Is ‘Linux is only free if your time has no value’ still valid?

EDIT: This is now an old post and my opinion on Linux has changed a great deal over the years. While I agree this viewpoint had some merit a few years ago, the enormous effort by the open source community to make Linux great has generally succeeded. So for the record, this article no longer represents my views on Linux and should be viewed in a historical context.

This is the part where I start getting hate mail from people, and cheerleading messages telling me to take a look at it again, because it’s so much better now. I understand. I’ll take your word for it. And when the time comes to replace the O2 I have today, maybe my next machine will run Linux. But as we all know, Linux is only free if your time has no value, and I find that my time is better spent doing things other than the endless moving-target-upgrade dance.

Jamie Zawinski

The above quote comes from a post made by a programmer called Jamie Zawinski back in1998. It’s a quote aimed squarely at the user unfriendliness of Linux and at the amount of time you need to understand and configure a computer using Linux to get stuff done. Of course this was a long time ago and Linux, in its many different guises (distros), has made a lot of progress, so is this quote still valid?

This quote is basically saying that Linux is a good OS because it’s free of charge and you are free to modifiy it to your hearts content without the threat of legal action but essentially its going to take you a long time to understand it and to ultimately use it. If your time has no value then you will profit from this.

If your time has no value? What can that mean? It means that you dont mind wasting your time or you don’t include time as a chargeable commodity. It means you are essentially free to waste time. Implying that Linux will do just that very thing, waste your time! Of course in business today, your time is not free and you certainly do not want to waste it, so he argues to not touch Linux because it will waste your time and your profit will be hurt.

Is this true, even today? Well, i can answer that one pretty easily with a big YES! Linux will definately waste your time but with a small caveat: only if you have never used it before.

In the last few months i’ve been testing Linux again with the goal of fully replacing my windows workstation with a free and open operating system. I’ve been testing Linux on and off for about 10 years starting with Mandrake Linux (as it was called back then in 1999) and more recently, jumping on the bandwagon, and using Ubuntu.

I’ve had a tendency to use the more easy to use distributions to avoid setup time, and to be honest, purely to get things done as quickly as possible. And why not, i need an OS i can quickly install, that’s easy to administrate and easy to find and install software for. Ubuntu is all of these things and is a very polished piece of code. The look and feel is just great and the modern package manager, Synaptic is a great tool for discovering and installing all sorts of software. I’ve used Ubuntu for the desktop and for implementing a web development server.

This, however, is not the problem. The problem is the little things, the kind of stuff that bugs you before you can even start to use your OS to get stuff done. For example:

  • Why do i need to compile a driver for my network card?
  • Why, if that doesn’t work, do i have to buy a new compatible network card?
  • Why do i need to manually edit my xorg.conf file to get multi-monitors working properly?
  • Why can’t i set preferences for everything from a nice GUI instead of editing text files?
  • Why is there no 64bit Flash player?
  • Why can’t i play DVDs or MP3s straight away?
  • Why doesn’t Linux recognise my Web Camera?
  • …and so on

These are all small and simple but legitimate problems and of course for me easily solved but for the user who has never used any Linux distribution before these are major time sinks. Anybody with a modicum of intelligence can overcome these obstacles with a little help from Google, but why should they, when competing operating systems work ‘straight out of the box’? These types of problems are extremely common place on any Linux system and they make doing anything remotely professional a chore on such systems.

Linux of course is doing just fine in the server rooms around the world, mainly because a lot of technical people work in such environments and have been using UNIX type systems for a long time but for the novice wanting to use Linux on the desktop or server because of some perceived value of using free stuff, i’d advise not to, unless you have a lot of disposable time on your hands.

You’re gonna have to pay in one way or another, it might be in staff, training or time, but you will pay for using Linux!

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  1. Linux is user-friendly. It just isn’t promiscuous about which users it’s friendly with.
    After being on Linux-only diet for a couple of years I discovered I became allergic to non-Linux software.

    • Bulshit, Linux is still user-unfriendly, as oposed to user-hostile, as it once was. That’s why even die-hard Linux fans eventually migrate to OSX which, in broad terms, is Linux done right with a complete gui.

  2. @devil, I agree. Linux doesn’t even have a steep learning curve, it’s a steep that approaches to zero.

