BEST OF ECT NEWS

Maybe Linux Should Cost Something

This story was originally published on July 9, 2010, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

Discussions, theses, theories and memes abound around Linux’s inability to gain traction in the desktop marketplace. Some think the Linux Desktop is too hard to learn (it’s not). Others say Linux Desktop is deficient (it’s not). Linux elite (or 1337) say Linux wasn’t really meant for the general users anyway (not true). Microsoft says Linux in general is evil (see the Halloween Memo) (oh, and by the way, it’s not).

I submit yet another theory: Linux isn’t expensive enough!

Why’s Free Bad?

Why, you wonder, when all along we’ve sung the FOSS praises of GNU/Linux (hereafter referred to as the more simple “Linux,” with all deference to Stallman) and that Linux is free? What could be better than free?

If Linux Desktop is free and can’t gain more marketshare (estimates range somewhere around 1 percent Linux Desktop market penetration) then one or a combination of the above reasons must be why Linux fails. If Linux passes all points in the opening paragraph, what gives?

I found that answer in the first chapter of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini (I get no royalties or kickbacks for this — it just happens to be one of my favorite books). Simply put, Linux is too cheap. Read the first chapter — it’s eyebrow-raising! Substitute Linux Desktop for jewelry!

It turns out that when customers don’t know enough about a product, or the gestalt of a product, their only second best way to guess about the quality or value of that product is by price. It also turns out that for Linux Desktops and computers, how and why they work (or don’t), really is rocket-science hard. Heck, computers are what’s used to do rocket science, and general users don’t have the background to really know what determines “quality” in computers. This is especially true for the computer desktop.

Users know little about underlying technology that holds a desktop together, and they shouldn’t have to. That leaves users to more typical means to decide “quality.” One of the most universal is price. Since users can’t evaluate the technical underpinnings, they can decide that if it costs a lot, it must be superior. Or, in contrast (and this is Linux’s bane), if it is inexpensive (or FREE) it must be because it’s not as good.

Really Good Enough?

Glad you asked. Let’s revisit the opening common claims to Linux’s failings:

  • Linux is too hard to learn: Fail. Linux, especially Linux Desktop, couldn’t be easier to learn. In the last 10 years Linux usability work has exploded with ideas and implementations. A Linux Desktop may be different (think Ubuntu vs. RedHat, Gnome vs. KDE), but it’s only different. I’ve never had to abandon teaching someone how to use a Linux Desktop.
  • Linux is deficient: Nope. Not even close. As an anecdotal example, I recently connected an old XP laptop to my 1920×1200 monitor to make work on that computer easier. Alas, the video drivers available could not drive the resolution on my monitor — even after downloading and installing updates for XP and the vendor drivers. However, the Linux side of that dual-boot laptop happily fired up and handled the screen resolution perfectly. This is one example of many times I’ve seen Linux rise to a technical challenge while Windows failed.
  • This point begs more discussion. In future articles I promise to drill more deeply into this topic. For now, I submit that in my (more than anecdotal) opinion, Linux Desktop is far from deficient.

  • Linux wasn’t meant for the general user: Uh-uh! Geek elites are confusing technical obfuscation of what is possible to do (Unix command line, etc.) with what is transparently easy to do today on any Linux Desktop (browse and manage files, surf the Internet, write and manage documents, handle e-mail, etc.). Linux can be as difficult as you want it to be to learn, but for general desktop use and day-to-day tasks, Linux Desktop couldn’t be more appropriate for general use.
  • Linux (per Microsoft) is evil: Consider the source. ‘Nuff said.

What About Servers?

The users of Linux Server technology are extremely technical, and with good reason. They support technology on which businesses run.

Users of Linux Server barely blink that Linux is free — they’re much more interested that Linux is excellent. Their measuring stick is based on deep technological understanding, and hence they do not need to look to alternate valuations. And in the server market, Linux thrives in spite of being free.

For Example?

What about Mac OS X? I won’t argue the nuances of good, better and best, but really? Is OS X that much better than XP, Vista or 7? I happen to think OS X is better and Mac systems are well-designed and implemented, but is a US$2,000 MacBook Pro really $1,000 better than a comparably configured Windows 7 laptop (I’m being generous — you can find $600 comparable machines)? Much of Apple’s finesse is their marketing and the cachet it creates.

Furthermore, is “FREE” Linux, in comparison, as stature-less in value? Again, without getting all fanboy about any of the three, it’s clear in my opinion that Linux Desktop competes on par with 7 and OS X. But users looking for options wonder “Why free?” and shuffle Linux down the list — free must mean inferior!

Also consider the new Droid smartphones. Their Android operating systems are Linux-based. And the Droid smartphones are as expensive as Apple’s iPhone, as well as all other smartphones. People, these are Linux-based! And they’re wildly popular! And expensive. And popular. And Linux.

Doesn’t Linux Have to Be Free?

Yes, Linux is Open Source and Linux is free. But there are myriad ways to combine the free Linux with added value. Water is free too (kind of), and you don’t find people hesitate to pay a buck-fifty for 12 ounces of it because it’s in a pretty plastic bottle! There are ways.

Then how?

I wish I knew, but I’m in the opinion business. I do think Linux Desktop gains main street cred when someone finds a way to cut, polish and mount a Linux Desktop diamond in the rough. Polished, packaged and priced like a real product, Linux Desktop offers attractive marketing opportunities. Linux Desktop is ready for prime time. Linux Desktop needs to look, feel, smell and cost like prime time. We’re more likely to proudly show off our shiny new desktop we bought. And that is how we create a Linux Desktop buzz.

