Do comparisons have to be fair?

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.


  1. Good point, and one that I think the Linux community would do well to embrace. I’ve tried to convert several people with the OEM argument. Their response: why do I care? They don’t. At all. So that means that we need to start figuring out arguments around that.

  2. Really good post, and I like your points. I have read your blog for a while, but until yesterday I didn’t even know you were behind all the great guides at I have used them a lot in the past to get my Ubuntu machine up and working – thank you very much!

  3. “Good point, and one that I think the Linux community would do well to embrace. I’ve tried to convert several people with the OEM argument. Their response: why do I care? They don’t. At all. So that means that we need to start figuring out arguments around that.”

    You have to do more than argue around it. It’s kind of like sexism or racism in the workplace. There is a certain blatant type of sexism or racism that law can, and should, eradicate. Beyond that, there is the lingering cultural effect of male dominance/ white privilege. The old saying is that a woman or black person in a senior or executive position deserves more praise than their white male counterpart because they had to work twice as hard to get there.

    so it is with linux. there is a certain type of anti-competitive activity that the law can, and should, eradicate. beyond that, the lingering effects of market dominance can only be undone with a mixture of good fortune and hard work.

  4. Back when I used to play in bands, people were always debating about “how you build an audience.” The general wisdom always came down to: “If you want an audience, be awesome and people will come to see you.” No matter how much you flyer, how many plugs from hipster zines you got, or how fancy the liner notes on your album were… you mostly just had to be awesome and everything else would fall into place. And in my experience that was pretty true.

    I think the idea that anybody needs to debate anybody into liking an OS is one of the problems the community has always had, and it contributes to this sort of Alpha Geek stereotype of GNU/Linux users. I think if we just use our computers to do awesome things, people will eventually want to be part of that. I use an eee pc. I’m constantly getting questions about it. That is a Linux product that people are interested in because they get what is awesome about it.

    The desktop is just now reaching the point where you can fairly say that it offers the “awesome” experience. We don’t use any other OS at home (I’m stuck with XP at work). When geek friends come over to my house, they are amazed at the ridiculous things I can do with my home network without being tied to any commercial software. That’s a very tiny example of ambassadorship – but I think those little interactions impress future users the most.

  5. I’m not sure I agree with you fully.

    On the one hand, there is a certain degree of truth to what you say, but I can name five or six talented bands that are virtually unknown. They are awesome (both performance-wise and recording-wise). I also don’t know if the music analogy translates over fully. People are used to discovering new bands and, in fact, get sick of listening to the same music (even if they love it). They are not, however, used to switching operating systems on a regular basis.

    On the other hand, the Linux community does tend to like to make excuses for itself. A lot of obstacles to adoption have to do with lack of familiarity of distrust of the new. There are, nevertheless, many simple things Windows and Mac OS X provide for the end user that Linux does not (not taking forever to load a folder with 10,000 music files in it, for example).

  6. hey, i said it was an unfair comparison. ( :

    i also can name plenty of obscurish bands that oughta be more well liked for all kinds of reasons. but I think we can agree that mostly people like things that are likeable – it’s almost (but not quite) a solipsism. And Linux itself is only very recently likeable as a desktop. People need time to see their friends doing things with it that they can’t already easily do with their default OS.

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