  3. It’s still true. It’s only good timesink.

  4. It’s funny, the way people think about wasting time. 15 years ago I got fed up after needing to re-install WinSucks for the 8th time, because of virus and trojans, which run rampant on that OS. I switched to Redhat (now Fedora 23) as a newbie to computing in general, and I’ve never looked back. The only thing I can’t do with Linux, is play games written specificaly for WinSucks. I also haven’t needed to spend hundreds of dollars for new software every year, and for every upgrade. I guess, if a person afraid of putting forth a little effort to learn something better, or are just plain lazy ( most people are),then those other OS should suit you just fine. I will never look back at my decision to switch.

  5. The only good excuse for linux users is virus/trojan.
    You guy should learn to use your computer or stop porn cause i can’t remember the last time was infected.
    The problem is very often between the comp and the computer.

    Windows is stable no doubt.
    Linux is cool if you have time to waste ….
    Ho yes i know it’s free….but…

  6. I can’t agree more : Unix and all its useless flavors are a waste time. You can’t even imagine how much work I could have done in 1/100 of time in Windows instead of using that crap. Excuse my language.

  7. My first experience with Linux was from 1998 to about 2000 and since 2006 I have used only Linux. The ease of use has come a long, long way. Majority of stuff works out of the box with the exception being non-free drivers and components Flash (which is luckily going to go away) and that’s forgivable if you ask me.

    Most stuff can be configured with more-or-less good gui tools. For a developer the command line is indispensable with tools such as grep, sed, shell scripting, and of course all major languages and their most common libraries being available with a single install command. Windows stands no chance here.

    If Linux used to have certain user hostility, then what about Microsoft’s seemingly never ending contempt for Windows users? Was Metro anything more than a really boxy, clunky way of saying f*ck you? :)

    And really, it wasn’t until 2008, as far as I know, until Windows got anything resembling package management, and that itself works only for major software, no chance in installing something like python + a few esoteric libraries from there with a single command.

  8. I totally agree with the author. Linux is always in the developing/evolving stage and never has a build/distro which is user ready. If any linux lover disagrees, you just have to make a lawyer, doctor or a layman sit in front of a MAC, Windows and Linux OS computer and see on which OS they learn faster and can achieve things quicker. The answer is definitely Windows and MAC. Windows is more popular because it supports wide variety of games and OEM software applications and yes drivers are easily available

  9. @mary

    People like you are exactly the type that sees to it that people like me, with IQs above a pencil eraser, fight ever harder to avoid the Apple religion and its digital “purple coolade”. BTW, did you know more than half the Internet runs on Linux? Pretty good for an operating system that sucks, that is, if you know the function of an operating system in the first place.

  10. My ex-girlfriend and her 13 year old niece use Ubuntu, and they’re very far from being computer or OS users experts. For them I installed Ubuntu with proprietary drivers and some extra applications. They’re using it for 3 years.

    “Why do i need to compile a driver for my network card?”
    I also had wifi problems with Compaq laptops, but never had to compile a driver for this issue. Not even in Slackware :P I had to compile a driver for an old scanner, but that was more than 10 years ago and it started to work out-of-the-box later being automatically detected by Ubuntu.

    “Why, if that doesn’t work, do i have to buy a new compatible network card?”
    I’m not sure if you really needed to buy a new network card… Anyway, drivers developers need to know the cards specifications to develop the drivers for them. If they don’t have the documentation, they need to reverse engineer. On the other hand, any OS – even MS-Windows – can’t work with all hardware. The hardware boxes have some images and text saying what are some of the compatible Operating Systems for them.

    “Why do i need to manually edit my xorg.conf file to get multi-monitors working properly?”
    I never needed to do that. I’m using two monitors right now with Ubuntu. I just had to configure with the GUI.

    “Why can’t i set preferences for everything from a nice GUI instead of editing text files?”
    In MS-Windows you have the Registry thing…
    I don’t edit text files to set preferences. I use the GUI.

    “Why is there no 64bit Flash player?”
    Maybe because Adobe don’t want a 64bit version for Linux.
    Apple and Google are problems with Flash, that’s why they’re ditching it.

    “Why can’t i play DVDs or MP3s straight away?”
    If you’re using Ubuntu, that’s because the free software philosophy they adhere.
    But you can install the property drivers while installing Ubuntu opting in the opting to install restrictive drivers.

    “Why doesn’t Linux recognise my Web Camera?”
    Maybe for the same reason you had problems with the network card.

  11. It’s not like everything works out of the box with windows. You are just used to solving windows pains and not used to the linux problems. I’ve switched to linux 2-3 years back and while having my trouble at first, now when I have to use windows I constantly find myself swearing how much work I could have done in linux in the time it required to set windows software up.

