The reason that Linux supports more hardware devices than any other OS is that once a driver is created for Linux, it is rarely ever dropped as long as somebody cares enough about that device to continue updating the driver for the newest kernel. Devices created 15 years ago still function with Linux. In contrast, equipment created over 2 years ago often doesn’t function in Vista, because the manufacturer has no incentive to create drivers for a product which it no longer produces.
However, for most consumers, Vista is still better because it has device drivers for the devices being sold today. In contrast, in Linux you have to wait months and even years for new devices to be supported and some devices will never be supported. Most people don’t care about whether their serial modem from 15 years ago still functions, but they do care whether the hardware which they buy today will function.
I had to wait almost 3 years before linux supported hibernate and suspend on my laptop and until recently I had to tinker for several hours with ndiswrapper to run my Broadcom wireless with proprietary Windows drivers. My Texas Instruments memory card reader will probably never be supported.
Despite the dismal driver situation, we should all be optimistic because driver support is getter better all the time. I recall trying to install GNU/Linux back in 1999 when it took many hours of painful trial and error just to get X-Windows to run correctly. In those days you had to manually enter the vertical and horizontal refresh rate on your monitor and spend hours hacking on configuration files to get anything to work. I shudder when I recall how difficult it was to install GNU/Linux and I marvel at the ease today of installing a new system. Device manufacturers are now realizing that GNU/Linux is a growing market and the open source paradigm has rocked the software industry. Now the big iron companies like IBM and SUN are pushing open source software and Linux is exploding on mobile and dedicated devices. It is just a matter of time before all manufacturers realize that they have to support their hardware with open source drivers or detailed specs if they want to reach a certain sector of the market. Intel, Via and AMD/ATI have realized that they have to support Linux. Some companies like Novell and Broadcom will try to reach the Linux market with closed source drivers, but eventually market pressures will bring them around if we as consumers raise enough fuss.
I predict that even open source hardware will eventually dominate the market, although it will probably be a decade or two hence. Looking at the OLPC, Sun’s T1 “Niagra” chip, Via’s OpenBook laptop, the Open Graphics OGD1 video card, and the OpenMoko Neo cell phones, we can see where the rest of the industry will eventually go.
The move to open source software and hardware is a big win not only for us as consumers, but it will help the environment since it will reduce the rapid turnover of hardware and the planned obsolescence in the industry. Older equipment will always be supported so there will be less need to throw away electronics and create ewaste which poisons the environment. Moreover, consumers will feel less pressure to buy new equipment because they can reuse their older equipment more easily without it becoming outdated by new operating systems and new software.