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Taking the Geek Out of Linux

Taking the Geek Out of Linux

LWM: A lot of companies seem to be hiding the fact that they're basing their products on Linux - for example, set top boxes. Is this part of your strategy? Michael Robertson: If you look at our 4.0 version, our instant messenger is Gnome based, and it's Gaim. Our office suite is StarOffice. Our browser is Mozilla. But rather than drown the user with all these crazy terms and names, we say "Hey, the instant messenger is really neat because you can connect to more than one network at a time. Hey, the browser's really super because the fonts look great and you can suppress popups." We're focusing on the features, not the technical history. This is an approach that the Linux community really hasn't seen yet, and we probably take a little extra heat because of that. People think that we're slighting the Mozilla team or the Gaim team because when we talk about the instant messenger, we talk about the features, not that it's written by the Gaim guys.

LWM: Do you think that Linux still has an "only for geeks" reputation that hurts it?
Robertson: Oh sure, absolutely. Look, the features we focus on are boring and nonsexy to the technical crowd. For example, our research found that new users often get lost using Linux because different programs end up dropping them in different places when they do open or save commands. And they end up with files all over their hard disk that they can no longer find, that are buried in /usr/sbin. To technical people, that's a silly sort of issue to bring up, but it's the kind of thing we focus on a lot. The Linux community says, "Ah, that's for babies. Just teach 'em how to use the find command and move on." And we're saying, "No, no. What we have to do is recompile hundred of programs to normalize them so they all use /MyDocuments." So when someone says open, or someone says save, it always goes to the same spot. Those are simple things that are really discounted by the Linux community, but in our minds they're key to making this a mass-market movement. We're trying to bring desktop Linux to the masses, and right now it's an elitist product because you need too much technical knowledge to get up to speed.

LWM: What has been your experience in selling Linux to a broad retail chain?
Robertson: We're constantly learning. For example, in 4.0, the first time you run it a beautiful multimedia demo comes up automatically and says "Welcome to desktop Linux, here's what the icons on the desktop do, here are some basic functions," things like that. Because even though the changes are relatively minor for those coming from an XP environment or a Mac OS 10 environment, there are enough of them that users get a little distraught when they first sit down. So we've gotten smarter and smarter about what's needed to take it to a wider audience.

We've been selling computers, both online and through mail order. And we've been using this as sort of a test bed to learn about users - learn where they have support issues and learn where we can do a better job. Where we're going this summer is into retail, in a big way. You're going to be able to walk into major retailers and see computers on the shelves with desktop Linux preinstalled. That's really where Linux needs to go to reach the masses. So we've used our online experience and our mail-order experience; we do all our own technical support, so when someone calls up and says "I'm stuck, it didn't work like I thought it would," we're taking note of that. We're getting smarter and making a more polished product that better suits the mass market.

We really believe that our 4.0 release is ready for the mass market. There are all sorts of consumer-friendly changes that aren't technically sexy, like normalizing file paths, embedded tutorials in Flash, instructional videos all throughout the OS. And there are even more substantial features, like when somebody plugs in a Flash drive or a USB hard drive or CD-ROM, it pops up on the desktop. That's never happened before in desktop Linux.

LWM: Making it more plug-and-play?
Robertson: Absolutely. When someone plugs in a wireless card or even a USB wireless adapter, it shows up on the desktop ready to use, ready to configure and connect them to the network. So there are substantial features we're bringing to the market in an effort to close the gap between Linux and XP.

LWM: So the words "recompile the kernel" should never enter the user's vocabulary.
Robertson: Exactly. In fact, we don't want them to hear the word kernel. We want it to be, "You click here for your browser, you click here for your IM, and if you want more software, click on the Click and Run icon and go get it."

One of the features we're unveiling with 4.0 is a one-click major version upgrade. We're taking users from version 3.0 to version 4.0 with one click of their mouse. This isn't a 3.0 to 3.1-type upgrade with a couple of security patches; this is a full upgrade with a new kernel, new video drivers, you name it. New browser, new instant messenger, new e-mail client, everything. And that happens with one click.

We look at it this way. 30% of the servers running today are Linux based. People are choosing Linux because it's affordable, powerful, and stable. All those same features are now available on the desktop side, so you're going to see, over the next few years, that same 30% on the desktop.

LWM: One of the most persistent knocks against Linux is that the desktop applications still aren't there. When do you think that major players like Intuit and Adobe will start porting to Linux?
Robertson: I don't think you need to have those folks to bring Linux to the masses. I think a year ago, that was a very valid point, that the software wasn't there. But that's no longer true. Yes, there are certain holes, but the majority of the larger holes have been filled with very capable products. So you talk about Intuit - hey, we'd love to have Quicken on desktop Linux. We don't. But we do have a product called Money Dance, which is very capable and does all the core functions, like online banking. So there are products, be they commercial or open source, that are filling the gaps. I think that complaint was a valid complaint maybe 12 or 18 months ago, but I don't think it's a valid complaint anymore.