Linux Desktop buzz is what’s been missing. Really. And the company that finds a way to create the buzz puts Linux a chip shot away from real market share. Linux Desktop — it’s going to cost you. And it should.


Elbert Hannah lives in the Chicago area and does production and scheduling support for a large financial firm. He wrote the most recent edition of O’Reilly’s Learning the vi and Vim Editors. He has used Linux and worked actively in the open source community for over 10 years. In and around the house, he has more than 10 instances of Linux and as many versions and distros. He doesn’t like technical religious wars and prefers things to be sorted out by merit. He loves the Beatles and thinks the greatest album recorded is Abbey Road.

2 Comments

  • No matter who you are. whether the developer, the artist, the technician or just someone who want to surf the internet, Linux have proven itself to be the more stable Operating System there is available. To prove a point I installed 3 different Operating Systems on 3 machines and left them running for a week. One I installed Windows 7, the other was a Mac running System 7 and the third a Dell Dimension 5150 running Ubuntu Super OS 9.10.
    Within 3hrs the Windows PC caught virii and had a blue screen; the Mac lasted for two days before a "sad Mac’ appeared and the Dell lasted for 10 days before I rebooted it once.
    From that moment I only use Linux on my machines and I recommend it to all my other customers.I mean what could be better? To have a stable OS and it be free?
    The fact of the matter is that maintaining Windows and Macintosh Systems are expensive to the consumer and very time consuming for the technician.
    Linux have been the victim of so many misinformations and negative commentaries, one have to wonder if there isn’t a conspiracy to destroy it. As an Open Source and Free product to use for one’s own uses, whatever form Linux derivative comes to us, we should be open-minded enough to understand that it will have some faults.After all the developer cannot have access to the countless number of configurations people have on their computers. What works for one system may not work for another. It’s more of a trial and error. For example I have an IBM Thinkpad Laptop with 512Mb of memory, a 500MHZ P3 CPU and 160MB hard drive running Mandrivia 2010 XCFE with all the updates installed working perfectly. However when I tried to install Mandriva to my Dell 5150 i had problems with my wireless antenna at first as well as with my internal modem. My Dell 5150 has a 3.2GHZ P4 CPU, 2GB of DDR2 800MHZ Memory, a 160GB SATA Hard Drive and a LITEON DVD/RW SATA rewriteable drive.I installed Ubuntu 10.10 and had no problems with the wireless antenna nor the modem.
    Another point I’d like to mention is this. If we’re gonna put a price on Linux then it’s only fair that the founders’ family get some sort of royalties for developing Linux. Of course that would be opening a lot of trouble with lawyers and law suits and a new perspective of software rights, that which we don’t need. So let’s leave Linux as its founders intended it to be, free and Open Source.

  • I’ll try just hitting his "facts" just to point out his BS. 1.-Linux is too hard to learn: Fail…Actually Linux IS too hard to learn, that is 100% correct. Why? Because it is all hearts and flowers UNTIL something goes wrong, which I have found is pretty much daily. for example: Out of the 4 boxes I sat up, all using Bog standard parts like ATI, Broadcom, Nvidia, Realtek, SiS, etc, and used for testing if Ubuntu, the supposedly "Friendly" distro was ready for the public. Out of those 4, how many actually came through a SINGLE update without something breaking? NONE. That’s right, zero. And in EVERY case the only "fix" was "Here, take this mess of CLI junk, written for a different chipset, "Tweak" it to work, and then pray. Odds that a NORMAL person, you know the 99.995% that are NOT CS grads will pull this off? ZERO.

    2.-Linux is deficient: Nope WRONG, that would be a BIG yes, and here is why: How many devices can you buy at Walmart WITHOUT research that will actually work in Linux? Can you even tell? I sure as heck can’t and neither can anyone else. How do you expect Linux to sell if you can’t even buy an AIO printer in walmart without researching like it is the SATs? Does ANYONE truly believe the average Joe will jump through all that just for "free as in freedom"? Not no but HELL no, as sales of the iPad prove they don’t care about freedom, they care about whether it is easy to work and own.

    3.-Linux wasn’t meant for the general user: Uh-uh! ABSOLUTELY TRUE, and here is proof. Both OSX and Windows have had a hardware ABI for ages, and thanks to that it is trivial to shop for and use. I have decade old Win2K drivers that work great in XP SP3, and 4 year old Vista drives that work just as well in windows 7. The whole REASON you have the total mess that is the upgrade death march is the fact that with everything from the kernel on up CONSTANTLY being changed drivers suck. The reason Linux doesn’t have functionality that the others have had for over a decade? Linus don’t like them. Big fricking whoop, Linus is a SERVER developer, and doesn’t have to care. he knows in the enterprise companies WILL put up with that crap, because MSFT server CALs are expensive. If MSFT dropped the CAL price to $1 you’d see OEMs dropping Linux from their servers like a bad habit because of attitudes like Linus.

    And here is a little "fact" for you. It has been FIFTEEN YEARS and Linux is at what? Why 1% of the desktop. Win98 and Win2k put together, two long dead EOLed OSes, have more marketshare than you. A normal company would have already been bankrupt, and even a non profit would ask "What are we doing wrong" but because Linux is currently infected by FLOSSies, which I use to compare to Moonies as to them it is a religion and NOT an OS, stupidity like the above is tolerated because of "free as in freedom". Well I say if you ain’t busy growing your busy dying. The numbers don’t lie and desktop Linux is a joke. Treat you users as customers, ask retailers what you can do to make things better, and then DO WHAT THEY SAY. Otherwise stick with servers where there is a reason ($$$ for licenses) people will put up with the attitude.

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