by the OEM (Dell, HP, etc.), and you’re comparing a preconfigured operating system to one you’re installing and configuring yourself.
Obviously, the Linux defender, in this case, has a point. After all, if you install Windows from scratch and don’t have all the necessary drivers available, it’s actually a nightmare to install and configure, much more so than Ubuntu is. Even if you do have the necessary driver CDs, it’s less of a nightmare but takes an extremely long time to set up.
It is worth exploring, though, whether we have to make fair comparisons or not. Yes, Windows is a pain to install and configure yourself, but if most people never have to install Windows themselves, how relevant is that point?
Imagine, if you will, a new fast food chain trying to unseat McDonald’s, or a new everything-store trying to topple Wal-Mart. Well, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart will have the advantages of name-brand recognition, infrastructure, inertia, and low prices (due to economies of scale). It wouldn’t be enough to say “My fast food tastes better than McDonald’s'” or “My store has employees who are happier than those at Wal-Mart.” That doesn’t mean you can compete. It also makes little sense to say, “Well, people who don’t want to shop at my store because of travel distance aren’t making a fair comparison, since Wal-Mart is already well-established and has stores all over, and I have only one store so far.” While someone may be understanding that you have difficulty gaining customers who live within ten miles of a Wal-Mart and five hundred miles away from your store, they’re still not going to drive five hundred miles to get to you.
The major flaw in my analogy, of course, is that the customer isn’t going to complain that the store is five hundred miles away. Customers understand that it’s hard to compete with well-established businesses… even if they ultimately choose the well-established business over the “underdog.”
So there are two sides to this. On the one hand, disgruntled would-be migrants to Linux from Windows should recognize that difficulties migrating do not always have to do with quality of workmanship—a lot of the problems Linux faces for impressing home users have to do with Microsoft (like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart) being the dominant force in home computing. Just as Wal-Marts are “everywhere” and the new store has only one location, Windows computers for home users are everywhere and supported by almost all major hardware and software vendors. You can stick with Windows if you want, but you do have to understand that it’s hard to unseat what has inertia and lots of money and name recognition.
At the same time, Linux advocates like myself need to remind ourselves that fair comparisons are fair only in theory and are often contrived and meaningless. Yes, a Windows installation can be difficult without driver CDs, but most Windows users won’t install Windows themselves, and a large percentage of Windows users who do install Windows will also have driver CDs for their hardware.