Creating a Free Market for Personal Computer Platforms

Here’s a guest post by an Open Source Programmer Con Zymaris

You may not be aware of this, but you’re probably reading this editorial using a product sourced from perhaps the world’s largest monopoly market. A monopoly more profound and more ingrained than any run by a former government telco or a gilded-age robber-baron. The market? Personal computer platforms. The product? Microsoft’s Windows.

The monopoly market arose out of the forced bundling of Windows with almost every PC shipped and the continuing lack of an open and unencumbered market for competitors to Windows. This enforced bundling, achieved through a series of behind-the-scenes deals, later shown to be illegal by the US Federal Trade Commission, ensured that PC hardware makers could only viably ship Microsoft operating systems.

The resultant market regime we presently inhabit, is one where over 50% of the price many consumers pay for a new laptop or desktop computer, is for software bundled with that computer – software which the consumer has no options but to pay. And because of Microsoft’s market dominance and well documented scare tactics towards ‘partners’, consumers have no alternative computer hardware brands to turn to if one wont unbundle Windows from their PC range; not Compaq/HP, not Dell or Lenovo/IBM, not Toshiba, Fujitsu, NEC or Sony, not Acer or ASUS. All of them force you to acquire a bundled copy of Microsoft’s operating system platform.

If nothing else seems to convince you that the personal computer market needs a competition boost, then all you need to consider is that Microsoft has had a 90-95% market share position for perhaps 20 years. What other large, hugely lucrative and business-critical markets do you know where one incumbent has that size of market share for that length of time? It is the surest indication that the free market for desktop platforms has been waylaid and needs assistance. It’s time to set the wheels in motion to stop this egregious aberration.

Numerous industry observers have long-called for the adoption of policies by competition regulators which will spur competition in the personal computer platform market. Now aligned with this group is an influential free-market think-tank, which has called on the European Union (EU) to make good on its promise to foster greater competition in personal computer platforms, in the aftermath of the recent court ruling which yet again found Microsoft abusing its monopoly power to diminish market forces. The think-tank, the Globalisation Institute, has called upon the EU to demand that PC vendors stop the practice of automatically bundling Microsoft operating systems with personal computers.

In doing so, the Globalisation Institute draws a distinction between open, free markets, which exist for computer hardware and demonstrate phenomenal innovation and price performance, and laissez-faire markets, dominated by the corporate equivalent of Somali warlords – specifically, operating system platforms.

A few years ago, I ran through a couple of scenarios which showed that the reduced competition in the PC platform software space cost consumers worldwide over $10 billion per year. More recently, a court-case in Europe showed that an incredible 52% of the price of a new Acer laptop was constituted by the forced-bundling of Microsoft and other Windows platform software. Like it or not, consumers must pay this hidden price whenever they buy a new PC.

Market regulators and national competition agencies must now act to ensure this market is opened to real competition. It is in fact possible to provide for both consumers who demand Windows and also ensure a fair and open marketplace for competing platforms. This can be done by requiring that all hardware manufacturers ship personal computers with no pre-installed operating system.

Instead, PC makers should include within the packaging of the computer, a media copy of the then current Microsoft Windows recovery (or installation-imaging) CD/DVD. They should also include a copy of one of the main consumer-oriented Linux distributions, commensurate with their target market for the PC in question. Linux distributions are generally freely-redistributable, carrying no associated costs.

Upon unpacking the computer, the consumer must then make a choice of either loading Windows from the supplied recovery media, then using the brochure included with the recovery media to contact Microsoft and through some form of financial transaction, acquire a licence to use Windows, or elect to load the Linux operating system from the CD/DVD included, and use it as their computer operating system.

Both the Windows recovery and the Linux installation media must be shipped with the new personal computer with a minimum of additional expense to the consumer. Specifically, it is of critical importance that the consumer receives the cost reduction advantages which flow from the unbundling of the Windows licence fee.

Under such a distribution mechanism, it is obviously in Microsoft’s absolute best interest to ensure that the loading of Windows onto the new PC is as fast and painless as possible. It otherwise risks more users defecting to Linux.

As the Windows recovery media will also need a legitimate Windows licence obtained from Microsoft in order to actually function, along with the now-standard Microsoft Product Activation codes, there should be no additional piracy risks for Microsoft in allowing free re-distribution of the Windows recover media.

Introducing a Windows unbundling process and ensuring an open and free market for PC operating systems, will result in far reaching benefits for Windows users as well as the obvious benefits for the Linux industry. A cursory review of the history of the computer industry shows that consumers benefit most when there is strong competition in each market segment. Windows users will benefit because:

  • Microsoft will become less complacent, due to increased Linux competition.

  • Microsoft will become more responsive to customer needs, due to increased Linux competition.

  • Microsoft will build better software, to compete with Linux.

  • Microsoft will build more secure software, to compete with Linux.

  • Microsoft will have to price its software to compete with Linux, meaning lower prices for Windows users.

It should be an obvious truism to anyone, that the only way to keep any vendor honest is for there to be another vendor breathing down their necks, vying for their customers. To Microsoft, Linux is that other vendor, and by letting it compete on a fair and level playing field, Windows users will benefit substantially.

