Rx for Linux: Part 4 - Community support

Rx for Linux: Part 4 - Community support

Summary: The single most important factor in explaining why Windows has it all over Linux for home and small business adoption is the public's belief that there's always somebody willing to take a few bucks per hour to futz with Windows

TOPICS: Open Source
A few years ago I suggested to an American colleague that we start a new business using the Telearb name I'd invented for a potential client in the call center business who didn't follow through. The new business would focus, I suggested, on providing Linux community support.

He didn't want to play, and I haven't pursued it since, but someone, or many somebodies, should should act on this idea now - so here's the 4-1-1:

Telearb means "work at a distance." The goal would be to combine some of the best practices in the temporary staffing industry with some of the best ideas applied by eBay to grow, serve, and police a market for local, person to person, Linux support.

From a customer perspective, here's how it would work: contact the Telearb dispatch center and get whatever level of help is needed - from finding documentation to having a person arrive at your door with the expertise, tools, and backing needed to help. The fine print says you pay Telearb $5.00 for fielding the question, Telearb bills you for the service at the rate applicable to the provider, keeps a small percentage of it, and passes the rest to the provider. You then grade the service you receive and Telearb makes that rating available to others on the eBay community model and also uses it to determine the hourly rate paid the provider - with more effective people getting higher rates.

There's a bit more to it - Telearb provides some professional insurance coverage, takes responsibility for botched jobs, maintains suggested billings schedules, uses auctions to staff jobs, reports to the tax man, and provides training and related community opportunities for staffers- but that's the essence of the customer deal: the customer pays, Telearb gets a living, breathing, person with proven credentials in place to help.

Telearb responds to the basic problem Joe average has with systems support - it's never there when you need it, and you pretty much have to understand the problem well enough to fix it yourself before you can communicate it clearly enough to get actual help from a call center support geek.

The single most important factor in explaining why Windows has it all over Linux for home and small business adoption is the public's belief that there's always somebody willing to take a few bucks per hour to futz with Windows - and whether that's competent support or not matters less than the idea that a few bucks can make their problem someone else's.

With Telearb, we can develop a community of user-rated Linux specialists who show up, charge a fair rate, fix the problem, and go away - no fuss, no contracts, no accounts, no miscommunication: a clear, simple, person to person deal whose risks are underwritten by a national organization.

Oh yeah, and in that process we put working with Linux on a commercially competitive basis with working on Windows, reduce the customer's perception of the support risk he undertakes by stepping out from under the Microsoft umbrella, and raise the ante for the unskilled ninny willing to take ten bucks an hour to futz with Windows.

Paul Murphy's Linux Rx-- see the full series:

  • Part 1: Measurements and markets
  • Part 2: SCO, patents and money
  • Part 3: Licensing clarity
  • Part 4: Community support
  • Part 5: Executive support

  • Topic: Open Source

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    • Think this one out

      Telearb would be that single-point-of-contact for getting the job done. They could be based offshore, and they would act as a broker or go-between for a multitude of Linux support houses. Telearb would forward the call to one of their Linux support vendors, who would then engage the customer. In this way, Telearb could find reliable vendors, and at the same time allow small vendors to get a slice of the pie. Walmart thinking for Linux support!
      Roger Ramjet
      • You bet -but not offshore

        the telearb concept does not differentiate individuals from companies in terms of payment, only in terms of performance ratings and therefore the amount of each payment. e.g. PC co could employee
        ten people on telearb support, we'd pay them, but at different rates depending on who did the job.

        On the other hand I'm opposed to off-shoring. I'm hoping someone will pick up the ball here and run with it, and of course they can do what they want - but I would not personally support off-shoring. I think it's a case of cutting off a foot to reduce the cost of socks - really short term thinking that will come back to haunt the people involved.
        • Not quite

          Telearb would just be a broker - connecting customers with providers. They would charge the customer for using the service, and they would charge the Linux shop for bringing them business. You would need some way for feedback to determine which Linux shops you would do business with. I propose that the customer would have an account with Telearb, and before he could get his next help call answered, he would need to fill out the vendor questionaire (make it short and sweet). Even over the phone, just to get the feedback so you can provide an excellent service. Telearb wouldn't need too many employees, and would spur Linux shops to spring up to satisfy the demand.
          Roger Ramjet
    • More than a "belief"

      "The single most important factor in explaining why Windows has it all over Linux for home and small business adoption is the public's belief that there's always somebody willing to take a few bucks per hour to futz with Windows - and whether that's competent support or not matters less than the idea that a few bucks can make their problem someone else's."

      This is FACT. On my 5 miles drive to work, there are more PC repair places than donut shops or Starbucks. I can walk into many major big-box stores and get my computer fixed. I am positive that none of these places will touch a non-Windows PC. Best Buy *might* be Macintosh certified.

      Indeed, when thinking about the TCO of a home computer, try factoring in not just the cost of the support itself, but the hassle factor. For example, I live in Columbia, South Carolina. Granted, this state isn't exactly a happening place, but a few months ago while looking into getting a Mac, the nearest Mac store is in Atlanta (if I recall), a 3+ hour drive away. That store is also the location of the nearest Mac certified repair shop. So if I were to own a Mac, my only options for getting it fixed without voiding my warranty are to ship it to Apple, or spend a day just driving to Atlanta & back. Thanks, but no thanks.

