Getting Linux into stores is a dog fight every step of the way.
We're in the midst of a stunted PC revolution. I'm sure some would challenge this characterization given the enormous impact the PC has had on how we communicate, transact and entertain. But as I look around, I wonder why I don't see more computers in more places. Why doesn't every student have a computer? Why don't five-year-olds get their own computers the same as they get bicycles? Why doesn't every hotel room, conference room, school room and bedroom have a computer? Why do only 70% of Americans have access to PCs? The big answer, of course, is cost. PCs are too expensive.
For many consumers, the most expensive component of desktop computing is not the cost of the machine, but the price of the software. The average PC sells for $700 US and is dropping by more than a hundred dollars each year—and that's the average. Many people pay much less. But software has not shown the radical price decreases that hardware has, in spite of the near-zero reproduction costs of software. The lack of meaningful competition has allowed one company to operate with 85% gross margins, which is great for their shareholders but raises the cost of computing by billions of dollars and prevents the full benefit of the PC from reaching all corners of our society. Antitrust litigation and government programs have attempted to throttle the costs and close the digital divide with little results.
Desktop Linux is going to be the force that makes software affordable and energizes the PC business into the next wave, which will make the last wave—the proliferation of the graphical user interface—seem tame. Software prices will decline radically. Instead of eating up the majority of a computing budget, software should consume a much smaller portion, about what you'd pay for a hard disk and RAM.
Several challenges remain to be met before desktop Linux can have a significant impact on software costs, and most of these challenges are not technical. When I have a chance to put users on well-configured LindowsOS machines with Netscape, StarOffice and KDE, their typical reaction is one of shock. They're shocked that Linux can perform ably on the desktop. There's still some work to be done to bring together an easy-to-use OS and wide-ranging applications that together make a capable end-user experience. But the LindowsOS Click-N-Run system, I believe, is filling that void.
The nontechnical areas are where Linux needs to see growth before we'll witness widespread consumer adoption. And the challenge here is that the entrenched monopolist's war chest ensures a dog fight as every step of the essential retail ecosystem is built. It's challenging to recruit OEMs to build Linux computers when their number-one profit determiner is their existing economic relationship with the aforementioned monopolist. More than one of the top ten OEM and chip companies have said they cannot do desktop Linux until they “clear” it first, and they don't mean clear it with their internal management. Once you've got the hardware vendors on board, securing a retailer to carry the product is the next critical step. Many have questions about demand, sales training and customer support, but those questions are answered favorably once the cash register starts ringing.
If on-line sales of desktop Linux at outlets like Walmart.com and Tigerdirect are any indication, there's strong pent-up demand, which means the early retail adopters especially will see strong customer sales. The Brick, Canada's largest electronics retailer, has begun stocking computers with Linux pre-installed in more than 50 of their outlets. This is a dramatic development because it's the first time we've seen choice on computer store shelves in 15 years.
With the retail ecosystem required to bring desktop Linux to the masses showing promising developments, the final hurdle is education. Most PC consumers have known only Microsoft. They speak only Microsoft's language of computing. Microsoft even has attempted to rewrite history by positioning themselves as the innovator and owner of even basic terms like “windows”. What's undeniable is that Microsoft file formats and protocols are the de facto standards, and all desktop products must interact with them seamlessly. Desktop Linux products today do a surprisingly great job of this, but consumers don't know about it. It's here where much work remains to be done.
Conferences, evangelists, training classes, stocked Linux aisles in stores, “Lin” labeling alongside “Mac” and “Win” on peripherals and much more are all needed to accelerate the education process. Ultimately, the cost advantage of Linux-based desktops will drive adoption in business, homes and schools, but education will dictate the growth rate. I look forward to the day when we see consumers benefiting from affordable Linux software, because we will see computers positively affecting our lives far beyond where we're at today. It's coming, but if you encourage a friend to try desktop Linux, we'll get there much sooner.