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The Solution Before the Solution

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.