Linux in The Economic Meltdown

Thursday Oct 9th 2008 by Matt Hartley
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Difficult financial times or not, desktop Linux must meet the needs of the masses on their terms.

As the US economy continues to shift for the worse, I find myself thinking back to recent trips to a local bank where I noticed that Windows 2000 Pro is the norm and the computers, if updated at all, might be using Windows XP.

Vista is clearly not happening. And this is not even taking into consideration that most people still use Windows XP. So what about the Linux alternative?

With the price of gas, food and living expenses in general, I find it to be a tough sell to ask people to upgrade their systems yet again with another Windows release. The knee-jerk reaction is to keep what they have. This holds true for home users and small businesses alike.

So what if you were able to convince friends and co-workers that they could continue to use their existing hardware, but also stay up to date with the latest stuff with regard to desktop effects – all for free? Oh, and throw in new browser releases and, of course, a consistently updated office suite. Again, all for free.

Sounds like a great deal and to some extent, it is. Unfortunately however, the US has a lot of catching up to do on the Linux front to match the rest of the globe in using alternative operating systems.

International banks and businesses use Linux, the US uses Windows.

By no means am I going to sit here and claim that all banks, schools and businesses outside of the US use Linux. I am sure many of them use OS X along with Windows as well. Despite this, compared to their American counterparts the rest of the world is vastly ahead of us with their Linux adoption.

Considering the state of the US finances, I would point out that spending money on a computer pre-loaded with an OS that can be, even to this date with Vista, hit with malware with little to stop it seems rather foolish to me.

Now consider industries where the bulk needs of a workstation can adequately be upheld with most common Linux distributions. Unfortunately the joy might stop there if that company is already using an in-house IT staff.

Why? Because so many of them here in the States are Windows only, thus making a switch to a new platform a move to fire and rehire your IT staff. Obviously re-training the existing IT staff is a possibility, yet this has been largely overlooked in favor of just continuing to use what’s already in place.

In some cases, it is cheaper to pay for new Dell workstations loaded with XP and legacy software than it is to actually make the leap over to the Linux platform.

The key is the home users and the SoHo.

Considering the likelihood that US businesses will show next to no interest in switching platforms – regardless of the economy – this leaves the home user and perhaps to some extent, the SoHo user.

No matter how bleak things might look, the average family is looking for the basics:

• Adults want: A browser, Email client, an office suite for work.

• Kids want: A browser, instant messenger, iTunes, an office suite for school.

Clearly, there are some challenges as nothing in today's Linux distributions has the Apple iTunes branding that they’re want. And even the instant messenger is lacking some of the specific features and overall feel that they’re looking for in the clients the kids are using today.

The adults, however, who are willing to buy their music off of Amazon, do not care what the instant messenger feels like and are really just looking for the best way to get things done.

These same adults, who are facing possible layoffs, rising living costs and so forth are likely to be open to an operating system that provides them with the means of daily computing without the obvious mounting costs associated with using Windows.

Unfortunately, based on my own experience as a daily user of desktop Linux, there is a learning curve that must be confronted before asking the average user to switch completely. In short, asking these individuals to switch is basically asking them to become their own PC repair tech when something goes terribly wrong.

This leaves us with the SoHo user. Less likely to crash their PC, yet in a position where the data on that PC is mission critical. These users have data that can make or break their businesses if something should happen to it. So clearly, whatever Linux solution they end up using needs to have redundancy in mind.

Paying someone else to do the thinking for us.

Remember Zonbu? A fantastic idea using less than the best hardware and then further destroying a great idea by releasing a stand-alone distro that clearly needed "more time in the oven."

Look, the idea of network computing is not such a bad idea with certain obvious localized benefits in place. These include: A usable hard drive for data, the ability to install software, and allowing the user the choice of either being networked with the vendor's network computing service or just going at it alone.

Basically merging the visions of both Zonbu and Linspire is clearly a winner. The problem is every company out there doing it today is clearly not using their product on a daily basis themselves. The lack of obvious safeguards against boneheaded mistakes is evidence of this.

Right now desktop Linux is in a position that with the right game plan in place, Linux could make huge jump forward to attract new users during this recession here in the US.

Yet even with this great timing, there are some things that simply must be considered before this could possibly happen on a wide scale for the common man.

1. Control the hardware. If there is one idea to take away lesson from Apple, it is controlling the hardware. Doing so means a smaller market share, however new purchases end up with both the OS and the device from which to run it from.

2. Software choices made simple. Ubuntu had the right idea with its use of gnome-app-install. Just check the box of the described software and enjoy. Simple. In a managed solution, so long as the repositories are locked down for managed service or open for unmanaged service for the end user, life can be as secure or free as the user likes.

3. Safe data at all times. This is more of an issue for any OS, not just Linux. But as Zonbu demonstrated, there are creative ways to use networking solutions to keep the users’ data in sync at all times. Most people would happily relearn a program or two if the immediate benefit is to NEVER lose another file to data loss again. Synced backups are the wave of the future.

4. Work out a deal with HP and others. Considering those companies such as IBM, HP and others who spend tremendous amounts of effort making things work hardware-wise on the Linux front, why not strike up a deal in the from of a compatibility store? Considering most users like to have peripherals compatible with their OS, this is not just an idea, it’s a must.

At the end of the day, we need a little bit of Apple thinking bundled with some of the really obvious stuff Apple is lacking – like ready to go affordable full-sized network backup ready notebooks, for instance.

I do not question the fact that the opportunity is there for desktop Linux to succeed as people throughout the US are looking closely at getting more bang for their buck. And for the non-geek, going with a working, network-managed solution is going to provide the best path to success.

But key areas such as price or even the option of turning existing hardware into a managed appliance will be of key importance. Difficult financial times or not, desktop Linux must meet the needs of the masses on their terms. Offer something uniquely valuable or do not bother at al

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