Updated: April 13, 2009
Quite a lot of people have given this prospect a thought. Can Linux become a serious player on the desktop market? Can it contest with Windows and Mac - and possibly even overcome them one day? Here's my view on what needs to be done so that Linux grabs 25% of desktop share by year 2020 (provided the world still exists then).
There is no advertisement for Linux. Have you ever seen a commercial for a Linux distro on cable TV? Have you ever heard one on the radio? No. Right. So how exactly is the average guy going to hear about Linux? If he's lucky, he might know a friend who knows a friend who's a Linux guy. People "in the know" will know about Linux; others simply won't. It's a self-sustaining cycle of geekiness with very little growth potential.
Windows and Apple guys spend millions on commercials, trying to best one another in selling their software. Alongside these, you might get a lucky forum post or a few enthusiasts like myself might try to promote Linux on every given opportunity. This brings me to the first issue: Linux has no commercial desktop model. We'll get back to advertisement soon.
Commercial desktop model
One might argue that it is rather difficult to create a commercial model for software that is inherently free. Which is completely wrong. First, there are some payware Linux distros, faring more or less okay. Second, there is no need to pay for software. My idea is different: software is free, support is not.
Here we go. My business model. Paying for software means there's a company expecting to bring in money in return for the code they create. When you have an international team of volunteers working on the distribution, using code from hundreds of other open-source projects, the issue of revenue, royalty and whatnot becomes really tricky. There's a moral issue too, for some.
And these should never be brought up. Software can still be developed freely - and offered freely. But it is also entirely possible to create two versions of software. Oh, they will be identical, except one will be offered with paid support and the other - won't.
Thus, for geeks, nothing changes. You have the forums, news groups, IRC channels. The things will continue the way they have always been. But what about hundreds of millions of clueless users, who have never heard of forums, let alone IRC channels, Tux forbid? IRC, the ultra-geek domain:
For these guys and gals, we need support. A solid backbone of knowledge and 24/7 live support. For some reason, people hate the idea of seeking help online, but they don't mind being put on hold for 45 minutes over the phone. This may be nothing more than habit of the last 30+ years - or pure human nature. The truth is, people want to feel they are being helped by real humans, speaking in human voice.
Creating large, professional support centers is the first step into making sure Linux users will stay true and loyal. Thus, when someone buys a Dell notebook with Ubuntu pre-installed, they will have this magic number to call. Not Dell support. Linux support. Then, this support must be offered for a very long time. 10 years!
Yes. If medical industry can offer 10 years of service and support for their devices and car manufacturers must guarantee 10 years of spare parts for released models, I see no reason why software should get any less. Yes, progress, innovation ... this is not what the average people are looking for. Do you honestly think that the average guy will want to upgrade his Ubuntu every six months? I'm a geek and I don't like it.
People want stability, an anchor of sanity. They want to install their OS and forget about it forever. Besides, Linux being always hardware-friendly, it simply begs to be installed on antique software long past its due. So why should the support be any less?
Ten solid years of support means offering users a peace of mind. They will upgrade on their own after 3-4 years, not by being forced to, because they will have figured it's time to move on. Think about it. A new version of your distro comes out in December. You wait a month for those 91-minute bugs to be solved. You install, tweak and configure. You're in February, by now. And then, in June, there's a new version coming out. Slow down!
For all we want to think there's innovation booming all around us, the truth is far from it. A fraction of population is capable of keeping apace with the technological avalanche, the rest are simply floundering by, trying not to get swept away.
Most people have trouble with their TV remotes ... do you honestly expect them to upgrade their operating system every 180 days? I know people, engineers no less, who still run Windows XP SP1. I know people who have never updated their anti-virus. Do you think they will want to upgrade their OS twice a year? Support, as patient as an elephant, as slow as a turtle. Ten years of rock-hard stability. If Microsoft can do it, why not Linux? Windows XP will be supported until 2014. Think about it.
Back to advertisement
OK, let's assume we can create a solid support model. Still, no one knows about Linux. Well, maybe it's time to spread the word. And this means more than RSS feeds and forum links. This means sending salesmen, door to door. This means placing a geek in Dell stores, trying to shove the Linux laptop down your gullet every time you so much as blink in his direction.
This will require money, lots of money. Few will be willing to invest it, just like that. But offer them a serious business model, the decade-long support plan that might hook the audience, and they might get convinced.
IBM, Sun, Novell ... these are not just names. These are big companies, with lots of sway in the software world. For now, their Linux-oriented focus has mainly been on servers. But if they put more effort on advertising Linux to the common people ...
