March 16, 2004

How not to sell Linux products

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

We often get review units of products, then don't review them because we can't get them to work. NewsForge staffers and freelancers vary in technical ability, but I believe the level of IT talent shared by our editorial personnel is at least as high as you'd find in most small or medium-sized businesses, and well above the average home user level. If we can't get a piece of hardware or software to work, chances are that most of its intended customers won't be able to, either. Why do companies persist in shipping products this flawed?One of our freelancers just gave up on installing a collaborative calendar and shared-file program on his server. Our hope was to test this product -- which is not free, but acceptably priced for business use -- as a group, and write a group review of it. Since this was a groupware product, that seemed appropriate.

But our freelancer, a skilled sysadmin and coder who runs a small Web hosting service, had so many problems trying to get the software installed that after a day's work he stopped trying. Maybe he could have gotten it going with help from the company's tech support people, but I told him not to bother. He'd already spent more time on this install than I believe any "normal" customer would -- and more than either of us have spent installing most free software for Linux!

Another fun product we've looked at is a $1,500 box that is supposed to handle all the server needs for a small business (except, for some reason, printing) without need for a professional sysadmin. In theory, you're supposed to be able to plug this thing in, click on a couple of checkboxes and have a wireless access point (and wired network), firewall, Web server, email, and ecommerce facility up and running without any stress. Except when I opened the package it came in (which was very cute) and plugged it in, I couldn't get it to work by following the minimal instructions that came with it. I messed around with the thing for a couple of hours, then set it aside.

After a while, I sent it to one of my coworkers, who used to run the product testing labs for a couple of the big weekly computer trade papers. He eventually got it working with help from the manufacturer's tech support people, but it was much more of a struggle than it should have been. We're happy that the maker of this thing is running Linux on it, but if we were paying customers we would have returned it, instead of sweating to make it work, and demanded our money back. Meanwhile, we've found a free software package that is supposed to do the same thing as this unit -- plus act as a print server -- and requires only a minimal computer and a wireless card. We're going to try this method of achieving the same results. It will be scary if free software on a sub-$300 PC is easier to set up than the $1,500 box, won't it?

Then there was the PDA. It ran Linux, and it was shipped to me by a PR person along with an add-on keyboard and a wireless adapter -- except neither the keyboard nor the adapter worked when I plugged them in. The combined retail value of the PDA, keyboard, and wireless adapter was well over $600, but it wasn't a consumer product; it was a geek toy for someone who wanted to spend many happy hours getting it going. If you were a reporter who wanted to use it to take notes and upload stories while traveling -- which was how I planned to test the unit for my review -- it was useless. (So far the best PDA I've found for my purposes is the no-longer-made Palm Vx. None of the current ones that sell for under $500 offer any kind of useful connectivity or touch-type keyboard options.)

Why commercial Linux products fail

I just gave you a few examples of why Linux users often seem unwilling to spend money on Linux software and hardware. These are not the only non-working Linux products I've seen. "It runs Linux!" simply isn't a good enough reason to spend money. The item must actually do something in order to be worth your hard-earned cash.

If I download a piece of free software and it's hard to install or not all the features work, I don't feel burned. If it's software I feel has potential but isn't quite "there" yet, I may even offer the project leader encouragement and whatever little help I have to give. Indeed, Bluefish -- which I am using to write this article -- was no great shakes when I first tried an early version, but it has steadily improved to the point where it is now the best HTML/text editor there is, at least for my purposes. If Bluefish developer Olivier Sessink came out with a jazzed-up, non-free version, I would happily pay him for it even if I didn't need all the "pay for" features, because free (GPL) Bluefish has been of great value to me and this would be an appropriate payback.

The "products that don't work" syndrome is not Linux-specific, but I believe it's often worse for Linux users because we're supposed to be cultists who reflexively love any product that has anything to do with Linux.

There's also a "we're doing you Linux users a favor" factor I see from many companies. "Look!" they seem to say, "We just ported some of our obsolete software to Linux! Isn't that nice of us? All of you should now return the favor! Support Linux! Go out and buy our product right now!"

The hardware version of the "we're doing you Linux users a favor" factor involves selling a "Linux PC" that's more expensive than most of the company's Windows computers or else sold only through an obscure, hard-to-find page on the company's Web site. Then when we don't buy these products, we hear, "There's no market for Linux PCs." (Or laptops, or whatever product was marketed incompetently and failed to sell as a result of this incompetence.)

How to sell to Linux users

  • Make sure your product works as promised
    This seems sooooo obvious...
  • Make sure your product is enough better than free alternatives that it's worth paying for
    StarOffice has features that (free) lacks. Not everybody needs those features, but for those who do, the commercial product is worth its relatively low price.
  • Sell value, not price
    IBM sells WebSphere products successfully to (corporate) Linux users even though there are free equivalents to almost all WebSphere utilities -- because IBM's customers figure the time and worry WebSphere saves them is worth more than the cost of the product.
  • If your product needs instructions, provide them
    It seems that unless you put the hingdorf in the marzidoodle slot and use default password "crumpet" the framazoogle bangdoodler won't display correctly. I didn't know that, so my install failed. If this information had been in a manual or pamphlet I wouldn't have spent 40 minutes on hold waiting for your support tech, Kishore, to answer the phone in Mumbai, and I wouldn't be angry now.
  • Make it easy to buy your Linux products
    Create a subdomain. Tell your salespeople you have Linux products available so when we ask about them we don't get blank stares or uncomfortable pauses on the phone. Make sure Linux-oriented news outlets get review units and regular press releases. Buy some ads. In other words, market your Linux products as strongly as you market your other products.

And a last big one: Sell a product people actually might need or want!

This, like the advice that came before it, is not really Linux-specific.

That's the point.

Linux users are like anyone else: If you have products they want and need; that work as promised; that have clear instructions provided; that are sold at a reasonable price and are marketed properly, they will buy from you.

But too many Linux products -- and computer products in general -- don't meet these basic expectations. It's no wonder most of the general public views all computer and computer-based product marketing with suspicion.

I do, too.


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