There are, I’m sure, numerous arguments that opponents to this proposal will raise. I prepared a response to each of these arguments in an earlier form of this essay, available here. If there are any objections I may have missed, then I’m happy to consider them.

Regardless of the final mechanism used, regulators worldwide must now take steps to increase the real competition within the consumer PC platform market. Microsoft has not become the biggest monopoly in history through competing on a level playing field, and only governments and national competition regulators now have the power to redress this gross imbalance.

Microsoft’s immense wealth, growing political influence and its willingness to use underhand (and illegal) tactics to achieve its aims should be of concern to anyone who believes in open societies and open markets. If governments don’t act now, then perhaps even they wont have the means to act later.

 

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Persse
Persse
14 years ago

There is strong value in being ubiquitous. This applies beyond OS – look at VHS/Beta, Blu-ray/HD. There a other factors than simple market paradigms here based on technical appraisals.

An inveterate fiddler I have set up and used every PC OS I can get my hands on. But am reconciled to Microsoft, as an OS, because the open source community provides every bit of non-OS software on my system. Ubiquity rules.

Damien Eldridge
Damien Eldridge
14 years ago

It’s not really a lot harder to understand. People are familar with the workings of microsoft products. As such, there is a cost to switching to Linux or other products when they next buy a new computer. However, it is a lot harder to deal with. In effect, you would need to motivate people to incur these switching costs.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

Jacques Chester said:

As one of those numerous and tedious libertarians who hang around the fringes of opensource, Id hate to see linux win by legislative fiat.

This is not specifically artificial propulsion for open source/linux.

At present, there is no possibility of real competition because of Microsoft’s historical stranglehold on the market through illegal/quasi-legal bundling of Windows with PCs.

The simplest solution would be to seek that competition regulators have hardware vendors ship PCs with no operating system. However, consumers want a usable computer. Therefore, the fairest approach is to ship a PC with a viably usable operating system which adds nothing to the cost of the hardware, specifically Linux, but understanding that there is a market reality that consumers expect easy-access to Windows, then that’s included as well.

The key point is that the consumer must elect to both install Windows and to pay for its licence.

No one is suggesting we force Linux upon the consumer, thus having Linux win through ‘legislative fiat’.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

I’ll answer each of your points in turn.

Nicholas Gruen said:

Con,

I think what youre proposing is heavy handed.

Firstly at the level of your diagnosis, the only thing that has you arguing that MS is a monopoly is that it comes installed. But Dell now sell laptops with Linux – and save themselves and their customers the cost of Windows. So that deals with a lot of the problems.

– – –

I’ve provided my reasoning for this in the original paper, which I’ll quote here:

You can go and buy an un-bundled PC today. Why should competition regulators push for all PCs to ship without Windows by default?

Most, if not all of the PCs you can buy without a pre-installed Microsoft operating system, are from what are known as ‘white-box’ or no-name brand PC makers. Generally, these are perfectly acceptable computers, but many consumers, certainly most businesses, will shy away from buying them. This then gives Microsoft a huge competitive boost in the market, as pretty much most of the computers that consumers or businesses will buy, they can only buy with a bundled Microsoft operating system platform.

Secondly, by limiting consumers who prefer not to run Windows to only those computers which ship without an operating system, you are limiting those consumers to a fraction of the potential range of computer hardware otherwise available. This is less than fair. Most systems, most options, most hardware innovations, are therefore not made available to consumers who want unbundled PCs.

Yes, these consumers could buy a PC with Windows and then wipe Windows, but then that means they are paying, as we note above in the Acer case, possibly hundreds of dollars/Euros, needlessly. And all this does is benefit Microsoft, essentially establishing a ‘tax’ on a product category – a category which sells over 100 million units globally every year. This is a vast distortion of the principles of an open marketplace.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

Nicholas Gruen said:

But people arent rushing to buy Dell Linux boxes from what Ive heard.

– – –

Again, from the original paper:

But Dell (and others) aren’t selling as many Linux boxes as they’re selling Windows boxes. Doesn’t that mean that there’s less market for desktop Linux?

Yes, for now. But the market for alternatives to Windows will never be given a chance unless competition regulators force that market to be open and free to competition. The best and fastest way to do this is through unbundling Windows from PCs. If consumers still want Windows, they’ll be free to elect to acquire it at the time they purchase their PC, but this should be through conscious decision-making, not through forced bundling.

and

But there wont be any uptake of Linux unless there’s a huge marketing effort

Incorrect. Linux grows in much the same way as the Internet grew, through word of mouth and general meme-transfer. The Internet, a technology developed by the same army of geeks who are now making consumer Linux a reality, has over 1 billion mainstream users. It gained those users without a marketing department, without sales people or corporate bosses. In time, Linux will do the same. Here’s how.

If all PCs in Europe are now offered to consumers with the option of a free Linux desktop, then that will translate into a jump in desktop Linux adoption. If even 10% of these consumers take up the Linux option, that would translate into a doubling of desktop Linux users, in effect, hastening the onset of an inflection point.

