The GNU/Linux Desktop Adoption Drive: Revisited -or- Maybe I was wrong...

Posted by PaulFerris on Apr 18, 2005 6:07 AM; By Paul (FeriCyde) Ferris

A few months ago I wrote an article about how I suspected it would be a Wal-Mart like entity that would make desktop Linux a reality. This is a revisit to that same subject. Never one to take myself entirely too seriously, all I can say is that possibly I took the wrong direction about the right subject. See, I've recently changed my mind.

A few recent events have me thinking that people are going to need more than a cheap Linux box to make them switch or get them started using Linux on the desktop.

Some of my recent encounters with typical PC users (especially retired people who lived most of their lives without a computer) point to a different vector than I had supposed. Instead of switching say to a Macintosh or a Linux desktop, they're simply turning the darn thing off. It's too much of a hassle, it's too slow, it gets reinfected, they take it down to the corner PC shop for a cleaning and reload and a week to a month later it's back to where it was. They had a hard enough time learning the PC software they have, let alone a completely new PC paradigm.

It's stuff like this that makes me think that possibly I was wrong. When it comes down to it, one of the things we're up against is the simple fact that the users of America need to see it first hand. Talk is cheap. We can lead them to things like Linux at user groups , but that's only going to scale so far, and it's a different experience than the one that someone gets going into a storefront. LUGs can only do so much free advertising, only afford to do so much in the way of keeping a live store-front, 24x7 (or 9-5, it is a business after all.

More to the point, a chance encounter with Michael Cady of RedSeven Computers pointed me to a newer possibility. While folks like Dell, Gateway, HP and IBM have pushed users toward a high volume, Microsoft Windows driven desktop "solution", RedSeven wants to offer a totally different end-user experience -- one with Linux at the core, and a host of premium services that come with the PC.

RedSevens' PCs not only have high quality components, in other words, they are sold with training and service included. They come with monthly class offerings, like how to use Open Office, GNUcash, the gimp and other open source / free software. They aren't cheap -- they're geared toward the PC user that wants to do more with less hassle.

So far, according to RedSeven, the response has been very good. At the moment they operate out of 3 stores in the Phoenix area, but they have plans to expand. "We plan to franchise across the United States & Canada over the next several years and become a local communities Linux Specialists. We do not sell outside of markets that we can directly support with a store front and training." says Cady.

I think looking back when Linux does have a sizable desktop presence, it's far more likely that it will have been entrepreneurs like RedSeven that turned the tide. My Wal-Mart theory assumes that someone will discover the benefits of Linux in some sort of kiosk. They didn't listen so far to my suggestion, and thinking about it, I just don't know if they have what it takes anyway. Nor does Target. Nor does Dell, unless Dell uses the power of their newly launched in-store marketing to do things like RedSeven. I seriously doubt they can do this, as the talent required to run such an operation would not come at commodity prices.

Oh, it might happen. And Bill Gates might also contribute code to the Linux kernel. But the real problem with a major vendor (HP, IBM, Dell, Gateway) switching their PC sales task force to Linux is that they're tied at the hip to Microsoft revenue. Microsoft can leverage their price as a bat (don't think this has happened? Take a trip down monopoly litigation memory lane). Possibly this is why IBM recently sold their desktop business PC whole-hog to a Chinese company. During my writing I had to pause on the IBM name. There may be something in the works by IBM that we just can't see -- it may be one of those high-level decisions that has something directly to do with these dynamics.

Regardless, you have to see the point: No one in the current high-volume PC space can afford to switch their users to Linux. It's simply not something they have the staff for. Face it, they're doing as little as they can for their users on the front like RedSeven is doing. They don't have the want, for one thing, to employ expensive American store-front staff that will do the educating and selling. They'd much rather reap the large scale benefits of the end-user simply discovering what an easy box Windows is to use.

