Saturday, December 2, 2006

What is the best way to get Linux widely adopted?

Recently, a lot of the posts in the USALUG from me have been about distros I feel have at least a chance to make a mark if and when Linux is to move into territories previously ignored or lacking, in terms of market and use.

We already know that Linux software constitutes good and useful stuff, and business has now realized that Linux is definitely a viable platform. From the looks of it, Linux is replacing all but high end UNIX servers, which still most certainly have a place. Linux has not necessarily made up that much ground in companies where Windows is widely deployed. In the server space, I have a hard time figuring out why anyone would resort to using a Windows server, except for the fact that Windows is familiar. Windows is less expensive than multiprocessor UNIX systems, but significantly more expensive than Linux systems in the server space.

On the desktop, though, Linux has barely made a dent, though it has been an easy to use environment for at least five years, and even in the past year, it continues to get easier and easier, adding more and more tools that provide compatibility with existing software.

Frankly, that is where it is at, as far as I am concerned. Perhaps a lot of people will not buy Linux for any reason, but suppose you can make Linux available in a way that it can run any programs that you are used to running, yet provide a more stable platform, less expensive licensing costs, improved security, and lower long term maintenance costs. Would that be appealing? Perhaps to some, but apparently that is not what drives the market. Marketing is one thing that drives the market, familiarity is another major factor, and so is compatibility.

In the seventies, most people did not have a conputer on their desks. Microsoft and Intel provided the first computer experience to all but the knowledge workers and computer industry workers. Before Microsoft and Intel, known as Wintel, most shops ran some form of IBM system, whether an IBM mainframe like the 360, 370, 43xx, or 81xx series that dominated the glass houses of the sixties and seventies, or the System 34, 36, and 38 systems that dominated the midrange, or the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) minicomputers that dominated laboratories during that same time.

For most, all they have known is Windows. In order to change that, something else will have to be that much better or change the way we do things. That is not an impossible feat, but just doing what we do now is not nearly enough.

I have used Linux desktop software since 2001 as my primary home desktop system and I used it quite a bit even before that, except I did not use a broadband network until 1999 (and I was beginning graduate studies then, and the studies required the use of Microsoft Office and Microsoft Project in classes). From 1995 until 1999, I used Linux mostly as a remote terminal point of contact to my UNIX systems at work. Occasionally I would use the remote terminal software to download or upload a program or a document, and I would work on it locally in Linux then connect again to send it to a UNIX system.

The question, then, is not whether Linux CAN work on the desktop. I know it can and I have personally used it for years, and during that time, I have used it much more than 95% of the time at home.

The question is how Linux can crack into the entrenched market?

Two ways, at least, in my opinion. One way is to make available everything that people currently use so there is no reason they cannot migrate. The other way is to come up with something new and fascinating that people perceive they HAVE to have. That's where marketing comes into the equation.

I am convinced that something about it will have to do with this mobile generation. It drives me absolutely crazy how we seem to all have to have cell phones and PDA devices at our beck and call constantly. Linux cell phones and PDAs are one thing that must work.

People like their music, too. iPod devices are the rage. Clearly any Linux initiative must also work well with iPod technology or provide something else so captivating that people will want it.

Computer systems are moving to sixty four bit computing. Assuming that eventually hits the desktop, Linux has to do it better, cheaper, more securely, and beat the market to it, and at the same time, work with mobile devices of all sorts. Docking and communicating with PDAs, phones, tablets, notebooks, and other compact mobile devices will be key.

If Linux can come up with a model that works better than Microsoft for less money, is compatible with it, but provides improvements over it, and is mobile attached, there is a chance. That's the way to do it as far as I am concerned.

As far as a business model, I would not concentrate on Linux distro sales at all. I would give away the distro and build layers of products and services on top of that layer. If the base software costs anything at all, I would make it minimal and include it with the systems.

Here is what I would do: I would get with as many equipment manufacturers as possible and offer to provide software for free, then make arrangements to get service contracts to support the software, and make money off that. Then add a software stack on that, and even with that, provide some of the base pieces of the stack free and make money by adding layers to the stack and services on top of the distribution model. Make money by establishing then maintaining large volume, not by making a lot of money per system. Turn it into a huge ecosystem where millions of systems are used and relied on, then all sorts of money making opportunities will present themselves.

Ubuntu sees it this way; perhaps they are among the ones likely to steer the ship in this direction.

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