August 2, 2003

The state of Linux at the retail store

- by James Hutton -
I work in a small retail electronics store that has been selling cheap Linux PCs for the last 8 months or so. It was an experiment that returned mediocre results. The hardware wasn't a problem -- it was cheap but solid hardware, and exactly what a lot of people wanted for basic word processing, email, etc. Even the fact that it wasn't running Windows wasn't a problem, people are prepared to overlook that if it's going to do what you want. The problem was that it was running an open source operating system.

The "it's free as in free speech, rather than free as in beer" has been an oft-quoted example of what free software is all about. Unfortunately, when talking to people off the street, this is a very hard idea to get across. Most people have not heard of Linux. In an age of commercialisation in almost every sector of society, mostly relying on word-of-mouth and consumer interest has given Linux a low profile to the average consumer. They are confronted with a "free" operating system for the first time, and their first interpretation of "free" is "free as in this is so bad that no one in their right mind would pay for this crap." This is not an unreasonable reaction. We are used to paying for almost every single service and product we use, and our bills are steadily increasing every year. To expect someone to suddenly accept the idea that they can have a reliable and powerful tool to control their expensive, high-tech hardware for no cost at all is quite an assumption. "Free software" flies in the face of everything the customer would expect. It simply doesn't make sense to them. Free software is not a concept you can get across to people in the 30-odd seconds you have to make the sale. They've either moved on to the Windows computers or they're out the door.

If you're reading this article you've likely been involved with free software in some form or other for quite some time. You know how powerful and mature the Linux environment has become, and you understand the philosophies and arguments behind free software in general. But try and think back to when you were first being introduced to the whole concept. If you're anything like me, it was months before you actually began to look at anything seriously. We simply cannot expect people to grasp these concepts in 30 seconds at the retail store, then spend hundreds of dollars on a Linux-equipped computer shortly after.

How then, do we promote free software to a market that simply doesn't grasp the concept? To expect them to take on an entire operating system and software suite is too much to ask of them. They're not ready, and consequently they'll reject the idea outright, and head straight back to the Micorosft fold.

The way to change their minds is through open source applications

Since the Linux experiment, our store has gone back to exclusively selling Windows equipped computers. They are also bundled with 1.0.3, as is a lot of the computer hardware we sell. Since we can throw on a driver CD for no charge, it becomes a very effective way to give our products "the edge" over the computer store down the road. Our customers have been responding favourably to We've had many customers try and continue to use rather than shell out for Microsoft Office. They've saved themselves several hundred dollars, and we've gained their loyalty, as we're obviously after more than just their wallets. As it turns out, is also a very effective way to introduce people to the concept of free software. Since it's free, they know that they can try it without any fear of not liking the product, as they can always just purchase Microsoft Office, or whatever else they may fancy. It also shows them just show professional open source software can be. Without software such as, there is no way for customers to be exposed to open source software without "going the whole hog" and converting everything to a Linux system, which is a jump that not many are willing to make.

Having seen the different customer reactions to various open source products, I am now convinced that the way to convert people to Linux is first by getting them using open source application under Windows. This gets them used to the idea that software doesnt have to be expensive to be useful, and that there is a viable alternative to Microsoft software.

Having been at the "coal-face" of computer sales, I can tell you that, like it or not, it's still a Microsoft world for most computer users, and expecting them to drop everything for a concept they can barely understand is simply too much. Only through gradually easing them into the world of open source and Microsoft-independence are we going to see a widespread increase in the use of Linux on the desktop amongst ordinary household users. It's these open source applications that run under Windows that deserve our support and encouragement, because that's where we're going to win converts.


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