Why Linux Can’t “Sell” on the Desktop

Last week while having a conversation with one of my fellow Gnomies, I  found myself in a rare condition: I discovered that I was unable to answer a technology-related question with conviction. I’m not saying I have all the answers; every day I am confronted with questions either I or someone else asks me about technology that requires further research for me to understand. When I simply don’t know something, I admit that I’m not an expert on the issue at hand and proceed to direct myself or others to resources that are likely to offer answers. That is one reason I find technology so interesting: I love to research and discover new things. It’s probably also why I was so fascinated with Linux when I first began to explore the platform: it was so different from every computing paradigm I’d been was familiar with, and so ripe with possibility and the opportunity to learn (rather than simply use). No longer was I stuck between two choices of desktop (and laptop) operating systems — with Linux, I had a variety of ways I could run my computer and endless ways I could customize my experience. I could even develop my own “brand” of Linux and distribute or even sell it if I was so inclined.

Last week, however, I found myself dealing with a question that I should easily have been able to answer: Why would anyone want to use Linux as their everyday desktop (or laptop) operating system? It’s a fair question, and asked often of Linux. On this occasion, however, I found it was a question I could no longer answer with the conviction necessary to “sell” the platform. In fact, I kind of felt like a car salesman who realizes he no longer believes in the product he’s been pitching.

How long had I felt this way? Had I been kidding myself (and others) about the wonders of Linux? Did I really want to continue offering Linux as a viable desktop alternative?

These doubts had been seeded in my mind for some time, but it was during a TeamSpeak conversation that superstar Gnomie Stacy Pharis compelled them to germinate. (Gnomies is the paid community component of LockerGnome. It is the meat under the lettuce, so to speak, where the hunger for knowledge and communication with other geeks is truly satisfied. TeamSpeak is a technology employed to enable members, also known as “Gnomies”, to engage in voice conferencing any time of day or night.) It was late at night, perhaps early morning, and my fellow Gnomie informed me that he was installing Ubuntu, a distribution (or distro) of Linux. Once Mr. Pharis had Ubuntu installed and began describing his view of the desktop operating system, I could sense right away that he held some negative notions about desktop distributions of Linux. Since I’d long been a proponent of open source software, and particularly Linux, Mr. Pharis’ remark about the Linux community being a “cult” immediately triggered some of my internal defense mechanisms. I held my tongue, however, and decided to approach the occasion as an opportunity for learning.

Linux powers an ever-increasing number of devices from airport kiosks to household appliances, so most of us have used the operating system in one way or another. Yet most people wouldn’t claim to have experience with the platform unless they’d installed and played around with a distribution on their own computer system. The last time Mr. Pharis had intentionally installed and worked with Linux purely as a desktop computing environment was about a decade prior, so he hadn’t had any firsthand experience with Ubuntu Linux. Now, I don’t normally enjoy engaging in conversations with people who are pessimistic about a technology they haven’t used — most people I’ve encountered aren’t very open-minded about technology once they have firmly entrenched ideas about it — but I could sense Mr. Pharis was an intelligent fellow, tech-savvy and straightforward rather than trollish, so I attempted to offer some answers to doubts he held about the open source platform. I recognized the occasion as an opportunity to “sell” Linux.

What struck me as unusual (and led me to write this article) was my own inability to fully recommend Linux as a viable desktop solution. Mr. Pharis was asking why anyone would consider using Ubuntu as an alternative to another desktop operating system:

“I understand why someone would choose a Linux distro to do some things, such as partition a disc or do some maintenance tasks or whatnot…”

— I’m paraphrasing here; I don’t know that Mr. Pharis would actually use the word whatnot

“…but why would anyone adopt Ubuntu or some other Linux distro as their daily desktop?”

At first, I wasn’t certain whether he was asking this question of me or someone else (since I had taken a break for a few minutes and had just returned to TeamSpeak), so I waited for somebody else to answer. Satisfied that nobody else was in the conversation, I took up the challenge of changing Mr. Pharis’ mind about Linux:

“There are many reasons people choose Ubuntu — or any other flavor of Linux — rather than Mac OS X or Windows 7 or whatever else they’re used to. Just start playing around with it and you’ll see what I mean.”