Easy, like a Chinese puzzle of sorts, because after someone starts to get viruses with their PC, after a few re-installs, after they've lost something irretrievable to the madness -- after that,they're too far sunk and often don't have a clue there is something different. Never fear dear citizens, Michael Dell and Bill Gates already have the cash, so it's chalked up to "buyer beware".

Simple Truth undoes Huge Marketing

The simple truth of the situation will undo a huge amount of marketing. The copy of Fedora I loaded for my brother, my Dad and my neighbor speaks more about Linux than any rigged report on security. Think they're going to listen to tripe like this when their Windows box has been picking up viruses like flies at the on-line dump? Answer: No. You can talk all you want, again, about something, but the truth in hard reality wipes it all out in a nanosecond.

Except that this desktop migration thing, it's taking more than a nanosecond. It's taking more than a decade (speaking for myself -- I started my switch back in 1993). End users will need things like classes. We can do some of this work with LUGs but I'm wondering if it's not more suited to the model that RedSeven and others have demonstrated. This is the first time I've seen a workable solution to the problem offered in one place.

Time and again, the low bottom line of the 200 PC at Wal-Mart (and the fact that it's not really making a dent in Windows sales) says to me that likely I was wrong -- it's not driven solely by price. People are going to lose that grand or so difference, a virus incident at a time. My parents blew a few hundred dollars on their HP Pavilion, my neighbors lost it in time, my brother as well. Just about everyone you know has been affected if they're using a Windows box.

They're blowing the cash in anti-virus software. In the time it takes to reload after the latest discovery of unwanted guests. In the trips to the local PC show where the computer is scoured for data, unloaded, reloaded and updated with firewall and virus protection.

True, Linux is going to require some vigilance on this front as well, but we're back to the point of battle (and this is a war of sorts). Which weapon are you going to chose in the battle? Windows (a pea-shooter), or Linux (the rocket-launcher). I don't know about you, but it's a rather simple choice for me.

I've been a foot-soldier in this revolution on different fronts. I've done some duty in the enterprise space. It wasn't a simple sell-job there either. Much harder, much more up-hill -- far higher cost savings and rewards. I've been at the front here in places as a quasi (and more) journalist of sorts. I'm doing some of the desktop stuff, but it's mind-blowing how much work needs to be done.

Cady and people like him are in an interesting place. As he puts it, he simply can't let his customers leave without at least a dual-boot system. This is the worst-case scenario -- in the best case it's pure Linux. It's an extra service he provides for the people that have a dependency on some piece of Windows software that doesn't have a Linux counter-part. The list of these applications is shrinking, but it's not outside of the realm of believability to understand that there are people with obvious addiction to Microsoft software -- and the vendors outside of Redmond are all making their wares for an obvious market of non-Linux users.

"RedSeven's philosophy is that users should re-invest the money wasted on proprietary software on high-grade hardware, support and training which does tremendously more for the end-user than fancy packaging..." says Cady.

One day, if RedSeven has their way, the Linux desktop presence will tilt enough to make it more attractive. We are, after all, seeing a market emerge that's similar in scale to Apple in numbers. "I think we have unintentionally arrived at business model that is similar to Apples'", says Cady, "(in that our focus is on high-grade equipment and support and not price). Though we of course have no software-bent to trap our clientele in an even more proprietary world than Microsoft offers."

To me, the problem is that the Linux market has different dynamics at the moment. Average, non-technical desktop users need to discover Linux in higher numbers than we have attracted. That could change with more stores like RedSeven. It might be a grass-roots movement of an entirely different sort. Would it still be Free Software if people make money off of it? Read the facts at the Free Software foundation. The cash has nothing to do with it -- the free is about freedom. Freedom to get involved with your software in the same way that today you can get involved in your government.

Let's hope that this is the start of a new trend.

Paul Ferris has been covering various aspects of the Linux revolution for over 6 years. FeriCyde Chat is an feature.
RedSeven is not alone on the North American continent. There have recently been a few other businesses oriented to Linux desktop sales. The notable ones include:

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