    In linux, must of the software is got through the packet managers. I install the system, type a command – everything is installed. Everything is updated. In windows – boy, if I would get a euro for every time some popup tells me I have to click somewhere and wait to be up to date… How much time do you spend downloading and installing sw one by one on a new machine?

    In linux, everything is accessible and documented from shell. You want to see connected usb devices and IDs? easy! You want to see why one wasnt recognized? Type dmesg, you get all the info! You want to setup a bootloader after moving a partition to the new disk? Vim the config file, done! In windows if anything goes wrong (like the bootloader) – no proper logs, no proper configs. You have a problem? Reinstall! You want a speedy system? reinstall! etc.. Ah, and we’ll break your linux bootloader underway even while it should have worked out of the box in UEFI!

    Also, windows UI got worse starting with windows 8. It could be hard to find the info you needed e.g. on a bluetooth device – which services it supports, which com port the RFCOMM was assigned too? Well, it seems it is completely impossible now in win8-win10. Once again – once something doesnt work as expected, start guessing or reinstall all along.

    I’m an electronics and embedded engineer nowdays. I was quite experienced with windows development (.NET) back then, but now having to work with windows feels like so much waste of time compared to what I can do in Linux in that time. Accepting there is sometimes trouble with drivers quality or compatibility is just a minor annoyance compared to the gains.

    Doing embedded development, or any kind of development really, from a windows host is painful beyond my limits once you know how fluent and easy it can be…

  12. I’d pretty much agree with Mav here.

    The people bashing on GNU/Linux have never (really) used it. And I don’t mean used as in that one time when they run ubuntu from a CD or USB for five minutes.

    Linux (as in openSUSE, Mint, Ubunut, Fedora, etc. – mature distros with a mature Desktop Environment like GNOME, KDE, Cinnamon) as a OS is better than Windows. Not just because of the price and privacy but better in general.

    Some examples why it is better and I (and a lot others who really use it) am more productive with a linux distro.
    Workspaces. If you take a bit of time to develop a habit for using workspaces then you will feel very limited while using Windows 8 and prior. Granted Win 10 has 3 workspaces but the implementation is not as good as it’s in linux Desktop Environments.

    Shortcuts. It’s a known fact that the more you keep your hands on the keyboard the faster and more productive you’ll be because it takes a bit of time to look for the mouse and click on small buttons. Shortcuts in linux work way better than in windows. Even the same application (firefox for example) with the same shortcuts doesn’t work in windows as good as it does in linux. Because a lot of times windows fails to focus open applications. Say you got an application open (notepad for example) and firefox under it. A lot of times I’ve noticed that when you close notepad with a shortcut then firefox, which was under it isn’t focused. So you can’t use any shortcuts on that open window of firefox (like maximize/unmaximize, minimze, close, etc.). Which means you have to get the mouse. Wasted time and interrupted workflow.

    Working environment customizability. With this I don’t mean you can customize the OS itself or tweak the kernel but you can easily add docks with application launchers for example. You can, easily, add applications as start-up programsa (even apps that need sudo rights to run – good luck with running apps as startup programs with administrator rights on windows), etc.

    Security. While this is not a feature of the OS itself, linux is pretty secure against malware (viruses and stuff) because there’s practically no viruses for linux. Someone here said something on the lines of ‘get out of your porn’. Why should I? I’ve used (and still do) windows for a very long time and I’ve only been infected 3-4 times (mostly with malware like the babylon search…thingy that was a couple of years ago) but telling people to quit pron because windows fails to protect itself is bullshit. Dr. Cox’s quote from Scrubs: “…if they took porn of the internet there’d be only one website left, and it’d be called ‘Bring Back the Porn!’” is a pretty accurate description of what porn means to today’s internet world.

    Installing/updating software. There’s way better software outthere for windows thanf or linux. This is a fact. But installing and updating software on linux is way easier than it is on windows. Not to mention now that, with the current version of windows, users don’t even have a choice to update or not. In linux you just type a command or two in a terminal and everything is done automatically. If something doesn’t work after an update you just roll-back that update. Easy. What do you do in windows is updates fuck up the system? You do a restore if you’re luck if not then you have to find the installation media and try to rescue your data.

    There’s more but I’ll just stop here.

