Perceptions of the Linux OS Among Undergraduate System Administrators
At the start of this academic year (September 2001), I was asked to teach a new module in my Institute's B.Sc. degree program in Information Technology. This final-year undergraduate module, entitled “Network and Systems Management”, covers a wide range of system administration technologies, practices and principles. In effect, students of the module are the system administrators of the future.
As is probably the theme at the majority of third-level educational establishments, student's exposure to OS technology at the Institute of Technology, Carlow is Microsoft-focused and desktop-based. This is easy to understand, for the desktop is very much a Microsoft stronghold, and if an institution can use the same PCs to teach business undergrads Excel and science undergrads programming, then they will. However, what many of my students often fail to recognize is that, as system administrators, they will find themselves managing servers running OS technology other than Microsoft's.
So in an attempt to expose my students to a more realistic view of the technologies in use in the real world, I try to deemphasize Microsoft's technologies in favor of the alternatives. As you can imagine, Linux features quite heavily.
At the start of this academic year, I informally surveyed the 31 students enrolled in the module about their exposure to Linux. Most (if not all) had some exposure to the OS. I probed further and asked how many students had used Linux as the basis of their third-year project (the previous year). One or two hands were raised. Then the first shock came: someone blurted out, “nearly everyone who used Linux last year went on to fail their project”. It came out that a number of individuals were missing from the final year due to failing the project element in year three. When I probed for the root cause of the project-failing problem, I got my second shock: “Linux is too hard to install”. I was shocked not because these two statements were necessarily false but because these 31 students had pretty much convinced themselves that success was tied to Microsoft and failure to Linux.
While I covered Windows 2000 and Linux as case studies, pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of each OS, I gave the class an assignment that would require them to do some simple research and, as a consequence, allow them to learn a little more about Linux. The task was simple enough. I stated: “Despite considerable success as a server platform, Linux will never threaten Microsoft Windows as a desktop operating system.” I asked the students to research the subject area, form an opinion as to whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, and then present their case in no more than three A4 pages of typed text. As I marked their assignments, a number of themes recurred. Additionally, numerous myths became evident, and—perhaps not unexpectedly—a number of blatant untruths presented themselves. These I classified as clangers. In the remainder of this article, I present the themes, myths and clangers uncovered, in addition to my own personal commentary.
Note: for this purpose, I define a theme as something that is generally agreed to be true. If a comment occurred repeatedly throughout the students submissions, and it was true, it became a theme. A myth is defined as something generally held to be true but is, in fact, not true. Even if a myth occurred repeatedly throughout the submissions (and many did), it can't be a theme as it isn't true. A clanger is a statement that is just blatantly wrong.
The majority of my students felt that “more desktop applications are required for Linux”. No argument here, the more the merrier. And, Microsoft obviously has a distinct advantage in this regard. This theme appeared in many different forms in the student submissions. The most depressing (but still true) form was: “The average user does not care what operating system they are using, just so long as it runs Microsoft Office.” And Microsoft knows this. The real crown jewel in the Microsoft arsenal is the Office Suite. The fact that Redmond and Cupertino engineers have already ported (most of) the Office technology to Mac OS X indicates that a port to the X Window System would not be too difficult. But let's face it, porting to Mac OS X on the PowerPC-based Macintosh will never directly threaten the Windows monopoly. Porting to Linux on x86 is an entirely different matter. Were this to occur, the implications would be huge. This theme was further generalized by one student as follows: “The desktop operating system with the most third-party software wins.”
The students felt that “The KDE/GNOME choice confuses most newcomers to Linux.” This frustration was also expressed as follows: “A commonly-agreed upon GUI environment is needed.” Most felt Microsoft has a definite edge here, as Windows 9x/ME/NT/2000 and now XP look essentially the same. There's an argument that the choice of GUI (or desktop environment) is a good thing in the Linux world. However, I'd have to side with my students on this one, as I'd really like to see one single, coherent GUI environment combining the best features of both KDE and GNOME. There is nothing inherently wrong with all Linux desktop GUIs looking the same, is there? And I suspect such an environment would be welcomed by the vast majority of Linux GUI trainers.
