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Why Wal-Mart won't have Linux desktops on its store shelves
Mar. 13, 2008

Opinion -- The other day, Wal-Mart let it slip that it would no longer be selling Linux-powered computers in its stores. The retail giant will, however, continue to sell Linux desktop and laptop systems via its online store.

On March 10, Wal-Mart spokesperson Melissa O'Brien told the Associated Press that Wal-Mart had decided not to restock its in-store gOS Linux-powered Everex Green gPC TC2502. "This really wasn't what our customers were looking for," O'Brien said.

Wal-Mart, according to Everex, will continue to sell its new gPC2 for $199 without a monitor and its gOS-powered UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC), the Everex CloudBook, for $399, through Wal-Mart's online store. Currently, Wal-Mart is selling a no-frills gPC2 desktop system and the CloudBook laptop.

In a Washington Post story, O'Brien expanded on her comments, saying, "We are America's retailer, so the decisions on what we offer in our stores [are] based on how our customers vote with their purchases." It wasn't that Wal-Mart is rejecting Linux, she said. "The idea was to see if shoppers in our stores would respond as they do online to the offering. The answer is that customers did not respond to expectations, so we decided not to restock."

That hasn't stopped some writers from declaring, "Middle America Rejects Wal-Mart Linux Experiment" and "Linux PCs Flop on Wal-Mart Shelves." Since Wal-Mart sold out of its in-store Linux desktop stock, both those headlines overstate the situation.

So is Wal-Mart's decision to drop these gOS Linux-powered computers a big deal or not? I decided to do a little old-fashioned reporting to see if I could get to the bottom of why Wal-Mart will no longer be carrying cheap Linux systems in its stores -- besides, I needed to get some more Diet Coke anyway -- so I visited several of my local Wal-Marts.

At these stores, I talked with some Wal-Mart workers. Since Wal-Mart likes reporters almost as much as it does union organizers, I'm not going to even mention any individual store names.

Here's what I found out. Customers did want to buy the computer, but they, and all too often the workers, were thoroughly confused because the PCs came with Linux and not Windows. The word "clueless" comes quickly to mind.

But let's be realistic here. How much technical expertise do you think an average Wal-Mart customer, or any ordinary U.S. citizen, really has anyway? The one technically adept customer service representative I met told me, "These are the same people who really can't tell the difference between the computer and its software. At best, they know they need Windows to run Quicken, Office and games. That's it."

The people who ended up buying the gPC, I was told, were either technically savvy -- "They came in looking for it," said one worker -- 0r, all too often, "They thought it was a normal -- read, Windows -- PC and they exchanged it."

The irony is that gOS with a broadband Internet connection is perhaps the easiest operating system for a novice to use, with its dependence on Google applications. It would, in many ways, be ideal for someone who just wants to use a PC and doesn't want to buy additional software. Say, for example, the typical Wal-Mart customer who wants the best deal for the lowest price.

So, I concluded, after my informal survey, and bringing home three cases of Diet Coke, that the gPC didn't fly off Wal-Mart's shelves for several reasons. The first, as David Liu, founder of ThinkGOS, the company behind gOS, told blogger Dana Blankenhorn, is that there's very little profit margin on a $199 computer in the first place. If you're not selling a ton of them, you don't have cash flow to speak of.

Another reason, as Adrian Kingsley-Hughes observes in his blog, is that Wal-Mart is no place for a "soft launch" of any really new product. Another brand of diapers, sure; another kind of computer that's not quite like anything they've ever seen before, no, that won't work.

I'll add another reason to that list. Before there will be mass consumer pickup of the Linux desktop, any Linux desktop, the public needs to know more about Linux. I'm not talking about Linux 101, I'm talking about Linux 01.

Before Linux desktops will start flying off store shelves, people need to know three things: Linux is not the same as Windows; but it's cheaper; and you can do pretty much all the same things except play games. That's it. Once people know that much, then with that keyword "cheap" in mind, you can expect to see Linux start to make inroads into the Joe Six-Pack market.

There, finally, one other point. Linux has good home accounting programs such as GnuCash and KMyMoney. Either can be used to replace Quicken, and GnuCash is a decent substitute for QuickBooks as well. The Linux vendors need to start pushing these programs more in their distributions. Consumers want home finance programs, and when Linux companies don't make it as easy to find these programs as they do or Firefox, they're putting another small barrier between a potential Linux customer and a Linux customer who's willing to put down his or her credit card.

-- Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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