In turn, this increase in users will spur more word of mouth, familiarity and comfort. It’s likely that in successive buying cycles, a higher and higher percentage of new PC buys will opt for the cheaper Linux option – a positive feedback loop in platform migration.

Obviously, these consumers will be free to opt out of Linux, at any time, if they decide to return to Windows. All they need to do is pay the OEM licence fee to Microsoft. We’ll cover how this works soon.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

Persse said:

There is strong value in being ubiquitous. This applies beyond OS – look at VHS/Beta, Blu-ray/HD. There a other factors than simple market paradigms here based on technical appraisals.

– – –

My response in two parts.

Ubiquity rules to a degree, until the ‘next great thing’ comes along (eg, wax cylinder -> 78s -> 33s -> LP -> Cassette -> CD -> MP3); and not for long at all, if there are huge monopoly rents at play, as there are with Windows. If JVC charged a whopping $150 per unit licence fee for VCR makers to utilise VHS, like Microsoft charges OEM hardware vendors for Windows, you could be certain that the VHS standard would not have remained standard for very long.

The only platform that can deliver true and long-term viability in PC operating systems ubiquity is Linux, due to the near-zero barrier of market entry delivered by its copyleft licence and the shared development cost model it affords.

And yes, there are other factors at work, based on technical appraisals. However, unless we establish a true, free market for PC operating platforms, we’ll never quite know what these are, right?

Here’s what I had written earlier:

But the market has spoken and the market said ‘Windows desktops’. Why push this whole unbundling idea?

The market was severely distorted due to the fact that for the better part of a decade, Microsoft made deals with PC hardware vendors, specifically designed to exclude competing operating systems. Such deals were later shown to be illegal by the United States Federal Trade Commission in the aftermath of its 1995 antitrust investigation of Microsoft. This distortion was never rectified however, and governments who value free and open markets must now act through their competition regulators to bring about the kind of competition which will benefit their constituent consumers in the medium-to-long term.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

Nicholas Gruen said:

So as not to be heavy handed, what is wrong with requiring vendors of all boxes to provide appropriate discounts for boxes with MS uninstalled. Requiring full discounts without charging for any uninstalling ought to do the trick oughtnt it.

– – –

This could work if the buyers of new PCs had a trivial and effective mechanism to receive their refund for the unused Windows software and they were supplied at least one easily accessible alternative operating system platform to install onto the new PC. This alternative operating system would need to be bundled for minimal cost and should be generally functional on the hardware.

If such a mechanism would be easier remedy for national competition regulators to adopt, then I’d be interested in investigating it further.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

Nicholas Gruen said:

A lot of the Microsoft monopoly relates to its ease of use and the ease of use of a uniform network of computers running the same software. That shouldnt be junked in the process of encouraging competition.

– – –

Here’s where Microsoft wins every time. Because many people don’t have immediate knowledge of Linux, they assume it’s somehow inferior, or more complext, or less capable. This is generally not the case. In some areas, Windows is better. In quite a number, Linux wins.

My earlier analysis to this and an overlapping question follows:

Consumers will not necessarily opt for the Linux desktop option.

Indeed. However, unless there is a space opened in the market for competitors to try and sell into, how will we ever find out? And yes, while more people know Windows, there are tens of millions now who also know Linux. Linux is fast approaching that first inflection-point. A move by regulators to ensure that there is a breathing-space for competition will likely see that inflection-point come sooner than later.

But Walt Mossberg said that desktop Linux still isn’t ready for the average user.

The usability and technology world doesn’t revolve around Walt Mossberg. Mossberg may have indicated that desktop Linux isn’t for the average user, but it’s also possible to find many pundits who will say that desktop Windows isn’t for the average user either; that doesn’t stop most PC makers from bundling Windows with their PCs.

In the end, it’s all about what you’re used to. Mossberg is used to Windows, so it seems more ‘normal’ to him. In time, people will, due to the increased uptake of Linux brought about by a liberated market, also find that it too is ‘normal’.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

Damien Eldridge said:

Its not really a lot harder to understand. People are familar with the workings of microsoft products. As such, there is a cost to switching to Linux or other products when they next buy a new computer. However, it is a lot harder to deal with. In effect, you would need to motivate people to incur these switching costs.

– – –

A few points.

I’m not one to force people to adopt Linux. What I want to see is a level playing field. What we’ve had for decades is a Microsoft stranglehold, acquired through illegal or strongarm tactics.

However, what I’m suggesting is that the decision to acquire hardware be uncoupled from the decision to buy platform software, and for buyers to make a specific choice, with their credit cards, to acquire that Windows licence.

If they deem it cheaper for them to migrate to Linux and incur a knowledge transition cost, then that’s their call.

Now, keep in mind two things.

1) This knowledge transition cost is a once off line itmem.

2) Nowdays, when they move from one version of Windows (or Office) to the next, there will also be a knowledge transition cost, perhaps comparable in size to the cost of migrating to Linux.

