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The Solution Before the Solution

Sep 07, 2007, 22:30 (22 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

A friend of mine is deep in negotiations with a major computer publisher to see if they would be interested in a book (or series of books) about open source solutions for small to medium-sized businesses. Thus far, the negotiations are not going as well as my friend would like.

Part of this is the inherent conservatism found in every publisher on the planet. Before they pay an author, some editors, and the printer a large-ish sum of money to create a book, they want to know exactly how much money they will make from said book. Since no one's really tried to specifically do a solutions guide targeted for SMBs before, the sales data on this idea is rather thin on the ground.

After making a good initial pitch to the publisher, my friend was surprised to learn that interest in this project was not high, because SMB-aimed books of any sort never seem to do well. Why offer an SMB-specific title when any of the other book's in the publisher's title list could serve SMB owner/operators just as well?

At this point, I could run off and do a treatise on the economics of publishing or why traditional book publishing isn't even really the best way to impart information to open source users anyway. But that's not what I want to dwell on. Let's stipulate, for the moment, that (a) publishers are not evil and (b) books are a valid way to go. Why would it be a problem to sell open source books to SMBs? Because, I think, the answer has far-reaching implications as to why it seems hard to sell open source anything to SMBs.

In sales and marketing circles, I have often heard the term "feeling pain" bandied about. Find out where the customer feels the most pain and you can either build, market, or sell a product to them that alleviates that pain. Preferably, all three.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that I believe that greatest point of pain SMBs feel in terms of IT is Windows and mostly everything that runs on it. It's a resource hog, it's expensive, it can catch viruses, it can be hacked, and it can crash without warning or pattern. And that's just on a Monday. Tuesdays bring patches, and--well, this is a family publication and I dare not mention the unspeakable.

The obviousness of this situation frustrates most Linux advocates because the solution for this enormous amount of pain is right there, begging to be used. "Run Linux," we say, "and all of your problems are over." But few seem eager to take up the rallying cry and install penguin-loving software on their systems. Why?

A theory I have? People accept this pain as a necessary evil. Crashes, viruses, and the like are just a part of running a PC; one more thing to make our lives miserable. It seems like brainwashing, but it's actually something many of us will do. For those of you who wear glasses or contacts, remember how surprised you were when you first tried on corrective lenses? You probably had no idea your eyes were so bad and that the world could be so clear. Using Windows is a lot like that: the problems just slip in a little at a time, until you become convinced that this is the way things have to be.

Savvy technophiles, of course, know better. But average users do not. And that's a big reason why they don't jump away from Windows--they don't know there's an alternative solution out there. Sure, they know about Macs. But Macs require buying all new hardware, which is very expensive. And Linux? They've never heard of it.

This is the core of the problem: no one jumps to the Linux solution because they don't know it's available. If they have heard of Linux, it's from companies like IBM and Novell, and usually in the context of big servers, not something an SMB could afford or even need.

If no one knows about a solution like Linux, then they will grudgingly stay with Windows--because they don't know any better.

The interim solution is equally obvious: make them aware of the existence of Linux as an affordable and workable alternative to the pain they are feeling now. Not a lot of flash or hype: just make it known. In this, the Linux community could take a page from Apple's marketing: Macs got a nice boost in sales from the "I'm a Mac" series of ads, because Windows users were simply given that extra choice beyond Windows.

Imagine what they could do when given another choice that's even less expensive than Macs.