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 So for the record, this article no longer represents my views on Linux and should be viewed in a historical context.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 1

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:

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!


  1. https://www.jwz.org/doc/linux.html