But, once again, that decision – “should I stay or should I go?” should be offered to them when they buy a PC. At present, it’s not. This is what I want changed.

JohnZ
JohnZ
14 years ago

The resultant market regime we presently inhabit, is one where over 50% of the price many consumers pay for a new laptop or desktop computer, is for software bundled with that computer

Con, unless you’re referring to MS Office, that statement is false. The OEM price for windows is about $50, probably less than 5% of the purchase price.

The reason windows is so successful is because:

a) Linux is simply unusuable on the desktop for the average user (coming from someone who has run desktop linux for years).

b) It’s not efficient to have a wide range of operating systems in widespeard use, drivers are expensive to write and software is expensive to port.

meika
14 years ago

If its ubiquitous then we should (inter-)Nationalize Microsoft as a way to rectify past evils, and then release all Windows editions and apps under some appropriate CC license. Problem solved.

In a addition to monopoly bundling on PC deals there are those old rumours that the original MS-DOS was just a rip-off of a DR-DOS which predates it. Micorsoft lacks any moral legitimacy when in comes to IP anyway. Even if at the homebrew club in California he was so pro-copyright. Programming Code protected as copyright rather than patent laws was the other great IP stupidity of last century BTW.

And now copyright beeen extended to 70 years after an authors dead just so useless vampiric undead corportations can suck our blood just that little bit longer ugggh!!!

I mean what good does that extension do the author exactly.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

JohnZ said:

Con, unless youre referring to MS Office, that statement is false. The OEM price for windows is about $50, probably less than 5% of the purchase price.

John,

in some instances, huge volume players like Dell may pay US$50 per OEM copy of Windows XP Home. But most hardware vendors pay between AU$135 and AU$300 for OEM versions Windows XP Home and XP Pro. Let alone retail version. And they pay more for Windows Vista.

I’ve been in the business of IT for nearly 30 years, and I have as many references for these figures as you care to look at. I can put you in touch with our hardware suppliers if you want to follow this up.

And when you can buy a new PC hardware for AU$250, then spending AU$300 for the business operating system which you install it on becomes a joke, don’t you agree?

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

Also,

in case people forget, OEM copies of Windows, which is what JohnZ makes reference to, have substantial limitations.

For starters, you can’t transfer an OEM copy of Windows or Office to other PCs. So, if there’s a fault with your PC beyond warranty, you can’t buy another PC and transfer your licence.

Which means you need to pay and repay for Windows on each new PC, even if you’re using the same version as you were on the last PC.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

JohnZ said:

The reason windows is so successful is because:

a) Linux is simply unusuable on the desktop for the average user (coming from someone who has run desktop linux for years).

– – –

John,

I’m not arguing whether Windows is successful or not. Here’s what I said in my original paper, also mentioned above:

But Walt Mossberg said that desktop Linux still isn’t ready for the average user.

The usability and technology world doesn’t revolve around Walt Mossberg. Mossberg may have indicated that desktop Linux isn’t for the average user, but it’s also possible to find many pundits who will say that desktop Windows isn’t for the average user either; that doesn’t stop most PC makers from bundling Windows with their PCs.

In the end, it’s all about what you’re used to. Mossberg is used to Windows, so it seems more ‘normal’ to him. In time, people will, due to the increased uptake of Linux brought about by a liberated market, also find that it too is ‘normal’.

But there wont be any uptake of Linux unless there’s a huge marketing effort

Incorrect. Linux grows in much the same way as the Internet grew, through word of mouth and general meme-transfer. The Internet, a technology developed by the same army of geeks who are now making consumer Linux a reality, has over 1 billion mainstream users. It gained those users without a marketing department, without sales people or corporate bosses. In time, Linux will do the same. Here’s how.

If all PCs in Europe are now offered to consumers with the option of a free Linux desktop, then that will translate into a jump in desktop Linux adoption. If even 10% of these consumers take up the Linux option, that would translate into a doubling of desktop Linux users, in effect, hastening the onset of an inflection point.

In turn, this increase in users will spur more word of mouth, familiarity and comfort. It’s likely that in successive buying cycles, a higher and higher percentage of new PC buys will opt for the cheaper Linux option – a positive feedback loop in platform migration.

Obviously, these consumers will be free to opt out of Linux, at any time, if they decide to return to Windows. All they need to do is pay the OEM licence fee to Microsoft. We’ll cover how this works soon.

Yes, great, but consumers still want Windows!

Fine. They can then opt to install Windows and acquire the Windows licence key from Microsoft. All they’ve lost is the maybe 10-20 minutes to install/image Windows onto the new PC’s hard disk. In the grand scheme of things, when you incorporate the time needed to unpack the PC and cable it up, this isn’t a big deal.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

JohnZ said:

The reason windows is so successful is because:

b) Its not efficient to have a wide range of operating systems in widespeard use, drivers are expensive to write and software is expensive to port

– – –

Linux already has perhaps 200,000 applications — scan sourceforge.net for starters. There are probably Linux applications for 80% of consumers here and now.

My earlier response to the argument about drivers.

But doesn’t Linux lack in terms of driver support?

