Why Linux Failed at Walmart -- And What to Do About It

Thursday Jun 12th 2008 by Matt Hartley
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Why do companies selling Linux products live in such an information vacuum? Joe Public will buy a Linux desktop – but only if it’s presented properly.

Over the past few years, various distributions have worked to make a name for themselves by selling their Linux PCs over retail Websites provided by Walmart, Sears and so on. Yet in nearly every instance, there has been a sudden stopping point where the big box retailer drops the provided Linux PCs like a rock.

Is it because of the distribution's lack of compatibility with the Windows audience, or is it an issue with the hardware and the target base of users?

If you guessed both reasons, you would be spot on.

Stop selling junk to those who don’t want it in the first place.

From Xandros to Linspire, even more recently gOS: In each instance, I have watched in amazement as otherwise perfectly good Linux distributions were bundled with extremely low-end hardware and sold to people who honestly were not in the market for what was being offered. To be fair, Linspire has made improvements by working with Mirus and selling PCs that have improved specifications. Yet there is another issue – qualifying their customers.

Why do companies selling Linux products live in such an information vacuum? Obviously targeting people who are looking for Windows alternatives is the right place to start from, yet totally failing to mention any hint of what they are actually buying in comparison to a Windows PC is a recipe for a disaster.

How Linux desktops should be presented to typical shoppers.

The entire process of selling newbie ready Linux PCs through Walmart and other outlets could have been met with great success. But in order for that to happen, there has to be some basic areas that must be covered first.

To start with, present a first rate operating system with hardware specs that do not make people want to pitch the machine in the trash after bringing it home! Anyone selling PCs with less that a 1.5Ghz processor and a gigabyte of RAM ought to be ashamed. Just because Linux PCs do not have to match with Vista requirements does not mean that the OEMs selling a PC with a selected retailer should be providing the bare minimum. It's absurd.

Some of the lesser known Linux computer vendors: Emperor Linux, Linux Certified, System76 get this right without having it pointed out to them. And yet you will never see these machines introduced in your big-box stores. Go figure!

Targeting the common user.

When Joe Q. Shopper ends up on the big box store Web site staring at a Linux box, this event can generally be attributed to a couple basic reasons.

• The shopper has had their fill of Microsoft's ever-expensive operating cost just to run a PC.

• The shopper ended up on that Web page by accident, often looking for a Windows PC.

These events present both an opportunity and a challenge. The challenges: First, qualifying that person to ensure that they’re a good match for a Linux PC in the first place. Even if they weren’t looking for it, consumers can spot a deal if the value is well stated. Second, ensuring that the shopper's existing peripherals are not going to present a challenge after being lassoed in by the seemly great price for the Linux box.

Both of these issues tend to go unaddressed. So it would be safe to say the smart money is with the Linux distribution provider that gives away a Windows tool that checks the user's existing Windows setup and provides them with a simple Linux compatibility report.

For example, let's say the user is running with an HP all-in-one printer, USB mouse and a USB keyboard. Based on these peripheral specs, this is someone who could be pre-qualified to take the Linux plunge! However if that same report indicates that the user is working with an unsupported Lexmark printer, unsupported Canon scanner and Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, this might not be such a good match.

From this point, the potential customer needs to be clearly educated on what OS differences are to be experienced should they take the plunge.

These individuals need to have a manual to help them learn about:

• Software – Linux applications, where to get them and why their existing Windows apps might not work with Linux despite efforts such as WINE.

• Peripherals – What will easily work and what will not. The facts about wireless under Linux and why one peripheral works great while another falls on its face. This can affect their future purchases.

• App for app exchange – Which applications replace which when making the Linux switch.

From user education to provided solutions.

Another important yet often missed consideration is that companies looking to sell Linux computers to Joe Average are best off sharing the value of freely available, preinstalled software.

Bundle this concept with stellar support and watch what happens – people tired of Windows begin migrating over to alternatives. In order for this to work well, however, this means Linux computer sellers must demonstrate the value of their machines with the following points.

• A balance of cost. PCs loaded with a newbie friendly distribution that also has hardware specifications that actually allow some level of multitasking.

• Sell potential users on the value of not being forced to pay for software. There is a real economic incentive to using open source software. And considering the value of applications already installed on most Linux distributions, it becomes a tougher sell to see value in OS X or Windows by comparison.

• Trumpet the value of "it just works" when you buy Linux preinstalled. And remind users that Linux provides a product at Windows PC cost that parallels the stability of a Mac from Apple.

• Disclose very clearly that these PCs will not be running Windows software out of the box. Further explain that using provided Linux alternatives is recommended.

Covering these simple sales points will mean that customers buying Linux machines will have the ability to better understand their own personal compatibility with Linux – and most importantly, not finding themselves with buyers remorse later on down the road.

Big box Linux sales – success or failure?

There is really no question that past sales of Linux PCs in big box stores such as Walmart have been tremendous failures overall. Do not let those old sales numbers of the gOS fool you. While the preloaded PCs were stated as big sellers, those sales numbers did not include the people who bought those machines without understanding what they were getting into.

Now this is not to say that big box stores do not make sense for selling Linux computers. After seeing successful ventures where the Linux vendor is clearly targeting a market that understands what they are buying, such as with the Xandros using ASUS Eee, any potential buyer's remorse can avoided with greater ease. And should an Eee user find that they do not care for the distribution that comes with the mini-notebook, they will either end up installing Windows XP or perhaps another distribution entirely, as clearly they possess the skills to do so.

Success for future sales of Linux PCs will eventually have to fall into one of two categories – 1) sales to those who know Linux already or 2) to those looking a better overall experience than from Microsoft Windows.

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