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Setting the Desktop Apart

Mar 14, 2008, 22:30 (30 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

I am not sure what to make of the pull-out of the Everex GPC machines from Wal-Mart's brick-and-mortar shelves announced this week.

Initially, I was bummed, because like most of us I thought the closure of a channel for desktop Linux was just one more loss to face. Of course, considering that Wal-Mart is still selling the machines online tells me that the channel really isn't closed, there was some consolation.

But as the week progressed, I kept wondering if this was actually a good thing. Did Linux really belong on the shelves of Wal-Mart now? Or was it too soon?

All aboard my train of thought, please.

First, I want to remove from this discussion any arguments that say Linux is better or worse than other operating systems on the desktop. Wherever you are on this question, put it aside for a moment. For now, let's agree on this fact: Linux is different from Windows and OS X.

With that in mind, I don't get the sense that the Wal-Mart customer was really the best customer Linux PC; price and quality notwithstanding. The reason is, even the most naïve computer buyer knows that whenever they get a computer, they will need to run software on it. They may not know how, and they may not know what, but years of exposure to the notion of boxed software sets on the shelves (especially games) has clued them in on that fact.

So, if they asked about the software that could run on this machine, either the salesperson would not know and just give the standard answer "oh, it runs everything here." Or the salesperson would know what they were talking about and truthfully point at their software inventory and say "not any of these."

That's presuming the customer would even ask. Buying a computer at Wal-Mart strikes me as a decision based on economic need, not a technical need. So, when the customer gets the computer home, eventually try to buy or download software for it, and very likely fail because unless they were savvy enough to pick up on the fact that this was a Linux machine (and, not having read the documentation, I don't know how clearly that was spelled out over the loud "gOS" branding), the software they tried would be for Windows.

Online users, on the other hand, have been around the Internet block a bit, and tend to be more aware of things like compatible platforms (not always, but I think we can make a good argument for more often). If Wal-Mart customers buy a gOS machine online, it's likely they know what they're getting.

I realize this sounds like a dismissal of the Everex machine in particular and the Linux desktop in general. It isn't--but Linux is different from the OS people expect to see and use in a PC-form machine., and that difference was so downplayed in the marketing material I saw, that it may have contributed to the lack of strong sales in the stores.

This is all conjecture on my part; I would love to see the holiest of holies in Wal-Mart: the sales numbers. Just to see if my theory has any merit.

I am not trying to lay all the blame on Wal-Mart's or Everex's inability to sell these machines, either. Some of this responsibility, I believe, should be shared in part by the Linux desktop itself. By making itself try to look and feel like other Oses, there is not a lot of superficially set it apart for non-savvy users. (Note the superficially; there's a lot more going for Linux under the GUI, of course, but casual users don't see that.)

I think the desktop design of Linux should start moving in a direction that sets it apart from other operating systems. Something that does not try to clone existing GUIs, but entices potential new users to say "hey, I want to try that."

That, I believe, is one good way for Linux is catch the "mainstream" desktop user. Not by trying to match other OSes feature for feature.