Depends on how you measure this. It can be demonstrated that Linux has broader driver support for older, more esoteric or legacy hardware than Windows XP. Linux certainly has broader driver support than Windows Vista. In general, Linux will support most/all of the major video, sound, disk and network devices and many of the wireless cards and web-cams. But yes, there are various consumer and business devices for which Linux driver support is lacking.

This may mean that not every function on every PC which ships with the software installation packs noted above, will function completely under Linux. It is therefore incumbent on the consumer to decide if they want that specific function, say a wireless card, or inbuilt web-cam, for their needs. And if they do, they can then opt to install Windows and acquire the Windows licence key from Microsoft. If, however, they decide that they don’t need a functional wireless card or web-cam for which a Linux driver is lacking, then they can opt not to acquire Windows.

The beauty of this approach is that by opening the market and making it possible for consumers to make a choice about the operating system they will use, we are likely to see a jump in Linux usage. We are certainly not going to see a decrease from the monopoly market we have now. This, in turn, will spur Linux driver support from those recalcitrant component vendors. Which in turn will mean that in each successive buying cycle, there will be less reason for consumers to bypass Linux due to lacking driving support. Another virtuous cycle indeed.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

JohnZ said:

a) Linux is simply unusuable on the desktop for the average user (coming from someone who has run desktop linux for years).

– – –

John,

Can you explain to me what part of desktop Linux is unusable for the average user? (coming from someone who’s kids and wife have been using Linux for many years_

Also, for your information, and to show that the latest in Windows isn’t necessarily for consumers either:

Dutch Consumers Counsel advises against Vista

After more than 5000 complains of costumers about Vista in a month of time, the Dutch Consumers Counsel decided to talk with Microsoft. The goal of the negotiations was to give consumers the possibility to downgrade from Vista to XP if consumers had serious complaints about Vista. However Microsoft denied the request, since (according to Microsoft) the computers have been developed for use with Vista and a downgrade to XP will therefore bring along many other issues with the operating system (?). To solve some of the problems Microsoft opened a site where people can resolve many of their problems in three steps (site).

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

Oh god, a Linux jihadi. Con, it’s impolite to monopolise a thread.

As a user of both Linux and Windows I reckon there are many ways that Linux is a better OS than Windows, though friendliness to newbies ain’t one of them. But that’s not Linux’s main problem. Linux’s problem is that it will never acquire market share because someone else will always have all the market share.

The hard truth is that economies of scale in user training and in application support (including drivers) and large network externalities all combine to make desktop operating systems a natural monopoly. That’s why it would take something extraordinarily better than Windows to threaten it. Attempts to enforce pluralism legislatively are unlikely to succeed unless they are very heavy handed indeed (unbundling certainly wouldn’t be enough), and would cause large efficiency costs through duplication and non-interoperability if they did succeed.

I’m no admirer of Microsoft and their innovation-stifling behaviour, but it’s no use engaging in wishful thinking. Most of us are stuck and will remain stuck with Windows.

Liam
Liam
14 years ago

Oh god, a Linux jihadi.

That’s GNU-Linux, praise be upon it.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

derrida derider said:

Oh god, a Linux jihadi. Con, its impolite to monopolise a thread.

– – –

I’m here to reply to any questions that people have; I don’t see this as monopolising the forum.

As someone who has tracked the IT industry for almost 30 years, including Linux for 16 years, I believe I have a useful perspective on this topic, so, if I have an answer to a question or issue that someone raises, then I’ll submit it.

I’m breaking the answers up into separate posts (thus raising your ire I’m sure) because I think it’s easier to digest responses in chunks, rather than in essays.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

derrida derider said:

As a user of both Linux and Windows I reckon there are many ways that Linux is a better OS than Windows, though friendliness to newbies aint one of them. But thats not Linuxs main problem. Linuxs problem is that it will never acquire market share because someone else will always have all the market share.

– – –

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”
–Niels Bohr

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I can’t see how you could.

I do know, however, that there is no certainty in the role of platform monopolist; I know that someone ruled the roost prior to Microsoft (namely Digital Research, Inc.) I know that IBM was monopolist prior to being toppled by Microsoft.

I also know that there is immense difficulty in competing against free, in both senses of the word.

So, I ask that the hardware market become platform neutral and let the platform market be decided by open competition.

Is there anything intrinsically wrong with this notion from your perspective?

Con Z
Con Z
14 years ago

JohnZ said:

The reason windows is so successful is because:

a) Linux is simply unusuable on the desktop for the average user (coming from someone who has run desktop linux for years).

– – –

John,

I’m not arguing whether Windows is successful or not. Here’s what I said in my original paper, also mentioned above:

But Walt Mossberg said that desktop Linux still isn’t ready for the average user.

The usability and technology world doesn’t revolve around Walt Mossberg. Mossberg may have indicated that desktop Linux isn’t for the average user, but it’s also possible to find many pundits who will say that desktop Windows isn’t for the average user either; that doesn’t stop most PC makers from bundling Windows with their PCs.