The advertisement does not have to be strictly Hollywood style. Charities, volunteer organizations, small businesses, you name it. Don't forget Brazil, India, China, huge countries with lots of potential. Most people in developing countries cannot afford to pay 400 dollars for Vista - and much more for hardware that can support Vista. Yes, they will be thrilled to have an operating system for free that can run on old hardware.
But this is not enough. This is only the beginning. People will be thrilled to use Linux and then what? A filesystem developer will murder his wife and, oops, no more filesystem. New Linux users will try to get their wireless to work and fail. Who will help them?
In the end, most people will do what people usually do - go the easy way. They will use pirated versions of Windows that work. Don't get me wrong. Getting Windows to work is just about equally difficult (or easy) to get working as any modern Linux distro. The only difference is that Windows users will have it much easier solving their problems. Because they will find someone to help them. And because they do not know there's an alternative.
What if the reality was different? What if all those people with problems could have someone to talk to about their missing drivers, the sputtering Xorg and corrupt GRUB? What if everyone knew that to solve a Linux problem, all you had to do is dial a number, wait five minutes and then talk to a geek, who would solve it for them? Do you really think people would keep spending hundreds of dollars on proprietary software?
A holy crusade of advertisement is the only way to get masses to realize there's choice, that they can have it all. Can you imagine how many people asked me if they can play MP3 files in Linux?
Back to business model
The real question is, what Linux aims to be? First, being represented by hundreds of companies, thousands of developers, and hundreds of thousands of users, Linux is by no means a single entity.
The business model is not about Linux. It's about besting the competition, in this case Microsoft and Apple. It has to be a goal of a company to gain market share, regardless of what specific product it's selling. It's not about being a holy crusader and trying to bring the evil corporations down.
A company wants to sell, right? So, that's it. The whole of ideology. Sell something your competitor can't make. Linux is free and thus virtually impossible to beat. So all you have to do is make sure you bundle Linux with an ultra-comfortable, uber-friendly support to make sure your customers will never have a single thought of worry in their minds.
Now, the tricky question is, can you beat the competition by selling support? Well, sure you can try. You will lose money for the first few years, definitely, no doubt about that. But you will also force your competition to lower prices and offer similar content.
In the end, it will come down to attrition. How much you can afford to lose. Eventually, though, things will reach an equilibrium. And then, in the valley of balance between software costs, support costs and usability, there will be profit.
It won't be anything spectacular. It will be a conservative 5% growth model. And real money will come from advertisement, sponsorship, additional customer packages like Linux home service, home cinema centers and others. Then, you'll have web services, online backup, streaming music and video repositories. And games ... oh, yes games.
The average computer user is 45 years old. The average gamer is 38 years old. The world of computer today has been shaped by games - us, kids back then in the 80s. We set the rules. We made the computers what they are today.
MS-DOS wasn't easy. But we wanted to play. So we did everything that had to be done to get the games going. We didn't think about it. We didn't bitch. It was normal to use tens of floppies to get things working. Or hack the autoexec.bat to get that XMS. We did it. No complaints.
Trust me, if the only way to play computer games today was by writing your own code, every single teenager would be a leet hacker by now. Once people pass a certain age (say 25), they are no longer willing to learn new things. But kids? Hey, you could teach them String Theory if it meant getting to shoot people online or race cars.
Games are the key to a whole generation of computer users. Kids learn fast and adapt even faster. They are like clay, waiting to be molded. Give Linux to the kids and in 10 years, you'll have a billion geeks using command line. When you think about it, mobile phone SMS messages are command line! Does anyone complain about using those? No. Why? Because it's cool. And because kids did it first.
Games are the key. Start developing games. Urban Terror, OpenArena, Wesnoth, they are just a sampling of what can be done. Part of the Linux future investment should be in developing commercial games. And yes, they can cost money, if needed. Symbolic prices, nothing major. But they will bring a tremendous boost to the community.
Linux people, myself included, live in a bubble. We have no idea what the average computer users want, need, think. We think that opening a command line terminal is soooo trivial. We think that partitioning a hard drive is soooo easy.
Well, for most people, this is worse than colonoscopy. We all want computers to be these friendly things, but they have been made by geeks, designed by geeks and used by geeks for fifty long years. It's only in the recent few years that any serious effort at dumbifying computers has been done.
Windows is no better, but it comes pre-installed! And people have already developed some sort of visual understanding how things out to be. Right-click My Computer ... They have no idea what they're doing. But if everyone is doing it, so be it. Google seem to know what the masses want. Mozilla people also do. Ubuntu is slowly getting there. The rest ... Tux forbid. You'll never win Sarah McVista over if she so much has to enable an extra repository in the software source.