It was hardly an answer, but it was late and I was too tired to make a proper effort at evangelizing the platform. My answer would have to suffice until Mr. Pharis had played around with the operating system enough to realize for himself the answer to his question. But Mr. Pharis was wide awake and immediately challenged my lackluster reply:

“I mean, what exactly do they see in this? I see a familiar-looking desktop, utilities that I already have on the operating system I already use… what does Ubuntu Linux offer that the others don’t?”

Again, I’m paraphrasing here.

Partly because I was tired, partly because, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m beginning to lose my will to sell Linux, and partly because I understood Mr. Pharis’ question so painfully well — for all of these reasons and perhaps others I’m not aware of, I found that I could not offer a single feature that would inspire anyone to choose Ubuntu (or any other flavor of Linux) as their main desktop operating system. Sure, I spit out a few commonly employed wisdoms/myths: Linux is infinitely customizable; some people find Linux so much more fun and satisfying to use; Linux is so much less expensive to develop with (if you’re into that); Linux is simply amazing (no, actually amazing, not Apple amazing)… I even resorted to a belief I harbor that I’m not even really certain is true: that it’s a more delightful platform for those who prefer to use keyboards as their main input device. The moment I offered that last shaky point of contention, I realized that I was grasping at straws, and when Mr. Pharis offered for me to join him in a Google+ Hangout so that he could show me his Ubuntu desktop and I could point out all the wonderful things he could do with the operating system, I began to wonder if I was a fraud.

Now, Mr. Pharis’ interest in discovering why certain desktop distributions of Linux seem so special to a good number of people is a question that so many in the Linux community want to see asked by more people. As more people ask the question, it goes to follow that the Linux community will take the opportunity to respond and draw a number of those curious into the fold. Indeed, the Ubuntu community in particular seems standing at the ready to respond to those bold enough to explore Linux: the Ubuntu community welcomes newcomers to a vast network of resources on the platform, with an ever-growing number of Ubuntu evangelists providing websites, wikis, forums, books, support channels, and podcasts to guide the newbie out of a frustrating forest of confusing choices and on a path toward Ubuntu uberdom. Ubuntu is everywhere on the Internet; it’d be difficult to spend a decent amount of time surfing the Web without coming across a mention of the open source platform or its community. But do Ubuntu-ees really understand how to answer those curious about their platform in the most comprehensible and convincing ways?

Ubuntu (and generally, all of the Linux world) is mainly a volunteer-driven effort, from its development through to its distribution. Though Ubuntu has more financial backing than many other Linux flavors, Ubuntu still relies on the majority of its marketing efforts to be performed by volunteers. Ubuntu doesn’t have the budget of Apple Inc. or Microsoft to instill in people the happy-fun-productive feelings that traditional advertising instills in consumers. It is quite doubtful you will ever enjoy and subsequently recall an Ubuntu television commercial — one perhaps entertaining enough to drive you to your local Best Buy store to pick a Geek Squad member’s brain about Linux. So what do Ubuntu users need to do to replicate (or undermine) the marketing efforts of the corporate operating system vendors?

Well, first of all, you don’t sell Linux. As fellow LockerGnome contributor Matt Ryan pointed out in his article Why More Bloggers Don’t Write About Linux, there isn’t supposed to be one dominant distribution of Linux. Now, if there isn’t one dominant distro that the community can point to, what in the world do you focus your efforts on selling? Without a product to point to, what are we pointing at? An idea? Precisely, many Linux proponents would say, We are not selling anything. We are about contributing. We are about sharing, not profiting. To which a professional marketer might respond, Ideas aren’t tangible. How in the world do you expect an idea to sell in the marketplace?

Again, we are not about profiting.

On the other hand there are those in the Linux community who wouldn’t mind one distribution becoming the dominant “brand”, able to be marketed and sold in the retail space. In fact, some distributions of Linux have made it to store shelves over the years. Unfortunately there is too much disagreement within the Linux community about whether or not Linux should remain more of an idea or a movement than a product (or vice versa). Once in awhile a generally focused effort seems to move in one direction or another, as has been the case with Ubuntu (currently the most popular desktop distribution). Yet sustained focus within the Linux community seems unlikely; today Ubuntu remains at the mercy of a fickle user base. Even as I type this there are those moving from Ubuntu to Linux Mint and other distros due to the former’s recent selection of a range of technologies referred to as Unity.

