April 17, 2006

Micro Center isn't a happy home for Linux

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Last November, Linspire issued a press release announcing that Micro Center would be devoting floor space and staff to desktop Linux. I decided to take a trip to my local Micro Center this week to see how that initiative was going. Unfortunately, the answer is not so well.

According to the release, Micro Center customers should be able to "try and buy several desktop and laptop computers pre-installed with Linspire Linux." Further, "new sections will put desktop Linux software and products in high-traffic areas of the store, giving Linux products a significant amount of retail space and boosting visibility of Linux within each store."

The Linspire PCs weren't immediately visible when I walked into Micro Center, so I strolled back to the laptop section and waited for one of the sales folks to pick me up on their sales radar. After a minute or so, a Micro Center rep slid up and asked if he could help me with anything. I asked if Micro Center had any Linux laptops. Nope, but they had a Linspire desktop PC, which he led me to.

It's true that Micro Center does carry Linspire pre-installed on PowerSpec hardware. Unfortunately, the "store within a store" dedicated to Linux is a single low-end PowerSpec computer, the 1406, priced at $249 with a $50 rebate. The PowerSpec 1406 has a Celeron D 346 clocked at 3.06GHz, 128MB of RAM, 40GB hard drive, and a 52x CD-ROM. That's hardly a "significant amount of retail space."

PowerSpec, by the way, is Micro Center's house brand. PowerSpec is owned by Micro Electronics, which also owns Micro Center. Though the store had only one Linspire PC on display, there were several PowerSpec PCs with Windows XP preinstalled.

Micro Center also offers some boxed distributions, including some old and outdated distros in the budget software section. If you're looking for a copy of Caldera OpenLinux 2.2, I can point you in the right direction.

Whether the Linspire box was in a "high-traffic area" is debatable. It wasn't being displayed in any of the high-profile areas of the store, such as near the store entrance, but it was in among the rest of Micro Center's PC offerings.

Apple, on the other hand, actually does have a "store within a store" at Micro Center, with much of Apple's product line on display. According to the employee I spoke with, sales of Apple's computers are doing well recently. He couldn't give specific figures, but did say that he'd noticed an uptick in sales of Macs lately.

No hard sell here

The Micro Center employee I spoke to about the Linux offering was extremely dismissive of the Linspire box. Though he says he wouldn't steer people away from the Linspire offering specifically, he did say that if he was asked about the machine, he'd ask what the customer was interested in doing and why they were interested in the Linspire box.

If a customer said they only wanted a PC for email and Web browsing, he would ask, "What about your pictures? Do you want to manage your pictures on the computer?" If the answer was affirmative, he'd suggest that the customer would have trouble with the Linspire PC -- that it would be easier to manage digital cameras or camcorders using Windows or a Mac. (Apparently, he hasn't been keeping up.)

I asked if he ever tried to steer people away from Windows PCs because of viruses and spyware. The answer? No, though he did say that he'd tell customers that they need anti-virus software.

It was pretty clear that this sales rep's understanding of Linux was limited, and he wasn't in any hurry to learn more. When I asked if he'd tried any other Linux distributions, the answer was a firm "no" -- he had several Macs and a Sony PC running Windows at home, and wasn't terribly interested in spending his own time learning about Linux. Apparently, Micro Center hadn't spent much time training the fellow on Linux during his working hours, either.

It's not that he was unaware of Linux entirely, or even the applications that were available. He knew about the GIMP and OpenOffice.org, for example. However, it seemed to me that his impression of desktop Linux had been cemented about two or three years ago. The idea that Linux is tough to install or work with is firmly ingrained in a lot of people's minds, unfortunately.

A depressing experience

My jaunt to Micro Center turned out to be a major downer. I had hoped that the store was doing brisk business with Linspire PCs, or at least putting a little effort into desktop Linux. Unfortunately, it seems to be just the opposite.

Since Micro Center's selection consisted of one lonely computer in a field of Windows PCs, it seems to me the only customers who are likely to go home with a Linux PC from Micro Center are the ones who go in determined to buy a Linux computer in the first place.

Click Here!