    These are some benefits of linux over windows from the perspective of a ‘normal’ user. I’m not even gonna go into the possibilities for increasing productivity that programmers have. Someone with basic bash scripting knowledge can automate a lot of stuff very easily. For example when I was a student I had some small scripts with which I automated the process of opening a textbook, the corresponding solved problems book, formulas sheet, web-browser with three tabs (google translate,, google), my note-taking app and my audio player with some classical music. All those in separate workspaces and in a few seconds by only typing, in a terminal which – I used to activate with a single keyboard-button, some letters from the name of the particular subject (like Thermo for Thermodynamics). Imagine how much time this would take in windows. Opening every window one by one and arranging them manually.

    With that said, I do most of my work on a windows 7 machine because I work with CAD software which is practically non-existant in the linux world so I don’t have anything against windows but bashing linux as unfriendly is not fair. The only, and biggest, drawback of linux is that big vendors don’t develop software for it. No professional CAD software for linux becuase neither Autodesk nor Dassault Systems nor the other CAD software vendors create linux versions (because of the tiny market share obviously). No professional audio/video editing software. A mediocre office package. (Practically) No gaming. Though this is changing fast recently, but still, the best games aren’t being ported to linux yet.

    So bottom line is: the right tool for the job (and operating systems are tools).

  13. More than ever! Tried today (2017) to install Ubuntu 16.04.1 LTS and 14.04.5 LTS on a machine with Radeon 5770. Congratulations in getting it running with the native monitor resolution and dual display. This problem would occur to anybody having the card and a monitor other than 1400×1050 (why this default unchangeable resolution?).

    This is industrial-scale time waste! Rather than fixing the problem in one place, Linux/Ubuntu has chosen to distributes it, so that anybody who is unfortunate to own the AMD card has to waste time.

    I’m not a gamer, and I don’t feel the urge to buy the latest NVidia card, advocated by the community. Maximizing a window or rendering a research paper on screen suffice my old AMD card. I don’t need fancy effects associated with window decoration, they only introduce eye fatigue on the long run.

    What I need is the capability to install the proprietary driver/open source driver from a decent user interface. The current one is indecent, because of silent failure. Or I would need a decent open source driver, capable at least to detect the monitors, if not able to provide acceleration.

  14. @Hekri – I disagree with respect of security: an operating system is as secure as its users. I’ve seen people running Socks proxy with no clue of authentication. They believed the server ran on their localhost adapter, while it was actually running on their unfirewalled network adapter (Linux is secure, only Windows needs firewall). Because of the annoyance of regularly asking a password, most of the Linux people have short password.

    A lot of things are so difficult to configure (for example ip routing), so that a lot of people shortcut security for the sake of functionality, or they simply ignore security aspects while solving the problem.

    By default, any sane operating system is secure, including Windows and Linux. What weaken the security are the users.

  15. I’ve been using linux since 97/98 when I was a child. Honestly it was a lot more intuitive than the Acorn PC’s we started using, there would be no bizarre behaviour, everything was pleasantly explicit. PC’s were more mature than the Commodore 128 and spectrum I had for playing around on, and it seemed harder to overwrite your main hard-drive due to user-privilege differences which didn’t exist to protect users in the then windows 95, 98 & ME.

    Even ATI & Nvidia support was there early on. It was in the middle when Linux wobbled, when the companies rumbled in and everything became more fractured, niche nix-inspired competitors like BeOS crumbled. At that time Linux was weak for a bit on Desktop.

    Now Linux is leading the way. You could AirDrop before Mac ever coined the phrase, shadow-volumes were possible long before windows; even ideas touted as “new features” in the commercial OS’s can find proof-of-concepts in Linux ecosystem roots, just as Linux exchanges with other OS groups like the BSD’s. Where it needs support for Desktop today is with drivers and hardware vendors (who are using technological innovations to lock people out of their own devices)

  16. Windows 10 is the best operating system I have ever used.

    It is productive and things go real smoothly.

    Yes. I use Linux. I have been for over 18 years.

    Desktop Linux is a joke. Commercial software is vastly superior to the endless BS forks Linux knocks out.

    My code worked like a charm today. Did a minor update now I have to spend hours tracing the problem. No thanks. I’ll VMware into Linux when I fancy wasting loads time.

    Using Desktop Linux is like using LATEX when you have Word. Pain doesn’t even begin to describe it.

    I do love BASH though but Python sorts that out and can be used everywhere. Hell I even have micropython on a development board I’m running. Bet that takes days to configure under Linux. I plugged it into windows opened the editor clicked run and got a blinky light going with a single click. Took me about 3 minutes.

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