The reason why use of the Linux desktop has never taken off has nothing to do with the operating system and everything to do with money.
“The desktop hasn’t really taken over the world like Linux has in many other areas…,” said Linus Torvalds in April at the Embedded Linux Conference in San Diego. “I would obviously love for Linux to take over that world too, but it turns out it’s a really hard area to enter. I’m still working on it. It’s been 25 years. I can do this for another 25. I’ll wear them down.”
Why, after 25 years, is the GNU/Linux desktop still near the bottom of the “market share” list of consumer operating systems? It’s certainly not due to quality. Those of us who use Linux on a regular basis and who have experience with other operating systems as well, pretty much agree it’s the best. We also know it to be an industry leader, with features showing up in desktop Linux years before they make their way into, say, Windows. By all rights, Linux should be known by techie and non-techie alike as the superstar of desktop operating systems.
So why hasn’t that happened? One word: marketing.
The only way to successfully bring about widespread adoption of any consumer product is by spending big bucks marketing it. That’s never been done with Linux, and for good reason. There’s no money in it — even if wildly successful. It would be, as business people like to say, throwing good money after bad. That’s because when it comes to monetizing Linux, its biggest weakness is its greatest strength in every other way: its free nature.
Let’s say Canonical were to get serious about marketing desktop Ubuntu. There’s little doubt in my mind that if they wanted, and were willing to spend the necessary dollars marketing, the distro could take a large slice of the operating system pie and even get OEMs on board to produce affordable Ubuntu boxes, probably quicker than most people would think.
One way they could do this would be by using an old mainstay of the advertising business, co-op advertising, which is often used as a carrot on a stick to get retailers to carry a particular product. In the case of Ubuntu, Canonical could leverage co-opt advertising not only to get Ubuntu machines into stores, but to get OEMs onboard to offer computers and laptops with the distro preinstalled for the stores to sell.
With co-op advertising, the manufacturer (in this case Canonical) agrees to foot a large portion of the advertising bill for any ad that mentions the product in ways that meet criteria spelled out by the manufacturer.
How might this work for Canonical?
Let’s say it approached an OEM such as Dell about offering Ubuntu on desktops and laptops that are selling well with Windows installed. Canonical could offer to help Dell make sure Ubuntu would work perfectly on these machines, and maybe even throw in a little limited technical support to those who buy them. They would also offer to help with the marketing with a co-op advertising deal that would not only apply to any advertising efforts made directly by Dell, but to any advertising done by retailers carrying the product as well.
Let’s say Canonical agrees to pay 75 percent of the advertising costs, which is not an unheard of amount. This co-op advertising offer would stipulate that the focus of the ads would have to be on Dell’s Ubuntu machines and that the ads must extol the virtue of the distro as a premium operating system, maybe using a tag line such as “a cut above.”
Dell could probably be convinced to go along, as they would have next to nothing to lose. It has the machines anyway and will continue to profit from Windows versions. For the Ubuntu editions, Canonical will do all of the heavy lifting with making sure the OS works well and will pick up the lion’s share of the marketing cost. Getting local retailers to stock the machines should pose little problem, as they’d have the incentive of free advertising. Many local radio, TV and newspaper outlets pitch local businesses on available co-op plans with schemes that rebate the percentage that would be the retailer’s stipulated share of the cost.
It could be done but it won’t, because it would cost Canonical tens of millions of dollars, without a prayer of return.
Even if Dell began pushing millions of computers out the door, there would be very little money in it for Canonical. It’s hard to sell for a profit something that can be downloaded free. The Red Hat business model of making money through support won’t fly because consumers computer users have never spent money on support. An app center for proprietary software won’t work because consumers pretty much don’t buy software anymore (besides, almost everything a Linux user needs is available for free), and affiliate marketing plans with the likes of Amazon are also unlikely to earn back enough to even come close to covering expenses.
I’m sure Canonical looked at many avenues to monetize desktop Ubuntu before coming to the conclusion that it’s best to focus marketing efforts on the server, cloud, and perhaps eventually, phone. There’s also little doubt that the saavy business folks at Red Hat continue to take good long looks at the prospects for monetizing desktop Linux, and if they thought it possible, they’d have an easy-to-use distro on the street tomorrow. The OEMs aren’t willing to really get behind preinstalled Linux on low cost machines, because consumer acceptance would require gambling a lot of money in a market that’s currently shrinking.
Until somebody can figure out a surefire way to monetize a desktop distro, GNU/Linux will continue to be primarily used by free software advocates, people who demand the best on their desktop, those trying to keep an older machine productive and by those who’ve had-it-up-to-here with Microsoft.
The good news is that the last two groups are growing in number.