The students had plenty to say about the (lack of) reliability in Windows. An eyebrow raising comment said, “for the sake of convenience and familiarity, most users will put up with Windows crashing on a regular basis. In fact, everyone knows it's quite normal for PCs to crash.” A more general observation, along the same lines, was, “People like predictability, and they don't like change, so they will put up with Windows' shortcomings.” This is a shame but it is true: it has become okay for a PC (running Windows) to crash once a day (or more often). One student referred to this as “normal” behavior. Like it or not, the average user expects their PC to crash and are trained to switch it off then back on again.
Compared to the infamous reliability of Windows, Linux did well: “Linux is technically superior to Windows: it runs longer and consumes fewer resources. Linux also has better security, stability and scalability.” No argument on this front from me, either. Unfortunately, the PC world is littered with dead technologies that were technically superior to the alternatives available at the time of their launch. Or perhaps I should have said “dead companies”. Of course, it is not a company (like Netscape) that Microsoft is trying to kill with its attacks on Linux, it's a community (which is a little harder to kill). So, Microsoft's past tactics may not (hopefully, will not) work.
A number of students highlighted the market perception of Linux as a problem to be overcome: “How can Linux really threaten Windows on the desktop when the vast majority of PC users haven't even heard of it?”. Another slant on this was, “The Windows brandname is too strong to threaten”, and “The Linux community are no match for the marketing machine that is Microsoft.” This visibility problem isn't helped by the fact that the mainstream computing press have all but stopped covering Linux since the dot-com bubble burst. The Windows brandname is as strong as Coca-Cola, but the Coca-Cola brandname didn't stop Pepsi from having a go (and doing quite well, too). Again, I think the strength of the Linux community has bearing here, despite the fact that a lot of my students thought that “which desktop OS dominates has more to do with marketing than technical expertise”. Nearly every student agreed that “Linux needs to shake its image as the techie/programmer's OS”, and that “Linux is seen as a geek's OS. Programmers love it and that puts everyone else off.” Yes, image (market perception) is everything, and Microsoft knows this. This helps explains the anti-Linux FUD campaign coming out of Redmond these days.
The fact that Linux tends to run well on any old PC came in for praise, typically as follows: “Newer versions of Windows tend to obsolete todays hardware. Linux, on the other hand, runs quite well on older PCs.” Yes, the new version of your chosen operating system shouldn't require a major upgrade (or replacement) to the hardware it runs on. If only more people would realize this, and act on it.
More than one student had this warning for Microsoft: “The new XP licensing arrangements may result in many IT shops reassessing their allegiance to Microsoft. Coming on the heels of the recent economic downturn, this may hurt Microsoft to the benefit of Linux.” Yes, we should all be screaming this from the tallest buildings we can find: users (i.e., IT managers) need to resist Microsoft's attempts to “lock 'em in” as much as possible!
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”.
There's not much to say by way of commentary here, as these statements speak for themselves.
Clanger #1: “Linux will never threaten Windows on the desktop because it is command line driven and doesn't even have a GUI”. What can I say?
Clanger #2: “Linux has poor device-driver support and doesn't even support USB”. Not so, officially, as of the 2.4 kernel (regarding USB). And driver support with Linux gets better every single day.
Clanger #3: “Linux lacks good software development tools, unlike Windows which has plenty.” It's hard to comment on this without imagining the good folk at the Free Software Foundation blowing their collective tops at the very idea that someone could think (let alone say or print) such a thing. Also, despite the fact that Visual C++ is the “industry leader” when it comes to C++ development on PCs, my experience with final year software engineering undergraduates indicates that Visual C++ is a dog of an environment to work with.
And the final clanger was that many of my students thought Linux was a company!
Now, I'm the first to admit that my informal survey of these 31 students may be flawed (from a statistical sampling point-of-view). However, I'd bet that the views and opinions expressed by my students are typical and representative. My original goal in setting the assignment was realized: my students now have a better understanding and appreciation of what Linux is.
Of course, I was shocked by some of the views of my students. However, on reflection, I'm not surprised that some of the views were voiced. Microsoft can afford to throw a lot of money into its “Linux Myth Campaign”. And, as everyone knows, if you throw enough of something, some of it is bound to stick. Education is a, if not the, key defense mechanism.
And, what about my own view? I feel that although Linux may never threaten Windows as a desktop OS, increasingly it is becoming a viable alternative.
Paul Barry lectures at the Institute of Technology, Carlow in Ireland. He is the author of Programming the Network with Perl, to be published by John Wiley and Sons in early 2002. He thanks the 2001/2002 students of CW084-4 for inadvertently providing the raw material for this article.