Last month distro-review ran an article titled 10 ways that Linux is outgrowing the stereotype and becoming the best OS. While I agreed with all 10 points in the article something just didn’t sit right with me. I bookmarked the article and gave it a good long think. My conclusion: the facts are correct but there are problems with both the premise and the goal of the article.
My problem with the premise is in the opening paragraph:
I’m occasionally asked “why do you bother with Linux?” by people who haven’t used it recently under the assumption that it’s difficult to use, counter intuitive, geeky, nerdy and any number of other adjectives.
I hear that too. People who tried Linux back in the ’90s often came to that conclusion and haven’t tried it since. Microsoft, Apple, and their supporters certainly do all they can to maintain that stereotype.
Having said that, the question I here far more often from non-technical people is “What’s Linux?” Outside technical circles a lot of people have never heard of Linux or if they have heard the name it simply didn’t register. Think about the recent Apple commercials. You know, the ones that start with “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC”. They make the assumption that PCs all run Windows and that Macs all run Mac OS X. So do most people.
In the next sentence the article states its goal:
However it is my intention to raise awareness that Linux is remarkably usable these days, so on that note let’s start looking at how Linux has outgrown that stereotype.
The article then details all the wonderful advances in Linux. It’s all accurate and spelled out in clear language. There’s only one problem: these points all assume you have Linux installed and running or, at the very least, that Linux installation is a no-brainer. The sad fact is that the average Joe or Jane user has never installed an operating system and probably never will. They use what comes on the computer. Changing operating systems is too much work to even consider. Why should they if they think their computer is working just fine for them? They need a reason to want to learn something new and do extra work that they think, rightly or wrongly, is difficult. What’s the incentive for them?
The article actually mentions a couple of incentives. The first is cost. Well, Windows comes “free” with most PCs. Yes, you and I know that it’s close to $100 of the real cost but to most people who buy at their local retail big box store that’s an unavoidable cost. You could mention the cost of office software, for example, but OpenOffice is available for Windows too, isn’t it? That cost savings has been around for a number of years and most people still use Microsoft Office because it’s what they know. If you mention other free applications you are likely to be asked if they are as good as what’s available for Windows. Then there’s that nasty requirement to learn something new. Is the cost savings worth more than their time and their frustration? Probably not.
The article goes on to talk about frequency of updates. Most average users don’t know from security and don’t want to know. If it’s all automated and they don’t have to think about it that’s fine. Otherwise don’t even try to sell on this point. Even fairly sophisticated users think of security as something that doesn’t apply to them. I’m reminded of a time when I supported a lab full of highly educated and competent scientists running SGI workstations with the IRIX operating system. When security issues were raised one answer I received was: “We’re in the business of science, not security.” This was after a major security incident had bit them you know where and cost the scientist who said this many hours of lost productive time. Security was still simply an inconvenience.
The article moves on to the desktop, citing the eye candy of Compiz-Fusion and the choices available to Linux users (KDE, GNOME, Xfce, etc…) Most Joe or Jane users think of their computer like an appliance. Choices? Why bother if what they have works? Eye candy? Nice for nerds and kids, I suppose.
All 10 points in the article are valid. None of them, nor any other efforts at Linux evangelism over the last decade, have worked when it comes to moving the masses towards Linux in the home and office on the desktop. Look, I’m not critical of the article. It may even convince a handful or people to give Linux a look. It, and articles like it, won’t have a major impact. What will win the day for Linux? The only answer is to get it into people’s hands in one of two scenarios:
The first scenario is where Linux isn’t the selling point. It just happens to be the OS used for the computer that fits the needs of Joe or Jane user best. The Asus EeePC is probably the best example of this to date. Hundreds of thousands were sold before a Windows version was even available and many people tried Linux for the first time and liked the experience. I give tremendous credit to both Asus and the folks at Xandros for a beautiful job of Linux integration onto a low cost platform that was and is compelling. Despite the obvious success Best Buy and other retailers are now selling the same EeePC with Windows XP installed because they assume it will sell better and Windows is what people want. Sadly, despite all the evidence that this isn’t necessarily true Asus’ commitment to Linux isn’t sufficient for them to market against the stereotype even when they have a product with a track record of successfully defying conventional wisdom.
Some of Asus competitors have fared poorly. The Everex CloudBook has been dropped by WalMart stores and relegated to their website where Linux PCs have been available for a few years now. The Everex product, despite superior specs, doesn’t perform as well as the EeePC and didn’t get the gee whiz reaction that the Asus product got. I still remember a Wall Street Journal article panning Linux as not ready for the masses after he tried a newly released Dell laptop with Ubuntu installed but, by Dell’s own admission, very poorly configured. None of these failures are the fault of Linux. Linux was and is ready for the masses. It just wasn’t ready as sold.
This is a perpetual problem Linux faces. It’s a non-commercial operating system that desperately needs commercial marketing to succeed on the desktop. We’ve seen successful commercial marketing by Red Hat, IBM, etc.. in the server room so this isn’t an impossible scenario. I’m just not sure how Linux distributors can sell hardware vendors and retailers on the concept. Efforts so far have met with some limited success at best.
There is a second scenario that I believe offers the best chance at wider Linux desktop adoption. If Joe or Jane user had to use Linux at work, if they truly didn’t have a choice, they’d learn it. Once they learned it they would mostly like it. Once they see it as faster or better or easier than Windows for themselves then they will likely bring it home, too. The problem is that it will have to be force fed to them.
How will that happen? Linux distributors and hardware manufacturers will have to make a compelling case for Linux on the corporate desktop. They will have to decide that is their next big chance to make many dollars or euros or dinars or shekels. These are the same companies, for the most part, that successfully made the case for Linux in the server room with a great deal of success.
Here is a reality many in the Open Source community don’t like to face. A partnership with commercial interests must continue to be expanded and exploited, even with companies that truly aren’t sold on Open Source in the first place. That is where an article like the one at distro-review might actually be useful. It’s another sales tool. Nothing is wrong with the information in the article. It’s just targeted at the wrong audience . Preaching to the proverbial choir is nice and gets you lots of pats on the back. It just doesn’t produce a lot of tangible results.