Marketing FOSS [part 2]

In Part 1, I wrote about ways we can get the word out about the software we use every day for our work and hobbies. Today, I’d like to discuss how we can let people know that there is an alternative when buying a new computer. Bug 1’s “symptoms” include only seeing Windows computers in most (non-Apple) computer stores. How do we treat that symptom?

Over two years ago, Dell launched Ideastorm to see what customers wanted. Overwhelmingly, Linux-based systems were requested. Next they asked which Linux distro to use, and voters chose Ubuntu. After selling computers with Ubuntu on them for two full years, Dell has finally gotten around to offering “Ubuntu Linux” as a filter criteria on their main home laptop page. Originally, one had to know to go to dell.com/ubuntu or dell.com/open because there was no way to reach them from the main store. Of course, they still “recommend Windows Vista® Home Premium,” and I still haven’t seen them advertising their Free Software-based offerings anywhere. Likewise, I don’t see any mention of ZaReason or System76 in any big computer magazines, though System76 does seem to have a lot of Google Ads going on for anyone searching for Ubuntu.

We need to let people know about the hardware vendors who sell Linux-preinstalled systems. My personal blog includes a “hardware links” section linking to Dell, ZaReason, and System76 and a badge I made that says “I use ZaReason Ubuntu hardware” is in the sidebar. I remember seeing lots of Emperor Linux ads in magazines, but given their prices and that what they sell are machines that are only sold by the manufacturers with Windows, I get the impression these are simply Windows systems which have been replaced with Linux and are being resold. Since the first sale is the one that counts for “number of machines sold with $OS in 2009,” this seems counterproductive (and expensive) because the companies from which they purchase them count them as Windows sales. That’s also why I advocate against buying a Windows machine and then reinstalling with Linux. Now, I only know of the ones selling Ubuntu because that’s the community I’m immersed in. Who sells machines with Fedora, SUSE, and Mandriva? Lenovo used to sell Thinkpads with SUSE on them (for $89 less than the Windows machines), but they stopped. Sub500 sells Linspire systems. I did find a list of vendors who do not remove Windows and reinstall.

We also need to pressure the others to start selling Linux machines. Dell asked us what we wanted. The others aren’t asking, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be telling. Asus recently dropped their Linux-based EeePC offerings, saying they were unpopular, though James Sparenberg claims local retailers have told him the Linux models outsold the Windows ones. HP and Acer both offer Linux-based netbooks, but if you want a regular 13″, 15″, or 17″ notebook, it’s back to Windows. A If you want a desktop, Windows. If you’re in the market for a new Linux laptop or desktop (or have a friend or family member in need of one), why not give them a call or send a letter asking if you can buy a desktop with Linux on it. Show them there’s demand. Oh, and try finding the Acer Aspire One with Linux on their website. I haven’t come across it yet, though I’ve seen the machine in Microcenter.

OK, how about brick & mortar stores? Unfortunately, when I was in Best Buy the other day, the only HP Minis they had were the Windows ones. I asked the clerk if they had any non-Windows netbooks. He asked if I meant OSX. When I told him “No, Linux,” he said Linux isn’t used in corporate environments. I pointed out that neither are netbooks. We stalemated. He saw me running Kubuntu Netbook Edition (alpha 3) from a flash drive on one of the EeePCs yesterday (hardware testing) and made a comment about the nice thing about Linux being that you can run it off of anything. By the way, you may have heard about 6 months ago that Best Buy was selling boxed copies of Ubuntu that include some weeks of tech support. That is no longer the case. I wonder how much control store managers have over what systems they offer. If any readers ever worked at a big chain like this, please leave a comment. Can we pressure store managers to offer Linux systems, or do we need to go to the corporate headquarters?

I would, additionally, be interested in how guerilla marketing can be brought to stores. Setting up a Fedora Ambassador table just outside the doors might not go so well. They probably own the sidewalk and parking lot. Where your local computer stores are located has a lot to do with the possibilities. In the suburbs, where everyone drives to the computer store and there’s a nice long parking lot between the turn off from the road (public property, where it may be legal in your area to hand things out), it’d be harder. People aren’t likely to get out of the car to take what you’re handing out. I live in a city where most people walk, and Best Buy is located inside a building that also houses Target and Bed Bath & Beyond. I think it more likely that handing things out at the entrance to that building or possibly even inside it would be OK. I see people just outside on the sidewalk raising money for Greenpeace all the time.

