Upgrade Challenges: Avoiding the “Microsoft Tax” and Buying American

The signs that the Great Recession is receding can be found in the return of a tradition taken from the pages of the Christian scripture, the Christmas Shopping Frenzy.  We’ve never understood how the one-paragraph note in the Gospel of Matthew–that describes the arrival of the Magi bringing gifts to the infant Jesus–has created, two thousand years down the vortex of time, a world-wide phenomena, a seasonal gifting orgy of conspicuous consumption that transcends and even obscures the religious symbology of the gifts.  Not to mention that the original story ended badly: the local political power (Herod) subsequently engaged in an horrific massacre of male infants in an attempt to eliminate a perceived threat of competition from the giftee, while the gift-givers fled to avoid interrogation and the target of the pogram was whisked  away to a foreign country.

Here at Chaos Central, we observe the Christmas tradition in a more subdued manner: a small celebration with close family who are practicing Christians, with small gifts, some hand-made, and exchanging end-of-the-year greetings with friends.  And, since, by coincidence, the holiday does happen at the end of the calendar (and tax) year, we do evaluate our balance sheet and make a few last-minute gifts to charities, as well as gifting ourselves with any tax deductible business purchases that were on the near-term planning cycle.  A truly secular side to the “shopping season.”

In this topsy-turvy economy, where millions are unemployed but there is no shortage of merchandise made “off-shore,” and the number two and three brands sell well only because the number one brand sold out during the enforced shopping frenzy, it makes sense to consider making small changes to how we buy things, to reverse the economic trends that have brought us to the brink.  Competition is healthy: the existence of near-monopolies stifles innovation, despite the fact that innovation may have created the monopoly in the first place.  That’s one reason we put off buying computers: There are simply too few alternate choices.  It is much too late to “Buy American,” because very little manufacturing is done in this country anymore.  Almost all computers, whether running Microsoft Windows or Apple OS/X, are manufactured offshore.  And, those are the only choices of operating systems in the big-box stores. But, we can at least buy things assembled in America, and with a choice of open operating systems, if we look for them.

In our case, it is time to upgrade our aging stable of computers, reassigning an 8-year-old workstation now suitable only as a graphics terminal for virtual machines (and not very good at that), and a 4-year-old laptop with limited memory and disk size.  We need a laptop suitable for hosting multiple virtual machines and a full multi-media desktop to adequately support our business projects. These are overdue, postponed while we weathered the deepest and most personal effects of the Recession.  Things fall apart.  Not literally, but the thread of progress gets unraveled when there is no growth due to lack of capital.  [Lest we get confused, capital is not profit–what is wrong with much of America is the failure to invest in capital, in an attempt to keep up the appearance of profit during downturns.]  Computers last upwards of ten years or more if properly maintained (we have one, a Sun workstation, still running after ten years, and 15 and 20-year-old “retired” computers that will still boot up), but they are not cost-effective after four or five years, as they simply cannot do the work to remain competitive against newer systems, and are often not able to run newer software efficiently, if at all.

For some years now, adding a new computer running Unix or Linux to the network at Chaos Central has usually involved buying an off-the-shelf machine and stripping off the unwanted default operating software–i.e., the currently shipping version of Microsoft Windows–or ordering piece parts and building a bare machine from scratch, which is possible for desktop machines but difficult in the case of laptops.  In both strategies, the machine is not ready for use until a suitable replacement environment has been installed. Server-class machines can be (and have been) ordered with no installed operating environment, but the choice of portable systems and compatible desktop workstations has been limited to systems manufactured by Apple, running the OS/X operating system, or a wide variety of other Intel and AMD-based machines–all running Microsoft.  While OS/X is a variant of Unix (the Darwin microkernel port of BSD),  GNU/Linux, Oracle Solaris, and FreeBSD are more commonly compatible with the server systems that we administer and program for clients, so those are what we want on our desk and in our luggage.

Fortunately, there is a large enough market, 20 years into the GNU/Linux revolution, so a number of enterprises have sprung up to build and sell systems that run Linux “out of the box.”  A few major manufacturers, like Dell, did offer Linux choices at one time, but for various reasons–too small a segment of the commodity desktop/laptop business at that time to diversify software choices; and/or problems with Microsoft OEM licensing agreements that applied to product lines rather than individual machines–they dropped the offerings, except for the much smaller and more customized server product lines, in which case they only sell licenses and media: installation and configuration is left up to the buyer.

Small-footprint desktop, preloaded with Ubuntu

However, near west coast port cities, like Seattle, San Francisco, and Long Beach, the ready availability of computer piece parts in economical small lots from tier 1 importers makes it possible for small businesses to build custom non-Microsoft computer systems at nearly-competitive prices.  As it turns out, the market for Linux workstations overlaps with the market for high-end video game machines–with powerful graphics, multi-core processors, and lots of memory–so there is a plentiful supply of components, most of which aren’t found in commodity desktop machines anyway, so the price difference is well within reason.

We like a bargain as well as anyone else, but, as a small home-based business ourselves, we prefer paying a little more, knowing that that extra is providing a living wage to fellow entrepreneurs and folks who love what they do, not boosting the portfolio of an executive as a bonus for outsourcing the entire product and support pipeline to southeast Asia.  We bought our new machines, a high-end laptop and a workstation powerful enough to serve multimedia applications, from Zareason, a small company whose owners we met at Linuxfest Northwest last spring, where we got to check out their offerings.

Buying locally-assembled products isn’t bringing back “Made in America” factories, but it’s a start toward turning a nation of consumers into a nation of producers who take pride in what they make with their own hands and minds.    We’ve written here a lot, recently, about our adventures on our “Made in Oregon” tandem bicycle, and we’re now configuring the next generation of Linux computers, “Made in California.”