As I briefly mentioned in my recent article on the influence of the Linux desktop, with a new major Windows release just around the corner we are being treated to an onslaught of articles proclaiming the failings of Linux on the desktop. You'd think that such articles wouldn't be necessary if the Linux desktop had indeed failed. One recurring theme is the idea that Linux has terrible hardware support. The premise is always that Linux is impossibly difficult to install and that lots of hardware just doesn't work with Linux. The author almost always proclaims his or her love for Linux if it would just work properly. In reality their love for Linux is about as sincere as my love for Windows, but I digress.
Linux is compatible with more hardware than any other OS bar none. That certainly includes Windows. Try installing Windows 7 on some random laptop from scratch and see how much is missing or unsupported without third party drivers. My experience doing Linux installs for my customers is that a lot of off the shelf hardware "just works" and the rest needs proprietary drivers downloaded to make it work, just like Windows. There is, indeed, some hardware that doesn't work with Linux and years ago that was a real issue. The fact is that more and more manufacturers are supporting Linux well and other drivers have been adequately reverse engineered.
Yes, I am aware of the recent problems with some new ATI graphics chipsets. Yes, I am also aware that there are still printers that don't work properly with Linux. Nowadays those are the exceptions rather than the rule.
A Linux user writing under the nickname Bernard Swiss put it this way in the LXer.com forum in response to one such article:
It's not that Linux doesn't support a lot of hardware -- it's that some hardware doesn't support Linux.The funny thing is that I've bought hardware that did say that it was for a given Windows version and found that it worked perfectly well under Linux. Still, his warning is worth heeding if you are uncertain about some piece of hardware.
And I'm old enough to recall when even semi-savvy "consumers" got the point that "Win-hardware" ("win-printers", "win-modems", etc.) were something that only the most ignorant would buy, because producing such "hardware" was at best a sign of cutting corners and/or incompetence, and at worst cynical exploitation of the customer. It got to the point that even most sales-people at "Big Box" chains were likely to warn customers away from that junk.
Seriously, I think that might well be a point worth emphasizing even today. No matter how slick or apparently cool a product appears to be:
if the label says:
"Made Especially for Windows", (or worse, "Made Especially for Windows version X"),
and doesn't mention other operating systems, the manufacturer is probably being lazy, sloppy, incompetent and/or ripping you off. And if the hardware actually won't work with anything else but Windows -- make that "definitely".
Cellphones run Linux. Super-computers run Linux, The big stock exchanges all run Linux. Google and eBay run Linux. GPS locators and ebook readers and household entertainment devices run Linux; So if your hardware won't run Linux, well -- that says a lot more about your hardware than it says about Linux.
The reality is that Linux is held to a much higher standard that Windows is. Most people assume that hardware works with Windows out of the box because they have never tried to install Windows on that hardware. It came preinstalled and the vendor or OEM already did all the hard work of making sure all the necessary drivers were in place. Linux, on the other hand, is usually installed on some piece of random hardware that came with Windows preinstalled. The work of finding those drivers and installing them falls to the Linux user. The authors of these articles neglect to mention that if users are starting with a bare system with no OS it would, in many if not most cases, be more difficult to get Windows working properly than it is to get Linux working properly. If Linux doesn't "just work" out of the virtual box it is judged to be a failure. Never mind that most major Linux distributions will "just work" much more frequently than Windows given the same starting point.
I'll repeat the point I made in my last article: for Linux to make headway on the consumer desktop it needs to be available preloaded in stores the way it was on netbooks for a couple of years. If Linux is preinstalled it is suddenly on a level playing field with Windows and MacOS X. Then the expectation that a system should "just work" with Linux the way it does with Windows is reasonable and justified.
There is plenty of history to show that Linux can and should succeed in the marketplace given a level playing field. We saw companies like Dell, HP, ASUS and Acer offer well configured, well designed systems, primarily netbooks and nettops, in significant numbers between 2007 and 2010. Many of these systems sold very well. As I noted in my last article sales of Linux on netbooks remained robust for two years after the introduction of netbooks with Windows preloaded. Dell claimed that one third of their netbook sales were Linux. If Linux wasn't profitable for Dell they wouldn't have announced a new Linux laptop earlier this week.
History also shows that companies can do a good job delivering a well configured Linux system. Two cases in point: my 2009 review of the Sylvania g Meso and Ladislav Bodnar's review of the HP Mini 110 six months later. I also own the HP Mini 110 and I've been thoroughly satisfied with it running a variety of Linux distributions.
The reality today is that Linux supports most consumer hardware very well indeed. The articles claiming that Linux hardware support is somehow lacking either are relying on outdated information or anecdotal experiences based on unreasonable expectations that an operating system, any operating system, can "just work" on any piece of hardware out there. The sad fact is that a lot of people will accept what they read at face value. The purpose of these articles is to warn people who don't know better away from Linux and to sell more copies of Windows and more systems with Windows preloaded.
You can get systems with Linux preloaded. It takes a little searching online, a special order and, when dealing with boutique vendors, perhaps paying a bit of a premium. However, you can and should expect that a system with Linux preloaded will "just work" at least as well as a similar Windows system. Actually, it should work better than a similar Windows system since you likely won't be dealing with any malware and likely will be running a system with lower resource utilization. In other words, a system preloaded with Linux should and usually will run faster and with less problems that a comparable Windows system.
Here is the final thought that the fear mongers don't want you to know: chances are your old system which is too old to support Windows 8 and which you think you need to replace might be just fine if you install Linux on it. Indeed, it might be faster than the shiny new system with Windows.