Don't get me wrong! Linux IS easy. But to best Windows and Mac, it has to be 10 times easier than what it's today. Installing Ubuntu? WUBI. There goes a fabulous idea. Keep it simple. No mistakes allowed. This is how NOT to do it (i.e. win David von Office over):
Oh, the community. For some strange reason, most Linux geeks are not very pleasant people. They hold a grudge against newbies (RE noobs), as if they have done something wrong. Furthermore, they behave as if they invented the world.
Look, you were born in 1965 and you had to use command line. Big deal. People born 10 years earlier had to use punch-cards. This is called evolution. No reason to be bitter just because you were born before GUI became popular. Progress is a good thing; that's why they call it so.
Being there when things were messy forced a lot of people to embrace the mess and learn to use it, only proving that when a push comes to shove, you'd better don a parachute. In the olden days, users had it the hard way. Just like our ancestors had to hunt for food and died of simple things like rabies. We should all be glad that a typical Linux installation has become a 15-min deal.
Unfortunately, quite a few geeks look down at the masses and scorn their lack of knowledge. This often happens in dedicated distro forums, where people come asking for help only to leave with their noses snubbed. Think about it. People come to you for help. And you shoo them away like they're lepers?
Geeks need to learn humility and civility. They need to tone down the aggressiveness, become more patient. And more eloquent. For some curious reason, most intelligent people are also slightly autistic. Which makes me sort of a superman, because I'm not only very smart, I'm also one of those few people capable of explaining things in simplest of terms to just about anyone. When you think about it, I'm almost divine in explaining things.
But there are very few people willing to take the effort of making an extra screenshot, explaining those seemingly obvious three commands in between those other three commands, to make it simple and friendly and cozy and warm for the newbie.
If Linux is ever going to be a true community work, then its users must learn to be polite and patient. Do you think I enjoy making those hundreds of repetitive screenshots in my tutorials? Well, the answer is yes! I do. I just love the fact that people reading my articles will not be asking any questions why this or that stage was left out and how I got to get that thing working.
We all need to make an extra effort. The fact there was no one for us back then does not make it right to keep doing it today. If we embrace the new users in a loving hug of technology and precise expertise, they will stay. Ubuntu forums are probably the only true Linux source of information for non-techies today. You may call me a fanboy, but you get lots of friendly voice there, lots of dedicated and useful help, with only a smidgen of bad-ass attitude. It's a example for all of us.
Consolidation of effort
One of the beauties of the open-source world is the choice. Plenty of choice. If you don't like Gentoo, there's SimplyMEPIS. If you don't like Linux Mint, you might wanna try Sabayon or SUSE or Arch or SLAX ... this is also the curse of the Linux world.
When people want to buy things, they want to have a choice, but not too much choice. They want to be able to brood over two or three options, no more than five. Today, there's so many Linux distros, it's overwhelming for the new users. They feel threatened by this abundance of options. Linux breakthrough on the desktop market should focus on 2-3 leading distros. Take the Distrowatch popularity meter for the last 5 years. That should give you a good indication what the choice should be.
I'm not against development of small distros, branching, improvements, modification, remastering etc. But the effort for the sake of community is one thing. A business model is something else. Instead of having 30 two-man teams developing semi-baked products, build a single team with 60 people and create a superb product.
Small distros are also very dependent on their creators. If they leave or abandon their projects, for whatever reason, these distro suddenly die, leaving the current user base stranded.
Commercial success depends on continuity and guarantees to the customer. Dedicated support is only one part of the jigsaw. A rich community of developers is also very important, hundreds of them. I find it hard to believe that a commercial-grade distribution can be created - and more importantly, sustained - by only a handful of developers. You may find exceptions here and there, but on average, it won't work in the long term.
Focusing on magicking the customer will take yet another investment - the intellectual property. The large Linux players will have to hire tons of programmers, designers and marketing people to make their distributions truly useful for the millions of disgruntled, computer-illiterate users out there.
Taking it slower will also work. Instead of launching a new version every few months, the major players should focus on a slower release cycle and much faster bug solving. People do not care if their distro is at version 7.04.003-2. They do care if their wireless does not work, though.
I'll take stability over innovation any time. And so will most people. Just for reference, I'm still using Windows XP and Ubuntu Gutsy. They do their job well, so why upgrade them. What's the benefit?
Concentrated effort, support, advertisement. 50 million on advertisement for the next two years, 50 million on hiring developers and 50 million for support in the first three years. All major Linux players should toss in a few millions and start the one true people's distro.
The problem with most companies is that they're unwilling to lose money. It's a huge and painful risk to shed revenue for five years only to hope to turn profit some day in the future. But look around us. What people want? They want Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, iPhone. They don't really know or care what powers these marvels. They look cool and they cater to their primal needs.
Making simple, big-button distros with lots of truly great commercial games, instant access to every conceivable media, dedicated support and brand-name endorsement by the titans like Dell or Google - it must work and it will. I can only hope.