LWM: For a medium- to large-size company contemplating a transition to Linux, one of their concerns is going to be, "Who is our IT support safety net?"
Robertson: First of all, it's important to assess where things are today. If you have a Microsoft product, it doesn't mean you get to call Microsoft. You have to pay Microsoft if you want to call them and talk to them. The point here is that there's no free support from Microsoft; in fact, if you want to call Microsoft there's no one to call.

The interesting dynamic here is that if you buy our office suite, which happens to be StarOffice, you actually get free telephone support in 24 languages, which you don't get if you buy Microsoft Office. So the ironic twist here is that the new kids on the block, the StarOffices of the world, have said, "We have to provide better support than Microsoft to be able to win customers over." There's an interesting flip here, that you can get free support from a Linux-based software developer, be it the OS or the application, often as part of the basic license, without having to engage in any service contract. If you do need additional support beyond that, of course, there are lots of organizations that you can pay to get that. And because a lot of the software is open source, you're not beholden to any one company who can charge you whatever they want. Bottom line, there's better support options for desktop Linux out of the box today.

LWM: Some recent reports have indicated that while Linux has a lower deployment cost than Windows, it may have higher support costs.
Robertson: That's propaganda from Microsoft. When you commission a study, pay them enough money and they'll come up with any conclusion you want. Let's look at the numbers. Microsoft makes 1 billion dollars of profit per month selling two products, the OS and the office suite. Now Microsoft can come up with all the studies they want saying they're cheaper than the alternative, but it's complete nonsense.

LWM: For an enterprise, what would be the advantages to moving to a desktop Linux strategy?
Robertson: Cost. Cost is the number one reason. You can expect to spend one-eighth of the cost of a Microsoft PC for a similarly equipped desktop Linux PC running Lindows OS. The second advantage is much easier maintenance and support. And I say that because they never have to deal with serial numbers, activation codes, product databases; they never need to deal with any of that because most of our products are flat-fee licenses. That's the accounting, logistical side of things. There's also the technical side of things; if you were here, I could show you how I can set up a new computer, click one button, and install 14 programs that we use as a standard distribution here at Lindows.com. You can't do that on Microsoft, right? Set up your computer, click one button, and say "OK, you're ready to go." There are dramatic upfront savings, and then on the technical front and logistical front, additional savings and advantages for desktop Linux.

LWM: Microsoft is allegedly engaging in a "kill Linux at any price" strategy.
Robertson: Every major company that has partnered with Lindows.com has received a phone call from Microsoft, and that phone call has tried to extort, entice, or terrorize that person into not working with desktop Linux, specifically with Lindows.com. I'm glad this is finally coming to light, it's not just in Asia, it's all over the world. Listen, if you're making a billion dollars of profit every month, you have a lot of money to throw around to kill any potential competitor, and that's what they do.

One of the things that's so incredible is that Linux is making such strides without having major corporate backing. And that should send a message to everyone out there: "Microsoft, you can fight it all you want, but you're trying to push back the tide."

LWM: Where do you see Lindows.com in five years?
Robertson: I'm confident that desktop Linux will have a 30%-plus market share. Here's why: pick any industry in the world, I don't care, look around your office. Whether there's a pair of shoes in the corner or a Pepsi on your desk, there's always room for a low-cost provider. That goes for any industry except for software, except for the OS. And that's going to change. Linux is going to be Southwest Airlines of IT. They may not have the majority of the business, but they have a significant piece of the business. Where do I hope we'll be? I hope we'll be the leader in securing that 30% market share. I think the impact of desktop Linux in five years will not be measured just in the market share that Linux has, but in structural cost changes that Microsoft is going to be compelled to do to blunt the impact of desktop Linux on their business.

About Michael Robertson
Michael L. Robertson is the founder and chief executive officer of Lindows.com, a consumer software company that creates choice in the marketplace. Robertson served as chief executive officer and chairman of the board at MP3.com (www.mp3.com) since March 1998. As the mastermind of MP3.com, Robertson established the largest collection of digital music in the world, amassing more than 1 million downloadable MP3 files. Robertson also spearheaded change in corporate business music services and put the power of CD creation in the artists' hands by offering a host of support technologies and services.

More Stories By James Turner

James Turner is president of Black Bear Software. James was formerly senior editor of Linux.SYS-CON.com and has also written for Wired, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. He is currently working on his third book on open source development.

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