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Why the Linux Desktop will succeed despite itself
Sep. 12, 2007

Opinion -- If you expect me to argue with the 13 reasons Kim Brebach gives for why the Linux desktop is unlikely to make it to a desktop near you any time soon, prepare to be disappointed. He's right.

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No, you didn't mis-read that. Brebach may be a Linux newbie -- well a newbie who's getting up to speed at a remarkable rate -- but he hit the nail right on the head with his 13 reasons for why the Linux desktop isn't likely to make it. There's only one reason I disagree with him on. But, what he doesn't do is look at some of the reasons why Linux may yet become a popular desktop despite itself.

First, let me go quickly through his list. Reasons 1 through 6 and number 10 boil down to marketing. Linux businesses, for the most part, don't do marketing. I think they're extremely foolish not to spend any money on it, but there it is.

For example, every few months someone gives a Linux publication grief because it carries Microsoft ads. Why do they do it? Because almost none of the Linux companies ever spend an advertising buck. They seem to believe that because of the tremendous buzz around Linux, they don't need to advertise or market their products.

Oh my aching head. I happen to be married to a wonderful woman who was CMO (chief marketing officer) for some of the biggest and best international law firms around. While I've never had much interest in marketing or advertising, I learned a lot from watching her deal with lawyers. Like the Linux companies, many of them were sure that they didn't need to market themselves. Like Linux companies, they thought word of mouth was enough.

Well guess what: it's not. Without marketing, no one from the outside looking in can tell one Linux from another. They just see a confusing mish-mash of names, and unless they're already really motivated, they're going to start turning off from Linux at the very start.

I know the important differences between Red Hat Enterprise Linux Server, Damn Small Linux, and Ubuntu. Many of you do, too. But, if you're looking at Linux for the first time, do you know what the differences are? Which one would you pick for daily use on your home PC?

Let me turn this around: do you know what the differences are between the law firms of Arnold and Porter, K&L; Gates, and Gesmer Updegrove LLP? Which one would you pick for enterprise-level investment management?

If you knew law firms, the way you probably know Linux, you'd know K&L; Gates would almost certainly be your first choice for investment management, the same way you'd know that Ubuntu is an excellent home PC Linux distribution. The law firms, after years of kicking and screaming, have finally learned how to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. Most of the Linux companies haven't.

So it is that you don't need to be a legal expert to know the answer to the law firm question. You just need to be a business savvy executive. You do, however, need to be a Linux expert to know the answer to the Linux question.

Some Linux companies do get some of it right. One of the reasons why Ubuntu is popular is that while Canonical, the company behind it, doesn't spend a lot of marketing money, they and founder Mark Shuttleworth, do spend some time marketing.

Ubuntu has a message, "Linux for People." That theme is highly visible Ubuntu's Web pages. Have a look. When you look at an official Ubuntu site, you immediately know this is not just another Linux site. The colors, the photograph of people from around the world -- it all adds up to Ubuntu having a distinct brand.

That, my friends, is far more important to the buying, or downloading, public than the vast majority of technical improvements that we love to analyze in detail in Linux forums. Does that mere statement tick you off? Well, it may bug you, but it's one of the reasons why the 'suits' tend to end up in charge of companies while the 'techies' end up grumbling about the unfairness of it in a basement cubie.

Then, in reasons 7 through 9, we run into the simple fact that while the modern Linux distributions really are fairly easy to use, if you run into a problem, new users are going to have real trouble finding an answer to their questions. Now, Windows can also be a pain to use. People are just so used to it that they don't think about it that much. But, when do they need to find help, it's much easier to find than it is in Linux.

Linux badly needs better documentation. In addition, any Linux company that wants to have a prayer of keeping customers must have a strong technical support offering to back it up. This is where Red Hat excels. However, until Red Hat launches its Red Hat Global Desktop, it's a pure business play. And even then, people think of Red Hat as the Linux server operating system of choice. On the other hand, even in Linux circles, most people barely give Red Hat's current desktop offerings a second thought.

I couldn't agree more with reasons 11 and 12. Linux insiders do fight too much among themselves, and they tend to make those fights much too public. I once asked, "Is Debian dying," because of all its in-fighting. Things have calmed down over in Debian-land, but if I were a new user, and I walked into Debian during some of their bad spells lately, I'd run, not walk, to the closest exit, screaming "Take me back Bill! I'm sorry; I'll use Vista from now on!"

Brebach's one reason I really don't think matters that much is number 13. In Linux circles, it's a big deal that Novell and Microsoft have gotten all buddy, buddy. People outside of Linux, though, have liked the deal. You don't have to look much farther than Novell's most recent earnings report to see that.

OK, so despite all that, why do I think desktop Linux is going to places? Well, for starters, the competition has shot itself in the foot. I could go on and on about what's wrong with Vista. But, the bottom line is that it doesn't give users anything they really want that they don't already have in XP.

When someone does want something different, something better, they're going to probably go to... wait for it, to Apple with the Macintosh. Remember what I said about marketing? I've met Steve Jobs. He's one of the few honest-to-God geniuses I've ever encountered. He's great, I mean great, at technology. He's even better at design and marketing. That's why so many of us carry iPods and we lust for an iPhone.

But, as we all know, Macs aren't cheap. And, what's this? While the Linux companies don't tend to be great at marketing, the companies that are now releasing pre-installed desktop Linux -- Dell, HP, and Lenovo -- do know how to convince customers to buy their machines.

Oh, they're not perfect at it yet. Their sales departments, for example, are still in the process of getting it into their heads that they really do offer Linux, now, as a choice. But, they are beginning to offer not just pre-installed desktop Linux, but pre-installed desktop Linux on really cool machines like Dell's attractive 1420N series laptops. And, let's face it, nothing says you're an alpha corporate worker bee than a Lenovo T-Series ThinkPad.

It's the OEMs, not the Linux distributors that are going to get Linux 'boxes' onto the store shelves and into people hands. And, as they do so, they're also going to be providing, along with the Linux distributors, the kind of tech support that normal users expect from a company.

At the same time, Linux is getting easier to use. As Brebach noted in the seventh part of his series on his adventures with Linux, there are many Linuxes -- like SimplyMEPIS, PCLinuxOS, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, Mandriva, and Xandros -- that already are good, usable choices even for a still wet-behind-the-ears Windows user.

Now, so long as the hardware vendors keep moving forward with bringing Linux to the masses with better marketing, good systems, and state-of-the-art support, I feel pretty darn certain that Linux is going to grow into becoming a serious desktop contender for everyone.

--Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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