Is Linux ready for college?

Is Linux ready for college?

Summary: Well, it's time for me to jump into the fray over Linux vs Windows. I just read Paul Murphy's article (The Linux desktop market) and the phrase that struck me was the following:Sure, the Linux deployment will be cheaper, and generally somewhat faster and more reliable on the same hardware, but telling that to people who pigeon hole you as from the wrong side of the social register the instant you mention computing is a mugs game: one you can't win.

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Well, it's time for me to jump into the fray over Linux vs Windows.

I just read Paul Murphy's article (The Linux desktop market) and the phrase that struck me was the following:

Sure, the Linux deployment will be cheaper, and generally somewhat faster and more reliable on the same hardware, but telling that to people who pigeon hole you as from the wrong side of the social register the instant you mention computing is a mugs game: one you can't win.

 

The 'sour grapes' tone of his comments aside, Paul's first three claims have been debated in various forums and the case for Linux on these three points is far from settled.

 

First, the retail cost of a fully-supported Linux distribution is virtually identical to the retail price of Windows. Conversely, the OEM price of pre-installed Windows is about the same as an unsupported, un-installed Linux distribution.

While Paul's assumption that Linux is faster remains largely unsubstantiated (at least based upon independent benchmarks), there is little doubt that on low-end systems this is probably true. On reasonably configured systems though, I doubt it.

Linux probably has the edge on rock-solid reliability, thanks to its roots as a UNIX alternative. (But is it even possible for a suitable UNIX alternative to be equally well-suited as a Windows alternative? I doubt it! Otherwise, comparably-priced UNIX solutions would be competing with Linux for space on the desktop. This is not the case!)

Setting aside the discussion above, let's assume for the moment that Paul is correct about the lower deployment costs of Linux. What about ongoing support? The answer is clear -- qualified UNIX / Linux systems administrators command dramatically higher salaries than their MS-certified counterparts.

On either basis, it is very hard to make the argument that the TCO of a Linux desktop is lower than that of a Windows desktop.

So what about Education - IT?

Paul asserts that IT decision makers know nothing about IT -- and are therefore apparently easily duped into deploying Windows desktops. In a modern university environment, nothing could be further from the truth.

So, if Linux is a 'superior' solution, as Paul suggests, why doesn't Linux dominate the desktop space in higher education?

Because, like the enterprise, the selection of hardware and software in an educational setting is based on more than one criteria. These criteria include not just TCO but also:

  1. The personal productivity needs of the students -- who have widely divergent computer experience. Sure, Linux can provide functional alternatives to Office. But students use Windows at home, or bring Windows PCs to campus, and asking them to switch back and forth is unreasonable and counter-productive.
  2. The instructional needs of faculty. If the tools they wish to use to teach are not available to run on a particular OS, that OS is simply not an option. Sure, similar functionality is often available on Linux but educational materials are often geared to specific commercial applications. So much for mass deployment of Linux desktops.
  3. In a backoffice setting, OS decisions are very often driven by the demands of the application under consideration. As a result, few universities find themselves implementing one OS throughout their network.

Student computer labs may be dominated by Windows but Macintosh, UNIX, and Linux workstations can be found on most college campuses. Backoffice servers often offer an even broader mix of operating systems.

Further, a university environment often has greater access to low-cost UNIX and Linux experienced personnel than any other.

It is naïve of Paul to attribute Linux' lack of success in the desktop space to ill-informed decision-makers -- especially considering the success of Linux in the space once dominated by UNIX.

If Linux cannot dominate the desktop in an educational environment, the very environment that took UNIX out of the lab and into the corporate machine room, it is not due to ill-informed educators or evil Redmond-ites.

Paul needs to look elsewhere for excuses for the slow adoption of Linux on the desktop.

Topics: Windows, Hardware, Linux, Open Source

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4 comments
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  • I'm the first to bash Microsoft, but...

    I'll be the first to look for alternatives to all things Microsoft, but I really think you've got this right. At the university level, you'll find lots of people running lots of different systems, in part due to a variety of research needs and backgrounds, as you noted, but also due to the independent nature of researchers and departments on a campus. 90% of the seniors I'm sending off to college this year are taking Windows laptops. A few are dual-booting Linux for the geek factor and to avoid rampant malware. Others are taking their Macs. Any way it goes, educational needs are just too diverse at the university level to standardize to a single platform, let alone a platform that remains a niche with little formal support.
    mrdatahs
  • Not unreasonable

    "But students use Windows at home, or bring Windows PCs to campus, and asking them to switch back and forth is unreasonable and counter-productive."

    No, it isn't, as a teacher I have to say that I'd estimate 98% of students won't even notice if I replace Word with OpenOffice. They'll just think someone changed the theme, or messed with the toolbar. I know this because I did replace word with openoffice on 45 machines in my labs. No complaints, no issues. Until they save the file in Open Office and take it home, and Word won't do it. So I require them to use .rtf, and everyone is happy, even the Mac user!
    Very few students use the higher level capabilities of any word processor. Until they do, the problem of differing programs is simply no problem.
    ajole
    • Oh, and dis I mention that the OS was changed too?

      Yep, all 45 from Windows to Linux- 15 Xandros, 15 Red Hat Fedora, and 15 Ubuntu. No complaints, no problems. I have never showed the kids how to do anything (except save as an rtf), and never been asked by a single student how to do anything, except by one person, who asked how to get on the internet if the little blue E was missing, and was told by the next kid over, "Use the Firefox, stupid, IE Sucks!"
      Ah, a fanboy in training!
      ajole
    • True enough ...

      ... but, I gather from your post you are dealing with a specific set of students taking a specific class. It isn't quite so easy when you have students with widely divergent computing experience receiving prepared materials from multiple instructors in multiple formats (DOC, RTF, PDF, WP, XLS, etc.). The real problem though is that a growing number of college textbooks include software programs written for Windows. Asking a student to run these under Linux (with some sort of emulation) in a school's student lab is a big jump from asking them to user OpenOffice and to save everything in RTF.
      M Wagner