Linux...Why is it So Hard to Give It Away?

Sunday Apr 6th 2008 by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
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While it might generate good press to dabble with Linux (as OEMs such as Dell have done), unleashing Linux on the masses isn’t something that OEMs are ready to take a gamble on.

Can you give Linux away? By that, I mean will we see a point where a significant number of PCs are sold not with a costly version of Windows or Mac OS installed on them, but with Linux instead?

Increasingly, people are moving away from desktop applications and turning to Internet-based services for email and communication. This means that the operating system has handed the center stage over to the Web browser as people no longer have to rely on installing applications on their PCs in order to carry out simple day-to-day tasks.

So, given this shift, why are people still paying $50 to $100 for Windows (or far more than that for an Apple system) when Linux could be everything these users want from an OS?

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Here’s a picture that I’m seeing happen with increasing frequency. Someone is in the market for a new PC , maybe because the old one is chocked full of adware and spyware or maybe just because they feel like a change. Their old system was used mostly for blogging, Facebooking, a bit of IMing, storing digital photos and video, and maybe a little bit of work (mostly word processing, and occasionally a spreadsheet or two).

Do these people need Windows? Unless they’re gamers, chances are they don’t. Do they need Mac OS? Again, no. For this segment of user, a basic PC (single core processor, 512MB of RAM, 80GB or so of hard disk space) with a Linux distro such as Ubuntu running on it is all they need. Ubuntu comes with Firefox pre-installed and this offers the user a platform from which they can access Web sites, send and receive email, and keep in touch with others. Ubuntu also comes with OpenOffice, an Office-compatible suite that offers enough in the way of features and functionality for 90 percent of users out there.

All for the low, low price of $0.

So, if open source software could offer consumers such a good deal, why are we not seeing shelves in both bricks-and-mortar and Web outlets stacked with Linux-based PCs systems?

These vendors could cut Microsoft out of the loop, drop the price of their systems by a few tens of dollars, and be making a killing. Better still, take an existing Windows PC, dump the Windows part, install Linux and drop the price by only 70 percent of the cost of a Windows OEM license (and therefore pocketing the remaining 30%). Consumers win because the system’s cheaper than a Windows-based equivalent, and the vendor wins because they get more cash.

But you don’t see it happening. Sure, a few vendors have dabbled with Linux, and Wal-Mart had Linux-based systems for sale in their stores until the company pulled the plug on the experiment because the systems weren’t what its customers were looking for.

Why are Linux distros a commercial flop?

My take on the situation is that vendors just aren’t ready to stick their necks on the line and offer support for Linux. PC prices have plummeted over the past decade, making the profit margin per PC razor thin.

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This doesn’t leave much money in the pot for support. Support costs money, and while Windows users need to turn to tech support on occasion, OEMs fear unleashing Linux in a wide scale way because that would open the floodgates to more and broader support questions than previously encountered:

Why doesn’t my printer work? Where can I get drivers for my modem? Why won’t MSN Messenger install? Why won’t my generic, no-name piece of junk hardware work on my new system? What is this Linux thing?

I think that the problem with Linux is that if it was offered next to Windows, it might actually sell, and sell well. After all, take two physically identical PCs, one with Linux and the other with Windows installed and a higher price tag, the Linux PC would appeal to those looking for a deal.

Problem is, a price difference of even $50 at the lower end of the price spectrum could mean that consumers would be leaping onto the Linux wagon based on how much cash they have in their pockets instead of making a rational choice. Customers would be happy when they left the store but soon feel unhappy when problems bogged down their use of the new PC.

While Linux could be all the OS that users needed, it only takes one snag (a snag that wouldn’t have existed if the OS was Windows) to trigger a tech support call. Those are the kind of problems that most OEMs try to avoid.

Windows might be big and monolithic in nature, but that is what offers the broadest support for hardware and software possible. OEMs like that, and while it might generate good press to dabble with Linux (as OEMs such as Dell have done), unleashing Linux on the masses isn’t something that OEMs are ready to take a gamble on.

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