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Linux Doesn't Cost Anything - But Maybe It Should

By Elbert Hannah
Jul 9, 2010 5:00 AM PT

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).

Linux Doesn't Cost Anything - But Maybe It Should

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

Free Is Bad? Why?

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.

But Is Linux 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 1920x1200 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.

Why Don't Linux Servers Suffer Same Fate?

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.

Any Examples?

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.

But Linux Has 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.

Is "too much screen time" really a problem?
Yes -- smartphone addiction is ruining relationships.
Yes -- but primarily due to parents' failure to regulate kids' use.
Possibly -- long-term effects on health are not yet known.
Not really -- lack of self-discipline and good judgement are the problems.
No -- angst over "screen time" is just the latest overreaction to technology.
No -- what matters is the quality of content, not the time spent viewing it.