This trailer has a lot in common with Linux

trailer

I have this trailer. I bought it for $150 from some sketchy dude out in a place called Wooster, Ohio.

He was a nice enough guy, but I’m not sure if the trailer was actually his. Not that anyone would have missed it. It has rusty springs, rotten tires and the lights are held together by electrical tape. There was no VIN or identification on it anywhere, and the guy had no title for it. He said he made it himself. There was some story about his brother or uncle in Iowa or Wisconsin and it sitting in the field of his farm and never being used on public streets. I’ve heard this kind of story before, except instead of a dude in a hardware store parking lot in Ohio, it was a dude selling in-the-box VHS players out of the back of a van at a liquor store 10 minutes from downtown Sacramento. The basic formula of outrageous circumstances resulting in an unlikely item for sale was the same. I suppose this was a little different. Instead of the guy approaching me in the parking lot asking if I wanted to buy a brand new VHS player, I contacted this guy through Craigslist.

Anyone who is selling something on Craigslist must be legitimate, right?

To my surprise, this story seemed perfectly acceptable to the BMV, who issued me a title and license on a “homemade trailer.” I’ve had this trailer for nearly the entire six years I’ve been in Ohio. I paid more on registration and licensing than the original cost of the trailer. I’ve used it to remove all kinds of debris from my property. I’ve loaned it to countless friends who needed to move their own refuse or vehicles or other items—always with the warning: “If you cause an accident and hurt yourself or kill someone, I’m going to say you stole it from me when the cops show up.”

And today, looking at this beat-up, decrepit, slowly decaying mess of rusting metal, rotting rubber and soggy wood I realized something.

This trailer is a lot like Linux.

Now, here is the thing that brought me to this realization. As I’ve said above, numerous friends and neighbors have asked if they could borrow this thing for all kinds of duty that it was grossly inappropriate and negligently unsafe for. Now that I’m moving, those who are thinking ahead have realized that surely we’re not going to tow this thing 3,000 miles across the country back. It would be lucky to make it to Toledo. So, I’ve had more than a couple of nudges and winks followed by a, “whaddaya gonna do with that old trailer when you leave?”

And that is how this trailer is a metaphor for Linux. Any one of the people who have been borrowing this trailer from me for the last 5-6 years could have gone on Craigslist, found their own friendly seller, and bought an unregistered, dilapidated rust-bucket of their very own. Heck, anyone willing to drive a hard bargain probably could get the price down to $50 and a 40 of malt liquor. But the whole idea of the difficulty involved in searching Craigslist until a suitably desperate seller shows up, driving out to meet him, negotiating a price, trying to get the BMV to register, license and title the thing, then doing whatever maintenance was required to keep it from just dissolving on the road in a mist of rubber just seemed like more work than it was worth.

Yet despite that, I’ve utilized the heck out of this beat up, past-its-expiration-date, “Beverly Hillbillies” transportation device. It has been mine for the last six years, and whenever I needed it, it was there.

I could have gotten a similar trailer for around $599 at Home Depot. A black metal job that was very commercial and probably a lot safer. It certainly would have looked more at home behind my Escalade. In fact, I’ve often wished that I had done just that. I would have never had to futzed with the electrical wiring, or with trying to get the lift-gate to close right, or with getting the safety chains to attach to the receiver correctly. I would have been able to take corners without slowing down to a cautious 10 MPH for fear that the entire thing would tip. It would have been a plug-and-play, hook-it-up and forget-it experience.

But, at the end of it all, I would have been stuck with the same problem: No one wants to tow a utility trailer all the way across the United States. With $600 tied up in a store-bought trailer, there is no way I would have considered just giving it away. I’d probably be trying to sell it on Craigslist.

And here’s the thing. None of my friends, neighbors or associates who borrowed this trailer over the years ever thought to themselves, “I could just go out and find myself a similar trailer and then I wouldn’t have to deal with the hassle of asking Donovan if I could use his!”

People decide they have better ways to spend $150.

I’m not begrudging them this. Kids, wives, houses, cars, pets, vacations—there are a lot of things eating up the meager salary of the average American these days. Having a $150 rotting trailer in your yard that you use two times a year and pay $35 in annual registration fees for isn’t how most people want to spend their extra cash. I could afford the luxury.

Most people feel the same way about Linux. The time, effort and difficulty involved in it outweighs the “free” of it, and so they either suffer with Windows or pay an outrageous luxury tax for Macintosh. They don’t want to pay the admission price for Linux.

I have a friend who always says, “Linux is only as free as your time, and my time is expensive.” I get that. There is a truth in that statement. But if you’re willing to put time into Linux, despite the fact that it isn’t always very pretty, or very easy—despite the fact that you can’t really just hook it up and plug it in and let it go—there are rewards in the effort into making it work.

The analogy isn’t perfect, of course, but I think there is something to it. The initial headache is what prevents my friends from going out and buying their own DIY Craigslist trailer. The idea of dealing with sketchy strangers and dubious items that require legwork and effort to register and license all sounds like a lot of work.

But if you remove that, and all that work is taken care of for them, and the price is free— then you’ve got their interest.

I think the trailer won’t last another six years with whoever I give it to when I leave. They’ll grow disenchanted quickly with the hassles of this thing. Not only does it need constant maintenance, but it needs more than the basic survival maintenance I’ve been giving it, and it will need it soon. Something has to be done about the waterlogged wooden bed of the thing, which is warping and held to the frame by rusty bolts. The lights probably should be replaced. The frame needs to be sanded and the wood needs to be repainted.

Someone who is willing to take the time, effort and investment to make this thing solid again could get a lot of utility out of it, and it would be a great deal, but for most people, I think they would rather just go to Home Depot, lay down six Benjamins, and drive off with something they don’t need to think about— even when the alternative I am offering them is “free.

The same thing happens with Linux. Provided most users get past the initial headaches (or someone else handles that part for them), when they run into the personal investment required to maintain and operate their Linux-based device, many of them either turn to someone else who can do the hard work or dump it and go back to something that is a little more commercially polished. The thing is, I really love this trailer. It may not have been the prettiest trailer, but it never let me down, even when I asked way too much of it, and I knew it well because I had to in order to keep it running. It’s one of those inanimate objects that takes on a personality over time. It is quite possible that the loyalty we see from Linux users over their favorite kernel is related to the same experience. In a world of generic OS X and Windows boxes, the Linux boxes become something that the builder is invested in.

At any rate, I hope the sucker lucky person I dump this thing on give this trailer to gives it the love it deserves. But, if anything happens, I never saw it before in my life.

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