If you can’t hand out information about Free Software and Linux-based hardware vendors outside a computer store, find an area with heavy foot-traffic. Maybe the library will let you set something up. Librarians tend to be fans of sharing information. Amber has had luck with getting book stores to let her set out Ubuntu CDs near the Linux books. Maybe you can hand out leaflets or palmcards (¼ sheet of Letter or A4) to folks going into the local high school’s football games, basketball games, cheerleading competitions, etc. The Ubuntu Local Community Team here in Washington, DC celebrates Software Freedom Day at the Takoma Park Folk Festival each September. Find somewhere that lots of people—non-technical ones too—congregate or pass through. Just like in part 1, we want to look at non-technical people. The techies have already heard of Linux. They know it exists. They may have tried it. Now we need to tell the people who haven’t heard of it.

My mom’s pretty good about this, actually. A month after I switched her desktop to Ubuntu, I overheard her telling her friend (whose computer is really old and slow; I think WinME?) about “this Linux thing” I put on her computer that makes it faster, easier, and *gasp* you don’t even need to worry about viruses! I think getting the non-technical folks you know who use Linux to tell their friends is a good thing. It avoids the “yeah, right, you can use it, but that’s only because you’re a geek” reaction nicely.

What else can we do to:

  1. Convince OEMs to preinstall Linux on netbooks, laptops, and desktops
  2. Convince stores to sell those Linux-based machines
  3. Tell people where to find those systems

Leave suggestions in the comments!

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About Mackenzie

Someday I'll be a Kubuntu developer. In the meantime, I'm a student, test OpenAFS at work, and submit patches to various parts of the FOSS ecosystem including Ubuntu, Kubuntu, KDE, GNOME, and the kernel.
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7 Responses to Marketing FOSS [part 2]

  1. Pingback: marketing » Blog Archive » Marketing FOSS [part 2] | What Will We Use?

  2. Pingback: Links 11/08/2009: Verona’s University Moves to GNU/Linux, SpringSource Sold | Boycott Novell

  3. The reason we do not see Best Buy carrying copies of Ubuntu is because of the people who shop there. Best Buy is not a company that Joe Hacker goes to buy his computer needs. This is also why there is a lack of PC parts. Years ago we carried motherboards and CPUs. Now we only carry minor product that has a long shelf life and even carry very few of each.

    On the topic of ASUS eeePC with Linux…Best Buy did sell a lot. The only reason they sold a good number was because of the price tag. A look at sales versus returns indicates that buyers of the Linux based eeePC returned over 60% of those sold. With those numbers it is not hard to see why ASUS pulled that line.

    Store managers have no say as to what products to carry. Even if they did, one big thing that would still hold them back is the relativly long shelf life of a boxed copy of Linux. There is very little margin in product that is freely availble for download. This is evident in the media departments with more and more people downloading their music instead of buying the cd.

    The only way I see Linux gaining retail support is by external influences from the Linux community. The demand for Linux is high among the technology savvy, but not amount the Joe and Jane shopper.

  4. Mackenzie says:

    I don’t see what Joe Hacker has to do with Ubuntu sales. Ubuntu isn’t aimed at hackers. It’s aimed at normal people: “Linux for Human Beings.” My mom and brother use it, and my mom says it’s easier than Windows XP. The shelf life is problematic though if you’re not looking at an LTS release. Even so, I think many people will want the Latest & Greatest, making only a 6 month shelf life.

    I wasn’t impressed with Asus’ EeePC. The custom interface was bad, and the Windows ones had better hardware. No wonder they were returned. Ugh! However, Chris Kenyon of Canonical says that with well-engineered hardware, the return rates on Linux v. Windows are the same. Oh, and Asus consistently puts out the netbooks with the most annoying keyboards. HP and Dell have much more usable keyboards (full size keycaps, not beveled til they’re 1/4 the size they should be).

