Originally Published: Tuesday, 3 October 2000 Author: Brian Richardson
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

What's The Deal With Linux & Hardware?

If you're prone to acts of unspeakable violence, you may not want to read this article. The word "Windows" appears many times.

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If you're prone to acts of unspeakable violence, you may not want to read this article.

I had an on-line discussion last week that prompted me to write this article. Actually, "discussion" isn't the right word ... it was an argument. We were trying to help somebody on IRC fix a problem with XMMS. When the person revealed they were using a Duron processor, the whole "AMD versus Intel" argument broke out.

The main person leading the "AMD sucks" argument was angry because in the past, AMD systems didn't work with Linux. All of the cases he stated were basically issues with the motherboards or system chipsets, which weren't made by AMD. But the real issue this person had was that the systems didn't work properly with Linux. This was attributed to the hardware, not Linux.

I hated to do this in a Linux chatroom, but I pointed out to the person that all of those features worked fine in Windows (gasp). When you have a "hardware problem" that goes away when you change the software, it's not really a "hardware problem". This was met with the answer I expected ... "Well, if they had done it right, it would have worked"

The conversation turned ugly when I asked for a clarification of the criteria used to define "sucks". I was then told (and I quote) to "shove a sausage up my ass" and pick anything I wanted for the criteria. Childish antics and unprofessional mannerisms in debate are another topic for another Web site, so I'll move on to the real topic of this article.

This is the part where I'll upset some folks. You have been warned.

One of the reasons I still use Linux is because I had a good first experience. I had a friend make a Webserver for me using Slackware, a 486DX-33, 8 MB and a 300 MB hard drive ... in 1994! My college used it for three years as the homework site for a distance learning course. I liked the idea of an OS that was robust enough to do such a task with such basic hardware.

But I've had some bad Linux experiences as well. My first AGP video card coughed up a hairball when I loaded RedHat 5.1. SuSe 6.4 called me bad names when I tried to install it on a Pentium II with a GeForce2 MX ... and that was last week. Lots of hardware just doesn't work under Linux, but it works fine under Windows (yes, I said it ... it sucks, but it's true).

Now this isn't really the fault of Linux as an OS. There are a few major factors that prevent certain pieces of hardware from functioning in Linux: (1) Hardware vendors don't release specifications without signing a non-disclosure agreement the size of Bill Gates' monthly bank statement. (2) Hardware vendors develop all drivers in-house and never give specifications to anybody. (3) Linux developers discount the hardware as "cheap crap" and don't make a driver for it.

The first circumstance is developed by paranoid vendors who think "open-source = theft" and that their ideas will be stolen the minute they release a spec into the wild. Dose of reality: if your product is good, somebody's already spending millions to reverse-engineer it ... get over it. By the time they figure it out, a good technology company will already be another step ahead. Since Linux is gaining market share, this problem may go away as larger technology companies seek total hardware/software compatibility.

The second circumstance is why every Linux user treats uses the word "WinModem" in sentences with one or more of the following phrases: "bite my rump", "full of it", "fully automatic weapon", "under the front bumper of my truck". The software modem is a good example of what happens when a technology vendor ignores an operating system. Since software modem vendors develop their own drivers, very few specs exist and Linux developers have to hack drivers. This is bad for Linux (which had odd drivers that sometimes work) and the hardware vendor (who just pissed off bored teenagers who know way too much about TCP/IP).

The third circumstance is the one that bothers me the most. Most Linux folk are pretty hard-core computer users. We like our toys, so we end up running high-end computers. A lot of stuff that ends up in consumer PCs is viewed as "cheap junk". But I've seen a lot of hardware vendors make great consumer products out of low-end products. Linux can find a home in this market, due to its reliability and attractive cost (i.e. free). If Linux can't work with these hardware components, then it will never gain broad acceptance, no matter how much it has going for it.

These "compatibility issues" are really not related to technology, but to the fact Linux is an emerging operating system. Hardware support under Linux is light years ahead of "the early days" (circa 1994), but still needs to improve before every user experience is a good one.

Brian Richardson is currently the only active staff writer for hardware.linux.com ... and he's lonely. If you want to help linux.com with your hardware know-how, send an e-mail to starlady@linux.com

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