Laptop alternatives

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Large government contracts, those in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars or – gulp! – more, can be hard things for non-fiscal specialists to digest. But along came one in Idaho a few days ago we could chew on.

This was the contract, one of the largest single state government awards in Idaho history, by the Department of Education awarded to Hewlett-Packard Corporation: $181.9 million for laptops, and their repair and a wireless system, for Idaho schools. The price adds up to about $293 per laptop (for a half-million of them), plus additional for upfront and buyout costs. (Those should be considered approximations; there are a lot of moving pieces among the contract numbers.)

This per-unit price doesn’t sound unreasonable, factoring in on one hand the normal purchase price for basic laptop Windows computers, and on the other the cost savings in such as large mass buy.

In our small business, though, it wouldn’t have made the cut.

Not because of the HP brand: Two of our most-used machines, including the laptop on which this is written, are HPs. But we make only limited use of Windows (somewhat more of a couple of Apple computers). Mostly, we use the operating system called Linux, and we use it on those HP machines. One reason we use it is because it’s free – literally, downloadable for free, no strings, no catch. All the software we use on it, ranging from close equivalents to Windows Office to browsers to desktop publishing and technical software, and a good deal more, is also free. It ranges the Internet even better than Windows, no surprise since the bulk of web server computers worldwide are run on Linux or on closely allied software. And not only that, it’s “open source,” which means you can (if you choose) go into the guts of the program, and change anything you want. Can’t do that with proprietary programs.

This software is coded so efficiently that everything I use on my Linux machines can nearly fit onto a single CD; you’d need shelves of CDs to contain Windows or Windows Office. It can run efficiently on smaller and older computers than Windows can, and run longer on them as they age. A nonprofit in Portland (called Free Geek) for years has been reconditioning old and small-capacity computers, outfitting them with Linux, and sending them to local nonprofits and to underdeveloped countries around the globe; those machines are great for education, and they cost a pittance. Open source runs faster, with fewer errors, and is nearly impervious to viruses, worms and the like. (No need for expensive anti-virus software.) One of the main world headquarters for open source development is the Pacific Northwest; the original developer of Linux, a Finn named Linus Torvalds, lives outside Portland.

Another educational point relating to open source: Tech-oriented students could actually take the lead in setting up computer systems and wireless networks around the schools.

Is this news to you? (Was it ever considered by the Department of Education?) Here’s something Linux and open source don’t have: A huge marketing budget underwritten by a massive corporation. There are several fair-sized companies developing variations (called “distributions”) of Linux, and profitable spinoffs, but most people on the street have never heard of them.

If they had, you wonder what they might think on reflection about the state of Idaho’s new contract.

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