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Editor's Note: Does Linux Deliver For Small Businesses?

Oct 31, 2008, 23:01 (13 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

The answer is Yes, it does, though with some qualifications. The short answer: it's all in the implementation. The long answer starts with taking a look at Canonical's successes in opening new doors for Linux deployments.

Canonical and Ubuntu have dominated the Linux news scene for several months now, even more than they did before. They're expanding in many directions:

  • Desktop editions: Xubuntu, Kubuntu, Edubuntu, Gobuntu
  • Ubuntu MID (Mobile Internet Device) Edition
  • Ubuntu Server
  • Ubuntu Studio
  • Tier 1 OEM desktop/notebook preinstalls (Dell, HP)
  • Tier 2 OEM netbook preinstalls (Acer, ASUS, other brands)
Plus all the community derivatives and Ubuntu-based projects. Ubuntu is being re-packaged into all kinds of creative and useful niche roles. Finally someone is doing what so many Linux fans have been wanting for lo these many years: visibility, marketing, and paving the way for Linux into areas where it had not received a welcome before.

Before anyone starts complaining that I give Canonical too much credit, let's be sure to acknowledge the tremendous work that Canonical has built on, starting with Unix, Richard Stallman, Intel, Linus Torvalds, and all the tens of thousands of developers, distribution maintainers, bugfinders and fixers, artists, documentation writers, LUGs, teachers and helpers who are all part of the vast Linux and FOSS universe. It's a pretty special place.

But Is It Good Enough?

I think some writers make a living recycling the "is Linux good enough" question over and over, and never really coming to a conclusion. The answer is Yes, with qualifications. Yes, Linux is more than good enough to fill any number of roles: Web, mail, DNS, print, file, database, user management, automated provisioning, wireless services, security, routing, time server, cluster, virtualizer, VoIP, terminal services, secure remote administration and help desk, network monitoring, and so on. Yes, it is more than good enough on the desktop: office productivity, music studio, graphics and movie studio, accounting, groupware, games, home media center, and so on.

So why isn't it catching on fast enough? Actually I think it is catching on remarkably quickly given the tremendous obstacles: inertia, deliberate and intensive interference from our favorite convicted monopolist, lack of visibility, and lack of support. But still, given the huge and unfixable deficiencies in Windows, and the inflexibility and high price tag of Apple, and the non-stop FUD and jackbooted thug business tactics, it seems that a secure, low-cost/free/libre alternative that doesn't treat customers like criminals should take off like wildfire.

The two most important bits are friendly, skilled, reliable support, and visibility. Canonical have done a great job at raising Linux's visibility. As for support, we can learn lessons from successful businesses: the successful ones wrap up everything in a nice tidy package, make it pretty, and do a lot of handholding. In contrast, an all-too-typical Linux experience is "Here's a Linux CD, now dump Windows and use Linux, and hit Google when you have problems." That doesn't work. I've known Apple fans to do the same thing-- they'll talk a friend or relative into dumping Windows for a Mac, and then they think that's enough. But it's not because there is still a learning curve, both in learning how to use the machine, and learning what other software is available. It's a whole different world.

Good Linux Support

Look at the story that ran yesterday, Microsoft Slugs Aged Care Centres. I wonder how many serious proposals they had ever received from Linux consultants? Or anyone not affiliated with Microsoft? It takes a lot of time, knowledge, and work to migrate away from a closed, proprietary platform, and to keep the new system running well and in a way that serves the customer's needs. It takes more people skills than technical skills, because if they don't have confidence that they will be well-taken care of those ace technical skills will never be called on anyway.

I divide computer users into two categories: the gurus who like being their own system and network administrators, and the people who don't particularly want to be their own PC mechanics, but who would rather invest their time and energy into learning the applications they need to get their work done. Linux captured the first group a long time ago; the real growth is in the second category, and that's where Canonical is starting to show some real success. It's almost a cliché because it's been said so many times-- release a good-quality well-integrated OEM Linux + hardware bundle, back it up with support and training, and people will love it. Finally, it's starting to happen.

In a way this sounds like the comment I criticized IBM for-- "We sell solutions, not operating systems." And it is true that small businesses want nice reliable packaged solutions. But it's also true that operating systems are big differentiators, and it is definitely worth marketing the differences. Let's see, the world's most effective and most expensive malware vector that can barely get out of its own way vs. efficient, reliable, stable, and secure-able. Hmm, is there anyone who thinks such differences are not worth mentioning?

So the medium answer is Yes, Linux combined with friendly, skilled support definitely delivers for small business, and it does so better than any other platform. Even if there are some super-duper specialized Windows- or Mac-only applications that are must-haves for a particular business, the sane infrastructure is still Linux everywhere, Windows/Mac only as needed.

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