Linux as Stock

I think people relate to money a lot better than they do technology. Money has been around much longer, and knowledge (or perceived knowledge) has been passed down about money for generations, and truthfully, it hasn’t changed a whole heckuva lot.

Most people know the basics of the stock market. “Buy low sell high”, undervalued vs. overvalued, and that sort of thing. Though people don’t always make monetary decisions for the right reasons, they are applying some logic to the decision, at least, which is more than we can say for their technology decisions. So maybe it makes some sense to draw an analogy here.

First of all, I’m going to limit the term “technology” to “operating systems”, just like you might limit the term “stocks” to “airline stocks”. I’m most familiar with operating systems, which is a small subset of this huge thing we call “technology”, just as airline stocks are within the “stock” realm.

Microsoft Windows is an operating system. Apple OS X is an operating system. Linux is an operating system. It’s the thing that has to be installed before anything else on your computer, because it’s the thing in charge of running everything else you install. The buck stops at the operating system. Outlook is not an operating system – it’s an application you install on top of the operating system. Same goes for anything that you click an icon to launch. You don’t click an icon to launch an operating system — you just turn on the power. The operating system is the thing you have to log into in order to see your icons. If you don’t have a login on your machine, then its the thing that starts up first when you turn the power on to present you with your working environment. Got it? OK, on to the analogy.

If you look at these systems like you would stock, then you would have a lot of comparisons to make. You’d be shocked at how some people compare stock in different companies (oh yeah, I used to be a stockbroker, so I have some familiarity with this). For example, some vegetarians refuse to buy stock in McDonald’s. Some religious folks won’t buy “sin stocks”, like casinos or even tobacco companies. They take stock purchases very personally, and the way they compare stocks is skewed in that way.

Some people are principled like this with their technology decisions, but it’s rare. There are people who will only use certain “100% free” software, which means free of cost, and unencumbered with regards to licensing. Very few open source advocates, myself included, can get by only on 100% free software. We have jobs to do, and we have people we have to interact with using technology, so we don’t always have a choice. Even if we did, I’m don’t think we’d all choose to go without Flash player in our browsers, or MP3 support in our audio players.

Others take a slightly more involved approach to stock comparison. They look at the companies, they look at the stock price range over the last 52 weeks, they look at the P/E ratio, insider holdings, and the company profile and maybe their competition, trying to get an idea of the growth prospects in the company. Is it fundamentally undervalued? Is it’s market cap less than the company could be liquidated for? Some slightly more technical folks might look at the beta for the stock to get an idea about the volatility you can expect to see on a day-to-day basis. I’m not saying these are necessarily the right ways to evaluate securities, but this is what people do.

There are relatively few people who would admit to being even this thorough about their technology decisions. If you took a look at Windows, Linux, and OS X and compared them this way, you’d likely find that Windows is greatly overvalued, OS X is somewhat undervalued, and Linux is also undervalued. Hold the flames ’til the end please.

The reason I say that Windows is overvalued is because it is (clearly, and painfully obviously) being used in areas it clearly isn’t well suited to run. I’m not going to go into specifics here, but I’ll refer you to any one of the various network security websites to do your own research. Aside from security issues, there is also a history of privacy concerns with Microsoft products. Furthermore, my own opinion is that Windows is just about the *least* user-friendly interface to a system that I’ve ever seen. Defrag is a Windows invention, to my knowledge. The need to reinstall Windows every several months because performance has degraded and there’s no way to tell why is a Windows thing. The need to reboot your system for some change to take affect or to run a newly installed application is a Windows thing. Registries and Defrag aren’t something you ever really think about on systems outside of Windows. I’ve never defragged a Mac or Linux host, and I’ve never reinstalled a Mac or Linux host because of inexplicable performance degradation. I’ve also never gotten a virus on any system but Windows.

I say that the Mac is *slightly* undervalued. I would’ve said “grossly undervalued” if it wasn’t for the fact that the price point for a Mac is some number of *times* more expensive than a PC. Apple has also not made much of a play for the server room, so its utility is pretty much limited to the general desktop and specialized applications like newspaper layout, graphics design and multimedia development. Perhaps the price point relief will come with Apple’s eventual move to Intel hardware, but I don’t know that I’d count on that.

Linux is also undervalued. I say this because there are a number of applications where Linux is “tried and true”, but it hasn’t penetrated the market to the extent that it could in those application areas. Mail servers, web servers, entry-level firewalls, proxy servers, and the like are all things that it’s hard to beat Linux at. What’s more, there are some really compeling developments in other server application areas. Put this together with various government certifications, and a growing commercial support and distribution presence, and Linux evolves from something IT managers “probably should” look at to something they “can’t not” look at.

Linux on the desktop is another animal altogether. The main issue here is that there doesn’t seem to be a holistic, end-to-end solution for desktop management. Novell is pitching a solution, and their purchase of Ximian is promising (Ximian has been working on this for years), but these things don’t have big name testimonials of any substance that I’ve seen. Certainly, there are distributions that do well on the desktop these days. In spite of my distaste for Debian, for example, Ubuntu has taken over my laptop and home workstation, because it’s just plain simple to use. I’m also a fan of Linspire, also Debian-based. However, I haven’t seen desktop management solutions that enable administrators to automate desktop management tasks, like installing new software, or keeping machines updated.

So, like stock, you have to compare based on your needs and your means. If you have the money and you do tons of multimedia or web development, or if you’re just loaded and want the best desktop experience money can buy, the Mac is probably for you. If you want a server, Linux wins, hands down. Linux might also win on the desktop if you’re the “typical home user”, who uses their machine to browse the web and check email 90% of the time. Basically, the only real reason I can see for using Windows is that you’re at the office and you have to, or your business depends on an application that only runs on Windows.

Of course, this doesn’t reflect well in actual stock prices. Microsoft stock continues to grow, while companies like RedHat and Novell are a bit more volatile and depressed, and Apple can barely be explained on a daily basis. This speaks more to factors not relating directly to the user experience, though, so I’m dodging that issue 😉