In the end, it’s all about what you’re used to. Mossberg is used to Windows, so it seems more ‘normal’ to him. In time, people will, due to the increased uptake of Linux brought about by a liberated market, also find that it too is ‘normal’.

But there wont be any uptake of Linux unless there’s a huge marketing effort

Incorrect. Linux grows in much the same way as the Internet grew, through word of mouth and general meme-transfer. The Internet, a technology developed by the same army of geeks who are now making consumer Linux a reality, has over 1 billion mainstream users. It gained those users without a marketing department, without sales people or corporate bosses. In time, Linux will do the same. Here’s how.

If all PCs in Europe are now offered to consumers with the option of a free Linux desktop, then that will translate into a jump in desktop Linux adoption. If even 10% of these consumers take up the Linux option, that would translate into a doubling of desktop Linux users, in effect, hastening the onset of an inflection point.

In turn, this increase in users will spur more word of mouth, familiarity and comfort. It’s likely that in successive buying cycles, a higher and higher percentage of new PC buys will opt for the cheaper Linux option – a positive feedback loop in platform migration.

Obviously, these consumers will be free to opt out of Linux, at any time, if they decide to return to Windows. All they need to do is pay the OEM licence fee to Microsoft. We’ll cover how this works soon.

Yes, great, but consumers still want Windows!

Fine. They can then opt to install Windows and acquire the Windows licence key from Microsoft. All they’ve lost is the maybe 10-20 minutes to install/image Windows onto the new PC’s hard disk. In the grand scheme of things, when you incorporate the time needed to unpack the PC and cable it up, this isn’t a big deal.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

derrida derider said:

The hard truth is that economies of scale in user training and in application support (including drivers) and large network externalities all combine to make desktop operating systems a natural monopoly. Thats why it would take something extraordinarily better than Windows to threaten it. Attempts to enforce pluralism legislatively are unlikely to succeed unless they are very heavy handed indeed (unbundling certainly wouldnt be enough), and would cause large efficiency costs through duplication and non-interoperability if they did succeed.

Im no admirer of Microsoft and their innovation-stifling behaviour, but its no use engaging in wishful thinking. Most of us are stuck and will remain stuck with Windows.

– – –

For all we know, Linux has all the attributes of being that ‘something extraordinairy’. All we need to find out if this is the case is to establish a truly open PC platform market, one unencumbered by bundled copies of Windows with most every PC shipped.

Also, you make the claim that ‘unbundling certainly wouldnt be enough’.

How can you know this? We’ve never had an x86 PC market free from Microsoft’s forced bundling, so there’s no reference point for you to draw such a conclusion.

Dave from Albury
14 years ago

Seriously, just buy a Mac. Suck it up, part with the cash and have the best of both worlds. Then you can stop worrying about making your computer work and simply work with it.

skepticlawyer
14 years ago

I’m with Dave. Coming up to my 12 year Maciversary this year.

Liam
Liam
14 years ago

Dave, Macintoshes are also hosts to a quasi-monopoly operating system. Con, I presume you’d favour unbundling of MacOS from Apple products, and shipping (say) Ubuntu or a Boot Camp-ready copy of Windows in the carton as well? That’d do wonders for their marketing [cough].

All theyve lost is the maybe 10-20 minutes to install/image Windows onto the new PCs hard disk. In the grand scheme of things, when you incorporate the time needed to unpack the PC and cable it up, this isnt a big deal.

I wouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of installing or reinstalling an OS from scratch, especially when it comes to switching over personal information and files. There’s a great deal of benefit to being able to just “turn on” a newly-bought desktop computer. It’s a very big deal for the “average user”, who is still, sadly, an idiot.

Just Me
Just Me
14 years ago

Used to write machine code for custom processor applications back in the early 80s.

Got my first Mac in 1989. On my fourth. Never going back to PCs.

The OS market is undergoing a quiet revolution. There are increasing numbers of stable, secure, user-friendly and FREE systems on offer, complete with a range of (often bundled) applications. For example, Ubuntu. And they are not hard to install. The level of competence of the average user is rising, the difficulty of using computers is falling, and the cross-compatibility of hardware and software systems (and a lot of apps) is increasing, all trends that are only likely to continue, so alternative systems are becoming more attractive.

kev fors
kev fors
14 years ago

We don’t have a right to a computer free of bundled software, do we?

JohnZ
JohnZ
14 years ago

Con, it’s not that hard to find PCs without an OS these days. The price differential is not as high as you suggest.

As for linux hardware support, it’s certainly got better but it’s still bad. My new Dell laptop doesn’t work on the latest ubuntu without recompiling intel video drivers.
Gettings phones to sync is usually mission impossible.
Plugged an iPod in recently?
My friend’s ubuntu install freezes when Skype rings.
Ever tried setting up a dual head monitor? It can take literally an entire day and then you realise you need to buy a new video card to make it work.
Laptop power management, suspends nicely but you usually can’t resume.
Wide aspect ration on your laptop? Easy to fix! Just open the console and download 915Resolution…

What possible reason could the average person have for going through this? So they can run their accounting software through wine and have it crash every 5 minutes?
So they can play tuxracer instead of the latest EA sports title?
So they can scream at Open office? (they can try it on windows before moving back to the vastly superior MS Office)
So they can spend half a day trying to get the non-free video codecs installed so they can watch wmv files?
So they can spend hours trying to setup a VPN to access the corporate network?

