Perceptions of the Linux OS Among Undergraduate System Administrators
A common misconception was “The fact that Linux is open-source is of no real consequence or benefit to the average desktop user.” Well, yes, the fact that the average desktop user may never build a kernel from source (or change a line of code) may mean that it is of no consequence to that individual desktop user that the source is freely available. However, it is a huge benefit to the average user to be able to leverage the excellent work that others put into Linux (on their behalf) in order to improve the core source code to the OS, and this benefit should never be underestimated.
Knowing my GUI history, I tried not to let this next comment upset me, “Microsoft has more experience building Desktop OS and GUI technology, so they should be better at it than anyone else. After all, Microsoft invented the GUI.” The good folks in Cupertino will probably jump up and down in their seats if they read this, not to mention the XFree86 and BeOS people. And we mustn't forget Xerox PARC, where it all began. The last part of this myth really should be a clanger.
A recurring complaint was that “there are too many different versions of Linux”. No, not so. There's only one version of the current Linux kernel. There may be too many distributions of Linux, and I think it is safe to say their differences cause confusion to Linux newcomers. (For example, “Why can't Debian load my Red Hat RPMs, after all, they're both Linux, aren't they?”).
Evidence that some of the Microsoft spin-doctoring is working presented itself. Look at this comment: “Linux isn't free. The various distributors charge for their distributions, just like Microsoft charges for its OS.” True, if you attempt to acquire Red Hat Linux at your local computer superstore, you won't get it for free. But you can download Red Hat for free over the Internet. Try that with Windows XP (legally, that is).
After shaking my head at that last comment, I came upon this (from more than one student): “Windows is essentially free. After all, it's included with a new PC when you buy it.” Well, anyone that buys a PC from a PC manufacturer and asks for a blank hard-drive, as opposed to one with Windows ME preinstalled, would be a fool to pay the same amount for a PC with ME installed, wouldn't they? So, Microsoft certainly gets its share when the manufacturer sells you a PC with a Microsoft OS preinstalled. It may be convenient for desktop users, but it is not free.
Some students think Microsoft has nothing to worry about, because “Linux's success has been at the expense of the proprietary UNIX systems.” If this were a true statement, Microsoft really would have nothing to worry about. Thing is, it is not a true statement. Yes, there are some people replacing aging AIX boxes (and the like) with Linux PCs, but to think that's the only use for Linux is somewhat blinkered. And then there's Samba, which—in my view—is a piece of software that Microsoft would dearly love to see go away.
In addition to the usual “Linux is too hard to install” rubbish, this was a common complaint, “The Linux command line is hard to learn and use.” No, it simply is not. The Linux user-interface came in for further unwarranted bashing (no pun intended), “Linux GUIs are slow.” Well, this really depends on the hardware you're running on, doesn't it? To put Linux on an old PC (which can no longer run the latest Microsoft OS) and then complain when the Linux GUI runs slowly is just not comparing apples with apples, no matter what way you look at it.
Remarkably, many students stated the following as gospel: “Microsoft produce high quality software products.” Which helps explain why the Windows OS never crashes, doesn't it? Let's face it, if Microsoft produced cars, and their brakes failed once a day without warning, there would be no Microsoft. Some went as far as to say that “Microsoft are the trendsetters in the desktop OS arena, so they will always come out on top.” The truth is Microsoft has made a fortune out of copying and popularizing the ideas of others, but this doesn't make Redmond the trendsetters.
Then came the following contentious statements (from the majority of my students): “Linux offers no customer support, unlike Microsoft, which has a great support system”, and “Microsoft's technical support is the best in the industry and is superior to that offered by the Linux community.” I asked my 31 students how many had called Microsoft's customer support. Only one had, and he went on to say that Microsoft had put him on hold for “a few hours” before even talking to him. He didn't seem to see the problem with this! Again, it was seen as “normal”.