    In the case of boxed Ubuntu, the +1 to the consumer is the included tech support. Who needs tech support for a music CD? People do regularly need support on the computer, though, so having “get up & running” support is useful.

    And yeah, you’re right that the average user doesn’t know about Linux yet. That’s what I’m talking about though. If the Linux machines are available and they can play with them, they can learn about it. In the absence of ones in the store for them to play with, we need to show them (see the bit about guerilla marketing) that an alternative exists. I mentioned how our Local Community team shows off Free Software at the folk festival. We always have demo machines to play with.

  5. Mackenzie says:

    Just realized all my links were stripped when I uploaded the post. I’ve added the links back in so it makes more sense.

  6. Bob says:

    I’m not surprised that Asus dropped “linux” from the EeePC – it was utter crap and the worst possible installation/distribution of what is, at its core, a pretty reasonable OS choice.

    Take Xandros, an also-ran Linux vendor that specializes in selling a sort of commercial OEM style distribution. In the case of the EeePC, they provided a simplistic and non-standard desktop that resembles a Fisher-Price “Busy Box” – plenty of big shiny icons but virtually no way to customize it or even replace it with a standard window manager or desktop environment.

    Their software ‘repository’ was a joke. Like the iTunes store, Xandros wanted to set themselves up as a software gatekeeper, allowing people to sell software in a closed environment. No matter that virtually every other Linux distribution maintains a large repository of free software that is more mature, featureful, and popular than their commercial offerings. No matter that almost nothing useful was in their app store. Just looking at what was available made the EeePC platform look completely dead. I wouldn’t be surprised if more people are still developing for the Commodore 64 or Apple ][ than for the Xandros distribution.

    Wait, strike that. Xandros may well have a development community outside the actual company. The real problem was that Asus bought the Xandros distribution as an OEM product and hence was responsible for providing and maintaining its own ports and repository. Asus is a hardware company – it’s apparent and completely unsurprising they had no aptitude or interest in duplicating the OS support provided by (say) Canonical or the Debian project. So by the very nature of the OEM status of Xandros, there essentially could be no development for what amounted to Asus’ own fork of Debian.

    And speaking of development, if a package isn’t available on a Linux distribution, users have the option of building from source or from scratch. This is not an option on the EeePC. The sheer amount of hacking you have to do to get a C compiler and libraries installed on the EeePC is prohibitive, even for someone moderately experienced with Linux. Again, it’s just not worth it.

    After a few months of being frustrated by the lack of my favorite tools, having the command shell hidden away, and wanting to use more than the web, IM, and mail with this great little laptop, I bit the bullet, wiped the drive and installed Eeebuntu and never looked back. The biggest problem now is that inbound Skype video no longer works, but otherwise the EeePC works just as well as every other Linux machine I use but with a 5 hour battery life. Eclipse runs acceptably well on the machine, if slowly at times (surprise – it’s a low-power laptop) and I have Perl, Python, and gFortran working flawlessly on it (don’t laugh – it’s for work…)

    The upshot is that I’ve been working with UNIX since the mid-80’s and Linux since the mid-90’s. I prefer UNIX-based operating systems; hell, I had a Solaris desktop for five years. Despite all that, I would’ve traded Xandros for XP in a heartbeat for how insultingly functionless it was. The problem was not with Linux, the problem was with the abandonware Asus fork of the half-assed Xandros fork of Debian. And I can see how users of any experience level or preference would want more than the dozen apps the EeePC ships with.

    The overall user experience was execrable, more like using a kiosk than a computer. But somehow this will be spun as a Linux failure, not a horrible business decision by Asus, underestimating their users and clinging to the dead business model of closed-garden software development and distribution. We’re seeing the same cracks appearing in the iTunes store regarding random app censorship and the whole Google Voice/AT&T fiasco.

  7. What Will We Use Editor says:

    Hi Bob! It’s amazing how many excellent folks are coming out of the woodwork due to this blog. Are you still fighting the good fight against Blackboard and their proprietary ways?

    I didn’t like the Xandros distro either. I chalked it up to the fact that not everyone is going to dig strawberry ice cream. My mom seems to like Xandros on her eee but I think it might be because she is coming from Windows.

    Did you try UNR?
    http://www.canonical.com/projects/ubuntu/unr

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