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Best Buy's $20 Ubuntu: Good or Bad for Linux?

Best Buy's $20 Ubuntu: Good or Bad for Linux?

What does the sale of the Ubuntu Hardy Heron Long Term Support package for $20 at Best Buy mean for the Linux community? While Adam Kane, a blogger on Foogazi, said it "ultimately [is] a great thing for Linux in general," others in the community were less upbeat in their comments.

Well, every once in a while something slips by the notice of even the best journalistic organization, and such appears to have been the case on a broad scale recently regarding the sale of a certain software package on the shelves of Best Buy.

Fortunately, the Linux blogosphere is always on duty, which is how we recently learned of the US$20 Ubuntu Hardy Heron Long Term Support package that's apparently been for sale at Best Buy since early May.

"How did this development fly under the radar for over two months without anybody noticing?" charged SirLurksAlot on Slashdot, where more than 650 comments had followed by Friday.

Linux Loop also picked up the news -- first once, then again -- and so did LXer, among other forums.

Mainstream Legitimacy?

Reactions, it's fair to say, were mixed at best.

"It flew under the radar because verily nobody is stupid enough to buy something they can download legally! Right? Right!?" wrote Swizec on Slashdot. "I mean, come on, people don't even buy stuff they can download illegally anymore ..."

On the other hand: "Things like this have a habit of gaining legitimacy in the 'mainstream' when you're allowed to pay for them," countered Viflux. "Unfortunately, $20 isn't enough. People will think it's a 2nd rate product since the cost is so much lower than Windows."

An Ubuntu PC?

Indeed, in his second post on the Linux Loop, Thomas Teisberg also noted that "just having the software hidden away on some shelf is highly unlikely to attract new Ubuntu users."

That, in turn, prompted his next idea: "This made me wonder if it would be a smart move for Canonical to introduce an Ubuntu PC?"

The idea would be for Canonical "to sell one, or possibly two, computers preinstalled with Ubuntu," he explained. "These computers might be sold directly by Canonical, but the main point would be to get Ubuntu-based computers in major stores, both online and physical."

'Nice to See'

Will Hardy Heron's presence on the Best Buy shelves boost its mainstream acceptance? Will people pay $20 for otherwise free software? Is $20 the right price? LinuxInsider couldn't resist asking around.

"It's nice to see Ubuntu gaining mainstream acceptance," Gerhard Mack, a Montreal-based consultant and Slashdot blogger, told LinuxInsider. "Being able to just run out and buy it instead of downloading it will also help with slower net connections."

Similarly: "My very first Linux install was from a purchased box-set (quite possibly from Best Buy)," added Mhall119, another blogger on Slashdot. "Amusingly, it was Caldera's OpenLinux, and we all know how well that worked out (SCO)."

Nevertheless, "it was helpful having a physical manual and CD of extra packages (drivers mostly), since it didn't automatically recognize my Ethernet card."

'Not a Bad Deal'

In general, "I have no problem with people buying and selling Ubuntu Linux," Mhall119 told LinuxInsider. "If it comes with a good manual and DVDs with more packages than the LiveCD, it's not a bad deal at all, especially for people without the bandwidth to download it for free.

"Hopefully they also include a disk of restricted drivers, legal codecs (like the Fluendo ones), Wine and others to make it easy to get an off-line install doing everything you would expect from a PC," he added.

Even more upbeat: "I think that having Ubuntu Linux for sale at Best Buy is ultimately a great thing for Linux in general," asserted Adam Kane, a blogger on Foogazi. "It will help bring desktop Linux into a more mainstream spotlight, as the sale of Ubuntu at Best Buy is obviously targeting current Windows users."

Price Concerns

Savvy, technical users might think, "'who the heck would pay $20 for an operating system that is completely free and available on the Internet?'" Kane noted. "The truth is that $20 is really going to the 60-day support offer."

Ultimately, "I think the best move would be for Canonical themselves to package Ubuntu and sell it on store shelves with a little bit of a higher price in relation to a year's worth of support," Kane told LinuxInsider. "I think that would make the product look more worthy than $20. People who don't understand that it is a free operating system might see that it is so cheap and think that it must not be a worthy product."

Therein, in fact, lies a key concern that many Linux fans appear to share.

'Misses the Mark'

"I think this misses the mark completely," Slashdot blogger yagu asserted. "The Linux crowd already knows about Ubuntu, already knows how to get it for free, and probably already has an image of it up and running somewhere on one of their 10 or 20 computers sitting around the house."

The Windows crowd, on the other hand, "will see the $20 price tag for an alternative to Windows and have one of two reactions," yagu told LinuxInsider. "First, they'll see that it's $20, which obviously indicates Ubuntu, and thus Linux, must be some shoddy knockoff of XP, or at best some novelty item not even worth considering. If it's that cheap, it must be inferior!

"Or, second, for $20 they may figure it's so cheap, it's worth a look," he added. "But, when they encounter their first glitch (unsupported hardware?, can't run Photoshop?, etc.), it confirms their suspicion that this product isn't real at that price, and they'll abandon it without any further effort to find out if there is something worth spending more time on."

Loss for Linux

Either way, Linux loses, yagu believes.

"Linux needs to be free for the technical crowd as it's always been," he said. "But for others, their only way to judge that Linux actually has value is by its price, since they don't have the technical background to understand Linux on technical merit. When they see $20, they see 'cheap,' not 'good.'"

What needs to happen, he said, is for Linux to be sold already installed, with support, at a "market value" price.

"This is the only way Linux gets the imprimatur of being a real product to consumers who have no other way to decide," yagu concluded. "Linux is up to the task, but someone has to break down the barrier to entrance in the marketplace that is Microsoft."


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