- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
Once again, I agreed to speak at a regional computer expo, not one dedicated to Linux but a general one full of ISPs and training companies and telecommunications vendors hawking their wares to local small and medium sized businesses. There were Certified Microsoft Partner signs all over the place. My speech was titled Building Online Profits with Free Software. It drew more than 100 people, only a handful of whom were Linux users.
I enjoy this kind of advocacy. It's more satisfying than speaking to a room full of the converted, and does more good in the long run. The guy in the third row aisle seat who ran the golf magazine and golf Web site would never have come to hear a presentation about Linux per se, but when you talk about making his site more profitable he's all ears, asks lots of questions, and later goes to the booth in a back corner of the exhibit hall run by the local Linux User Group.
The difference between this presentation and past ones I've done is that I didn't talk about the wonders of Linux very much. I talked about making attractive Web sites at minimal cost, and mentioned Linux, Apache and some other software as tools. For this audience, composed primarily of local non-computer business owners and managers, software is not a primary concern. To them software is like a telephone system or a pickup truck: a tool. If they find a new software tool that'll do what needs to be done better, faster or cheaper than the one they're already using, they'll switch brands as fast as they'll buy a Ford pickup instead of a Chevy (or vice versa).
I did not detect any particular Microsoft loyalty. Rather, I sensed acceptance that Microsoft was something one was stuck with; that it was all there was. At the end of my presentation, when I mentioned the slide show they had all seen was produced with StarOffice, not PowerPoint, and that my laptop was running Linux, not Windows, at least 20 people gathered around the podium to ask more questions about Linux on the desktop. Several in this small group had read about StarOffice, but none of them had ever seen it in action before. They were impressed when I showed off the programs' features, and with the simple, clean look of my basic KDE desktop (the default in Mandrake 8.2), and how I had loaded buttons for almost all my everyday software into the panel at the bottom of the screen so I could call up any of these programs with a single click, even if the rest of my desktop was covered with open windows. (The fact that I could keep dozens of windows open at one time without anything crashing seemed to impress some of them, too.)
Servers are still the main thrust
Most of my audience was more interested in servers than in desktop applications, because a crashed desktop or laptop is an inconvenience, but a crashed server brings their business to a halt. Free in cost was not a big issue to this audience; these are people who are willing to pay money (and often do) for security services and consultants who can keep their computer running. If they decide a $500 piece of software will save them $2000 worth of time and trouble, they have no problem buying it. When I described Linux -- in the Web site and server context -- I mentioned briefly that it was free, but didn't really dwell on that aspect. I talked more about stability, how the Linux/Apache combination is far more hacker-resistant than Windows 2K/IIS when properly installed and administered, and how Linux was impervious to the many Windows viruses currrently wandering around the Internet.
One thing hardly any of the people in this audience seemed to know was that many managed hosting services charge less to maintain servers running Linux or BSD than for servers running Windows, and that only part of this saving comes from eliminating software license costs.
This was not an audience filled with FUD, just one that hadn't heard much about Linux before, except in offhand way. I detected no hostility, just eagerness to learn. These people needed to be taught, and taught on a level that made sense to them in a business context. They were not interested in getting involved in the "religious" aspects of software licensing. They were happy to leave that to the software developers.
Explaining Linux to business people
One of the big perception hurdles to overcome about Linux is the hobby OS or upstart operating system image. So here (slightly paraphrased) is how I moved from talk about Web page design into my little Linux spiel:
Imagine an operating system under continuous development by top-end sofware engineers from IBM, Hewlett Packard, Red Hat, Sun, Transmeta, and dozens of other leading-edge computer companies, all working together instead of competing, in partnership with some of the brightest minds at NASA, NSA, theNational Institutes of Health, NOAA and other science-oriented government agencies, along with thousands of academic researchers at institutions ranging from MIT to Florida State University.
This operating system exists. It's called Linux.
I mentioned Florida State because I was speaking in Florida. In Michigan I might have said University of Michigan. You can pick almost any large university with a strong computer science department: there are Linux and Open Source developers at virtually all of them.
The reality of Linux and Open Source development today is that the majority of it is being done by skilled, professional programmers, either on company (or university) time or as an after work (or school) labor of love. There is still plenty of room in the Linux and Open Source development world for talented youngsters, and I know some brilliant ones, but I think we all agree that a 45-year-old business owner is a little more comfortable with the idea of software developed with the aid of well-known companies and government bodies than with the idea of a bunch of 19-year-old hobbyists cranking out code after midnight while scarfing junk food and sucking down liter after liter of some caffeine-laden carbonated beverage.
(Don't forget: Linus Torvalds, himself, is no longer a 19-year-old student. He's a respected -- even famous -- professional computer guru; a married man with children and responsibilities, and well over 10 years of experience with Linux development.)
At no point, speaking to this business-oriented audience, did I use the words new or exciting when talking about Linux. It is no longer new, and it is certainly not as exciting as Windows' never-ending parade of viruses and worms and software lcense audits. Not only that, to a business person, the new and exciting label, applied to a car or other piece of mechanical equipment, means it probably breaks down a lot, parts are hard to get, and hardly anyone knows how to fix it.
Now and then I still see a mainstream press article that calls Linux an upstart operating system. This is no longer true. Linux is now an operating system, period, mature enough, with wide enough acceptance, that it isn't revolutionary anymore, but is a standard part of the commercial computing landscape. This, at least, is the Linux I find myself presenting to non-geek audiences: a mature, useful, cost-effective tool, with a licensing scheme that makes it more flexible than proprietary operating systems.
All this certainly makes Linux sound boring, doesn't it?
But boring is what business people want from their software, especially server software. They want to install it (or pay someone else to install it), then have it run all the time without paying any attention to it beyond minor maintenance.
Linux is now mainstream, and mainstream advocacy is what is going to keep it growing. That is a simple fact of life, one that some old line Linux users may not want to hear, but will make others -- especially those trying to make a living helping businesses deploy Linux -- stand up and cheer.