The open source software (OSS) movement started as a result of dissatisfaction with the proprietary software world. It is a global initiative that is correcting a seriously broken system in which vendors are taking undue advantage of consumers and depriving the consumer of choice.
Clearly, many players in the IT world have roles in blockading Linux. In part one of this column, I described the barriers placed before Linux adopters Joe and Dennis. Let's drill deeper and find the roots of this anti-Linux conspiracy.
|John H. Terpstra|
PCs for the rich only, thanks to IP laws
The IT consumer market caters to a mere 10% of the global population. Unix and Linux are the only platforms that provide desktop support for many countries and languages that would otherwise not be able to use modern computing tools in the consumer's native language character set. Most consumer software available in the world today is suitable only for use in English-speaking parts of the world.
So-called intellectual property (IP) protection keeps software in the English-only category. Proprietary licenses built on IP laws make it unprofitable to create software for minority language areas. In other words, there are some customers that the incumbent solution providers do not want.
Non-proprietary, low-cost OSS could bridge the commercial chasm between profitable and unprofitable markets. To make this happen, however, the companies selling IT products to the masses worldwide need to support Linux and OSS. Also, the interoperability problems presented by proprietary devices, drivers and software need to be erased. Otherwise, every OSS user could face the problems that plagued Joe and Dennis.
Who isn't onboard for widespread access to PCs & IT?
Despite the illusionary problem of commercial viability for commercial software vendors, there is a deeper problem in the IT industry. It's apparent that the commercial IT retail market has no desire to provide real consumer choice. Let's look at the situation:
- CompUSA, Best Buy, Circuit City, Fry's Electronics and other major consumer electronics retailers do not offer Linux pre-loaded PCs for sale. These stores do sell some PCs that will work with Linux, if consumers download Linux themselves; they only sell PCs bundled with Microsoft and Apple operating systems.
Stores could sell a lower cost desktop, or laptop, computer at a lower price and with higher margins, thus making it possible to attract a larger consumer base into the active market. Why are these retailers not interested in doing this?
A desktop computer can be purchased for as little as $400. A laptop computer can be purchased at a price point below $550. Linux is free. Microsoft Windows, coupled with its bundled software, must cost at least $40 per machine. So, if Linux were to be pre-loaded, the retailer could offer the device at the same price and make an additional 5% to 10% gross margin.
Obviously, there are forces at work in the IT industry that cause retailers to choose not to participate in being more profitable. These stores don't offer the consumer the choice of a desktop platform other than Microsoft Windows and Apple. Why?
- The aforementioned stores don't carry peripheral hardware suitable for use with Linux. This forces the consumer who wishes to use Linux to shop elsewhere. Clearly, these stores have made a decision that they are not interested in having Linux users as customers. Why?
- A few smart vendors offer limited support for Linux. Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM offer a very minor selection of laptop PCs, desktop systems and servers that are compatible with Linux.
If companies really seek to attract the largest number of potential consumers, why are their practices so restrictive? What commercial arrangements have been made behind closed doors so as to keep Linux out of the public eye?
- Server, PC and peripheral hardware vendors today introduce products that lack any form of Linux support, thereby delaying the availability of Linux drivers for these products. Linux developers have to rush to build drivers after major vendors' products are first shipped. This is a major deterrent to Linux adoption by users, as demonstrated by Dennis having to revert to using Microsoft Windows.
How is it possible then for the consumer even to try Linux without significant added costs, and with radically limited choice of supported hardware?
- A store manager of one of the major consumer electronics retailers told me that his store had received complaints from customers because it had sold a network card for which the Microsoft Windows driver had not been certified by Microsoft. When he contacted the peripheral hardware vendor/manufacturer in question, he was told that Microsoft certification for the driver would require a royalty payment to Microsoft. The royalty would add as much as to $10 to the cost of each unit sold.
There are no certification or license fees for Linux drivers. Assuming that Microsoft does charge a royalty or any type of certification fee, why do vendors choose to pay for the privilege of providing a driver for Windows, when there are no such costs for a Linux driver?
Linspire, take a bow
Michael Robertson, CEO of Linspire, deserves public credit for his initiative over the past few years to make Linux pre-loaded laptops and desktop PCs available in the retail channel. Wal-Mart was among the first to sell Linspire-equipped systems to consumers. It would be unjust of me to criticize the IT retailers and OEMs, without giving credit where it is due.
However, I am astounded that consumers know little about Linux, largely because they don't see Linux when they go shopping. It's not like Linux was born yesterday. Linux has a stable track record over 14 years, already accounts for up to 35% of the installed server operating system market and is ready for the desktop with many free desktop applications that outperform the Microsoft Windows platform equivalents. Linux makes it financially feasible for more people in the world to use modern computing tools.
The fact that Linspire's Robertson has had to fight, and fight hard, to convince a few retailers to carry Linux pre-loaded PCs is clear evidence of the stranglehold Microsoft has on that channel. Major retailers are not interested in giving customers a less expensive, more reliable PC platform. They more interested in not damaging the relationship with Microsoft. This layer of the anti-Linux movement has wide repercussions, as I'll discuss in the concluding installment of this column.
About the author: John H. Terpstra is chief technology officer of PrimaStasys Inc., an IT consulting firm, and a member of SearchOpenSource.com's Editorial Advisory Board. He is author of Samba-3 by Example: Practical Exercises to Successful Deployment, 2nd Edition and The Official Samba-3 HOWTO and Reference Guide, 2nd Edition.