Others in the Linux community may say that straight out of the gate I’m starting out this conversation incorrectly. The Linux community does not want to behave like Microsoft or Apple, they might correct, as that would defeat its purpose. Linux wants to be naturally accepted, not forced down people’s throats like the other guys. Linux is different. Though that sentiment satisfies the inner hippie/commie/altruist in me, I find that it undermines the Linux community’s ability to be perceived as a serious contender in the dog-eat-dog world of desktop (and laptop) operating systems. Sure, it’s great that there exists a cozy community of do-it-yourselfers wanting to change the way we acquire and use our computing technology, but it’s highly unlikely they will succeed if they do not present their case with at least some determined direction of effort. The Peaceful Warrior’s ways work well in Berkeley; in the real world, the Warrior is run over by the well-directed and unrepentant wheels of commerce. Redmond is not going to roll over for a bunch of pacifists — it’s going to usurp the best features of free software and incorporate it into its own. Apple has already made a tasteless game out of thinking differently, employing artsy images of John Lennon and Albert Einstein to encourage hip outsiders to take a ride on the Mac love bus. The Linux community has long thought of itself as thinking differently, but never had the marketing muscle to let others know it.

The argument I’m presenting is not new, of course. For many years Linux users have been debating how best to present Linux and the open source paradigm. Linux has been described as the platform that will survive when the others have run their commercial courses. It’s the savior of the computing world — when the others’ evils have turned their proprietary software and walled-garden approaches upside down, Linux will still be around to pick up the pieces of failed enterprise like insects are expected to do once humanity has destroyed itself. Linux, we’ve heard time and again, is still in its infancy but ready for the world to adopt… even though it’s not quite ready for most of the world to adopt. But if you don’t adopt it now, you might be sorry you didn’t because everyone who’s anyone will soon be using it. Free and open source software rules! It’s the only thing that is sustainable.

I may seem glib, and I apologize if I’ve offended. I’ve been a proponent of Linux since about 2005 or so, ever since I picked the installer disc out of a Linux magazine and installed the Windows-like Xandros on an aging PC a friend gave to me. When my Old World PowerBook G3 had run its course with Mac OS 9, I struggled through installing Ubuntu and Debian and other distros until I finally found a way to make it work, and then I told everyone I could about how they could rescue their old Macs from obscurity by using Linux. I remember even then wondering if I was trying to justify all the hours (days, I mean, and possibly weeks) I had wasted just to make my Mac able to run the latest version of Netscape. A year or two later the virtual lack of support for my old Mac simply drove me to frustration and I found myself with a newer Mac running OS X. Linux soon became a fondly frustrating memory.

I’d bet my bottom dollar that many of us who have used Linux more than a few times have reached a similar conclusion: Linux is simply not for everyone. Perhaps not even for us, except when we really, really need it — that is, when we have no other choice. (Remember, I’m talking about desktop operating systems rather than server solutions.) I still run one Linux desktop distro or another from time to time when I need to; for a couple of weeks in February I used Ubuntu to revive a laptop that was struggling with allowing any version of Windows to be installed. It was an exhilarating experience, comparable to visiting with a long-neglected friend — and out of necessity I reacquainted myself with some open source tools, such as the image manipulation program GIMP. Though the experience enabled me to get through my first weeks of writing for LockerGnome, I missed the Windows experience. Perhaps I have been indoctrinated by Windows marketing over the years.

Today I’m typing this article from that same laptop running Vista. I have a fresh installation of Ubuntu installed on the laptop for those occasions I might want to boot into it, and I also am still using GIMP (which has long been available for Windows). I prefer using Windows as my daily desktop operating system. I prefer Mac OS X even more, when I can afford to do so. I can no longer pitch Linux as a viable desktop environment without feeling like I’m selling snake oil out of the back of a wagon; it simply doesn’t feel right anymore. It obviously works — enough for Google to base its Android and Chrome operating systems on — but I have yet to use either of those regularly and cannot base my views on the opinions of other users.

Regardless of my currently waning wonder, my guess is that Linux will rule a future computing paradigm we have yet to realize. Aside from server environments, perhaps the ideal Linux utility will be some hybrid of embedded and mobile and desktop technologies. Linux is nearly there in the mobile and embedded landscapes, but perhaps Google’s efforts will succeed in helping Linux rise and take over the world as well. Will there be any humans left to care? Only time will tell.

CC licensed Flickr photo above shared by SMU Central University Libraries

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