Operating systems want to be free

Two of the three major desktop operating systems are now free. And it's likely to be a trend

As we all know, Linux, BSD, and a host of other operating systems have been "free" for years, if not for their entire existence. Sure, there are for-cost distributions backed with support, but the fact remains that you can grab an ISO off a mirror site and install a Unix-based OS on any hardware you like, physical or virtual. With Apple's announcement that OS X Mavericks will be a free upgrade, we can add the Mac OS to that list -- though you still technically need Apple hardware to run it.

Hackintoshes aside, this is an interesting move for Apple, as it leaves Microsoft Windows as the last for-cost operating system holdout in the desktop space. Microsoft's business model will make it hard for the company to follow suit, as it doesn't have the advantage of profiting directly from the hardware sales underlying its OS. But it seems to me that Microsoft will have to reduce the price of Windows substantially to counter this move by Apple. It's hard to justify $100 plus for a Windows operating system upgrade when the competition gives it away in a seamless online upgrade.

[ Also on InfoWorld: The 10 best new features in OS X Mavericks. | Prove your expertise with the free OS in InfoWorld's Linux admin IQ test round 1 and round 2. ]

This move by Apple may also legitimize desktop Linux in the minds of many casual users. I know, I know -- we've been hearing about the Year of Desktop Linux for, well, more years than I can remember, but it's never materialized. Yet we now have three major choices for desktop operating systems, and only one will cost you.

For those who don't wish to pony up for Apple hardware, the cost of Windows may very well push them toward at least trying Linux. Many desktop-focused distributions are making it easier than ever to transition to Linux. Coupled with the widespread disdain for Windows 8's interface, it may be enough to truly open up desktop Linux to the wider mind share it's always needed to succeed.

Apple's move is also an indicator of more than just one free desktop operating system, but free operating systems in general. Rewinding a few years, every operating system had a cost, be it a desktop OS or a router or switch firmware. You might purchase hardware with a functional operating system, but upgrades would not be free and might cost you dearly.

Need to upgrade to a new version of Cisco IOS on that 4506? You have to get a support contract first. Looking to add some minor functionality in a firewall? Again, for cost. Sadly, if you needed to grab a newer version of an OS to fix bugs or security holes, you again paid out for that pleasure.

In recent times, we've seen a number of pushes to remove the OS as a for-cost item. White-box network hardware that can run free operating systems are making waves against the entrenched players, and software routers and firewalls are more than a notion -- they're a production-ready reality.

The fact is, in many cases, commodity hardware is more than capable of delivering suitable performance without requiring custom-designed ASICs and proprietary hardware. A $2,500 server running pfSense can be favorably compared to a $25,000 firewall running on proprietary hardware and software in terms of performance, and increasingly, in terms of features and manageability.

The same is true of storage. Community editions of various storage platforms such as Nexenta are extremely capable and fast, provided you construct your hardware appropriately. If you need or want support, it's available, but you're free to use the open source distribution and save a bundle.

For the first time, it's now truly possible to build an entire system infrastructure entirely composed of commodity hardware and free software. This includes the desktops, servers, virtualization platform, storage, network switching, routing, and security. Everything from VPNs to wireless access points can be built relatively easily, without paying a dime for the operating system.

Naturally, heading in this direction means you're going alone or at least accompanied by only the intrepid travelers who frequent community forums and discussion boards, bouncing problems off one another, rather than contacting a vendor for support. In some cases, this is a perfectly reasonable approach. In others, it's not feasible, with the differentiation driven largely by available skill set and the vagaries of the infrastructure itself. Many shops will opt for a support contract for critical components and perhaps more, reasoning that it's better to have the support and not need it than to need it and not have it.

There used to be a time when you had to buy a Web browser. Now, the idea of buying a browser seems bizarre and antiquated. In the not-so-distant future, the idea of buying an operating system will be equally perplexing, right about the time the operating system begins to fade into a commodity unto itself, serving only to present an interactive interface to the plethora of cross-platform applications delivered over the wire. 

Relying on income generated by selling an operating system of any type is becoming a fool's game, and woe be unto them who miss the signs.

This story, "Operating systems want to be free," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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