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How Self-Imposed Limits Will Fail Linux

May 04, 2007, 22:30 (36 Talkback[s])

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

I woke up this morning, not-quite refreshed from a four-hour slumber, and while I was standing in front of the mirror brushing my teeth, a terrible thought occurred to me. This often happens when I am brushing my teeth, because the taste of toothpaste usually invokes memories of other days when I've drug myself out of bed at the hour known as Ungodly.

Here was my thought: "What if this whole Dell/Ubuntu deal doesn't work out?"

It was kind of a guilty thought, because I really do want this to succeed: the opportunities from having a first-tier hardware vendor preloading any Linux distribution are great. For example it means, finally, that all of those "I can't get Linux to install on my machine so Linux must suck" reviews will crawl away into oblivion.

This thought really had some serious impetus, not just toothpaste. Some pundits have reminded us ad nauseum of Dell's prior experience with selling Linux machines at the turn of the century, and how Dell gave it up in 2001, citing poor sales. On an emotional level, I get bemused by this line of thought, because clearly some people are desperate to say anything to keep Linux from succeeding. But some could argue that people like me are desperate to say anything to keep Linux from failing, so emotional arguments are negated.

On a practical level, there is some danger, like any business arrangement, of Ubuntu on dell machines not succeeding. Blogger Ben Hay had the same thought, in a blog posted on LT this afternoon. But Mr. Hay takes a more conspiatorial tack with his rationale than I would. I'm not afraid of a big, dark Microsoft-Dell conspiracy; I'm more afraid that someone's going to screw this up unintentionally.

Case in point: other vendors' reactions to the Dell/Ubuntu agreement. Novell and Red Hat put their differences aside long enough to both say pretty much the same thing: that's really nifty, but these Ubuntu machines are really for the Linux enthusiast, not the enterprise market where we market our enterprise-ready desktops. You can just hear the upturned noses, can't you?

Curiously, Linspire's Kevin Carmody, who likely knew full well about this deal before it was announced, had his weekly newsletter all primed and ready with nearly the same argument:

"We have explained to Dell that we see Linux in two different markets. The first we call the 'Linux Enthusiasts Market,' Carmody wrote in his newsletter. "This is where Linux is today. The second is the 'Linux Mainstream Market.' This market is likely one to three years away. Because Dell is going to put their toe into the desktop Linux PC waters now, they should offer a product that is geared towards where that market is today... the Linux Enthusiasts."

Linspire, he added, will be ready for that "mainstream" market.

Geez, pat Canonical on the head and give them a sucker--it might be less condescending.

It could be that these Dell machines are only going to be bought by cutting edge adopters. Goodness knows, I've been wrong before. But I think this constant assignment of limitations to the Linux desktop, especially by its own vendors, is just ridiculous.

Who knows what a solid, preloaded Ubuntu machine might be able to do in the market? I have an idea, though: let's get some value-add partners teamed up with Canonical or Dell and go sell these things like hotcakes to the one market segment that the big commercial vendors consistently ignore: the small- to medium-business (SMB) space.

Red Hat and Novell want the enterprise? Great, let them. If I were Dell, I'd toss all my marketing energy into filling the SMB channel with these machines, and split the support costs with Canoncial. Linspire wants to wait for the mainstream? Okay, let 'em wait. Meanwhile, Ubuntu's out there making serious inroads now into the a vastly underserved market for open source products.

I am not writing this because I want Ubuntu to succeed while other distros fail. I want them all to succeed. But I think this constant inability to think of the possibilities of Linux in all of the marketplace is dragging everyone down.

"Focus on mission" is what the commercial vendors might say to this statement. "Tunnel vision" is what I would say in reply.

If we self-limit Linux, if we don't think outside of the box, then my worries become justified. This deal won't succeed. Don't sell to just one market segment. Don't just pigeon-hole these machines to just "Linux enthusiasts." Get them to anyone who can really use a solid, secure, stable OS.

In other words, get them to everyone.