Linux may be marginally more secure but for the average user, that is where the advantage ends. Give people a $100, a naked PC and a copy of Ubuntu, and 9/10 will be desperately trying to swap that $100 for a fresh copy of windows XP. They want to use their computer, not fight it.

For the average user, Windows XP represents the upgrade for an ubuntu machine that money can buy.

JohnZ
JohnZ
14 years ago

The last sentence should have read “For the average user, Windows XP represents the best upgrade for an ubuntu machine that money can buy.”

I didn’t even touch on printer/scanner support. What a joke!

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

JohnZ said:

Con, its not that hard to find PCs without an OS these days. The price differential is not as high as you suggest.

John, I’ve already provided what I believe to be a reasonable response to this question.

Specifically, from the original paper:

You can go and buy an un-bundled PC today. Why should competition regulators push for all PCs to ship without Windows by default?

Most, if not all of the PCs you can buy without a pre-installed Microsoft operating system, are from what are known as ‘white-box’ or no-name brand PC makers. Generally, these are perfectly acceptable computers, but many consumers, certainly most businesses, will shy away from buying them. This then gives Microsoft a huge competitive boost in the market, as pretty much most of the computers that consumers or businesses will buy, they can only buy with a bundled Microsoft operating system platform.

Secondly, by limiting consumers who prefer not to run Windows to only those computers which ship without an operating system, you are limiting those consumers to a fraction of the potential range of computer hardware otherwise available. This is less than fair. Most systems, most options, most hardware innovations, are therefore not made available to consumers who want unbundled PCs.

Yes, these consumers could buy a PC with Windows and then wipe Windows, but then that means they are paying, as we note above in the Acer case, possibly hundreds of dollars/Euros, needlessly. And all this does is benefit Microsoft, essentially establishing a ‘tax’ on a product category – a category which sells over 100 million units globally every year. This is a vast distortion of the principles of an open marketplace.

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

JohnZ said:

Con, its not that hard to find PCs without an OS these days. The price differential is not as high as you suggest.

As for linux hardware support, its certainly got better but its still bad. My new Dell laptop doesnt work on the latest ubuntu without recompiling intel video drivers.
Gettings phones to sync is usually mission impossible.
Plugged an iPod in recently?
My friends ubuntu install freezes when Skype rings.
Ever tried setting up a dual head monitor? It can take literally an entire day and then you realise you need to buy a new video card to make it work.
Laptop power management, suspends nicely but you usually cant resume.
Wide aspect ration on your laptop? Easy to fix! Just open the console and download 915Resolution

John,

you’re missing the point.

All consumers for whom iPod, specific video driver and phone sync support is important, will be more than free to pull out their credit card and acquire a licence to run the copy of Windows which was shipped with the PC. But, and this is the bit you seem to be missing, they have to make that decision themselves.

I want to speak out on behalf of those that don’t want what Windows offers. For more than a decade, we’ve been paying the Microsoft tax without wanting to, because every brand name PC or laptop in this country mandatorily ships with Windows.

I reckon that perhaps 10% of people will be more than happy without iPod support, will find Linux runs fine with their video and wireless cards and couldn’t care less about phone sync support.

And if that 10% is given the opportunity to run Linux and accept, then that in turn will most likely lead to improved driver support, more games etc.

JohnK
JohnK
14 years ago

How come Con Zymaris’ comments keep getting removed then restored? Is there a disagreement among the admins as to whether he’s a windbag or something? (I would vote yes.)

Con Zymaris
Con Zymaris
14 years ago

Guys,

you’ve made your point very clear. I’ve said all I’m going to say. If you can’t stomach me responding to the criticisms and questions that are raised, then so be it.

If you do actually want to have real answers to pretty much any question you’re likely to raise on this topic, then it’s probably already answered here:

http://www.cybersource.com.au/users/conz/why_the_unbundling_windows_sceptics_are_wrong.html

If it isn’t, then email me directly. I’m certain there is a reasonable and viable solution to any issue you can raise as to why Windows shouldn’t be unbundled from PCs.

Cheers, and all the best.

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Steve
Steve
14 years ago

I don’t think that Dell boxes with Linux are any better priced – and from what I understand the partnership with Ubuntu is far from perfect (the marketing is directed really only toward those already familiar w/Linux). I agree with those who would deride the MS monopoly on operating systems and software. It is virtually unheard of in a “free-market” economy (which really should tell you something about the real definition of free-market). I have gravitated away from windows to the degree possible in my home and work environment. If purchasing a PC with Linux distro or without an OS at all will cut the price in half, I’m all for it. I have yet to see this to any large degree in US markets where unbundled boxes are available (am I looking in the wrong places?). But, remember that market dominance allows certain benefits that MS will always use to full advantage (current patent infringment threats are case in point). The nature of the Linux community dictates that it cannot compete on this financial field, and MS knows this. Dell needed a way to boost sluggish sales and Ubuntu offers a creative start. To be really effective, the whole tactic must evolve past the fray into precisely what Con has made explicit in the post. Why won’t it? Because like Walmart around its distributors MS has the power to hold HP, Lenovo, Sony, etc. hostage to the dictates of their version of “free-market” (which is essentially markets are free when only one exists).

Phillip
Phillip
14 years ago

I agree with most of the previous posting that suggested that heavy handed legislations to force FOSS upon consumers may not be the best solution; I believe time is the solution. FOSS including GNU/Linux has been creating its own fair and level playing field, IT DOES NOT NEED ANY GOVERNMENT AND OR REGULATORS HELP. The system is self correcting however we need to give it more time, I believe 3 to 5 years should create a more desirable “fair and level playing field”. The only thing I would ask is that we study the GPL, FOSS and other such ideas, spread the word and assist whenever and wherever we can.

We need competition for our tax dollars, the government has a monopoly on that; at least many of us have a choice of not choosing MS$, even if that’s a bit difficult and costly. Please be reminded that the government, hardware companies, media personnel and many Windows users own Microsoft shares.

You mentioned that “only governments and national competition regulators now have the power to redress this gross in-balance” That is not so, Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds and others created all that is necessary to correct the in-balance. Just give the GPL and other similar great ideas time to take their coarse.

I would like to propose that we each voluntarily pay a minimum tax to FOSS developers and companies, maybe .00112233 percent of our annual pre/post taxes income. That would require a body (not the government) to collect and distribute such taxes to the different individual and companies according to the combined contributors recommendations.

PS: “Free your mind”, “Haste make waste”, “Time is the Solution”, “Evolution is better than Revolution”

Wayne
Wayne
14 years ago

I believe in Freedom. I believe that Dell Computer is free to offer personal computers equipped anyway that they believe they can profitably sell them. And I also believe that customers should be free as well. Free to purchase personal computers from Dell or not. Personal computers are not basic commodities like food or fuel and similar products. There is no “real” monopoly on personal computers. There are plenty of options for individuals to choose a personal computer which best suits them based on their own free will choice. It is NOT the business of government to determine what is “best” for the people as far as personal computer choice. Please take your desire for government control of commerce to Cuba where it is the law of the land.

Vee
Vee
14 years ago

I was ready to disagree with the article because I like having a standard OS, that basically you can go anywhere and know how to operate it. However, MS upgrades its OS a little too frequently for my taste and phases out support.

The thing that made me agree with the article was the possibility of using Linux or Windows on the box. It struck me as the equivalent to Optus for Telstra which saw enormous gains.

Whilst constantly improving, I think the lack of *nix box sales is due to it not being as intuitive as Windows on the surface. And HCI is probably the most important part of an operating system.

The question then becomes which distribution of Linux?

Dave Bath
14 years ago

There’s another reason why hardware ships with Microsoft: it’s in their interest.

As my local PC shop hardware guy, (who has just tipped over to Linux for prettiness and ease of use, unless you are a gamer), who has been testing Linux said “I had a linux box, replaced the CPU with a much faster one, and it made almost no difference”.

My response: “Of course not. Now you know why I’ll go for a lower-grunt processor and pig out on memory and disk instead. When my CPU is over 20% busy, I usually go and look to see what’s wrong.”

By encouraging people to use Microsoft, and be processor bound, a PC manufacturer has a better chance of selling ANOTHER box in a year or two, rather than the my average 3 to 5 years. If I could just upgrade memory easily, I’d probably update my box every 5 to 8 years.

Jose_X
Jose_X
14 years ago

derrida derider,
>> The hard truth is that economies of scale in user training and in application support (including drivers) and large network externalities all combine to make desktop operating systems a natural monopoly. That’s why it would take something extraordinarily better than Windows to threaten it.

Windows is going to continue to lose influence and at some point it will speed up very fast and the monopoly will belong to FOSS.

Windows is simply a bad deal. You will be able to find everything and more on Linux. Tutorials and lots of useful videos on Linux will eclipse those on Windows.

People will get the Linux fever and dump Windows as their primary platform. Linux represents the individual and gives them power that Windows never will.

Hope you aren’t putting money on your prediction that Windows will be around for a great many more years.

Jose_X
Jose_X
14 years ago

>> who has just tipped over to Linux for prettiness and ease of use, unless you are a gamer

Linux gaming is not on par with Windows gaming in the more popular categories, but you still can have a lot of fun.

http://www.freedomware-gamefest.com/

Dave Bath
14 years ago

Jose_X:
You are in a maze of twisty passages… You almost stepped on your little dog! … Fun levels and CPU for oldies like me do not correlate. And people should also remember that Linux gaming is VERY popular: what’s that under the PlayStation hood?

But, back to my point: I think collusion between M$ and hardware manufacturers is too their mutual benefit, and don’t just blame M$. An ability to use older, lower-powered PCs (whatever the OS) is also an environmental issue.

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