      Now imagine being Joe User. Here are your support options:

      * The 1-800-HELP-ME number that came with the box
      * The local computer store, Best Buy, Circuit City, etc.
      * Your daughter/son/niece/nephew/good buddy/cousin etc. who "knows a bunch about this stuff"

      The last I checked, not a single one of these offers non-Windows support, unless your kid, relative, friend happens to be a systems administrator in a non-Windows shop, a supreme geek, or a Mac users who really knows their stuff (ironically, Macs are designed so that n o one actually needs to "know their stuff" when using it).

      So if you can't get help, why would you ever in your right mind want to buy or use that product? That would be like buying a house that, instead of having a standard hookup to the electrical company, has its own nuclear pile in the back 40. Sure, it may be a lot more efficient or better or whatever, but who's going to service it?

      There's also a really bad side of FOSS support (particularly Linux), and that's the sheer number of distros. If supporting them is identical, why are there multiple ones? Way back when, BSD split and people bugged out. To this day, there are three major BSDs (Open, Net, and Free). Imagine trying to keep track of how to support the 300+ Linux distros? Do you want to be the support person telling someone "yes sir, they all use the same kernel, however I am unable to support that distribution of Linux at this time." It's bad enough trying to explain that you cannot even answer a "quick question" because someone is out of warranty. That seems petty to the users ("I'm not asking you to send any hardware, just answer a question.").

      So yes Paul, lack of support is a MAJOR reason why no one will be using Linux at home or the small office (desktop use, at least) for a while. But your solution isn't worthwhile. Many, if not most home users don't pay for support, especially since the cost of replacing a PC is now not too much more than the cost of having spyware yanked off. They take it to a family member or friend. You've got a chicken/egg issue here.

      Justin James
      • Out in the back 40

        "So if you can't get help, why would you ever in your right mind want to buy or use that product?"

        This is an interesting question. If you are *relatively* poor, and have access to ONLY a second-hand computer that is too underpowered to run Win2000/XP, wouldn't you look into loading Linux on it? Even if you didn't know much about it? Your choices are to run Win98 - which is klunky and full of security holes - or run an up-to-date Linux distro. What would you do?

        I can imagine that there are many (young) people out there that are faced with this conundrum. They beg and plead their parents for a new computer - and get told that they can't afford one, BUT you can have this old one over there. An enterprising individual could get his hands on a Linux distro CDs (even those Windoze repair shops would be willing to download and burn some Linux disks for a few bucks), and use a free internet service like Juno (10 hours free per month) or pay 10 bucks a month, and VIOLA - he's connected to the web and can do the same things that the rich kids do on their big, bad Windoze boxes. All it cost him was some time, effort and a few bucks . . .
        Roger Ramjet
        • I was actually in the same situation...

          That's actually a great point, I managed to forget my own experiences with this a while back. I had an old server at my place running a copy of Windows 2000 server (server + licensed software had been given to me, no pirating). When the hardware died, I really could not afford the price of a Windows 2003 license. Next thing I knew, I was installing BSD.

          Yeah, I do agree with what you're saying here, and there are people out there (like me!) who will do this. It's just pretty darned rare. :) Most "good buddies" who "know a lot about that computer stuff" are really people who are only marginally more experienced than the person asking for help.

          Justin James
      • Is there a LUG in your area

        I live in a very Rural area (AKA there are cows up the road from me) and even here there is a LUG.

        A Lug will provide low-cost/free community support.

        Murph's idea for an eBay style support system makes sense only if there are enough novice Linux home and SOHO users to support it. As of right now a good number of the home and SOHO Linux users are Savy enough to self support Linux themselves.

        It's the old chicken and egg problem... there aren't enough users who need support for there to be a comercialized home support network, without the network of home support businesses then the masses of barely competent home users won't switch. Toss in some good o'll FUD that only the technical ellite can run Linux, there aren't any applications, that there are no-installers (Ignore APT and YUM in the corner thers mooting this point... let alone that there are Linux installers) so you have to compile everything, the internet won't work on Linux, there are no games for Linux, you have to use the CLI for everything, and you could be sued by SCO for using it then BAM... This is the MS strategy to fight Linux.
    • Nice blog, Mr. Murphy

      After giving you a bit of a hard time yesterday, I have to congratulate you today. You make a great point in this one - that for home desktop adoption of Linux to happen, there needs to be easily accessible, local, affordable support.

      Unfortunately, big box retailers like Best Buy want to have nothing to do with Linux support, nor do most local dealer/builders (small Mom & Pop shops).

      I am frequently appalled by the complete lack of qualifications, ignorance, laziness, narrowmindedness, and uselessness of big box sales and support staff, as well as small dealer/builders. They typically not only know nothing about Linux, most of them don't know much about Macs, and with their supposed specialty, Windows, they know very little.
      • Thanks -hang in there, you'll be mad at me again tomorrow....

        I do have a sense of humor about these things...

        on the other hand: umm, I eat a lot of beef, that somes mainly from steers, so if I'm really full of Bull you might want to ask where the testosterone is coming from... -:)
        • funny

          good response.

          And, I never was actually mad. I was just being a pest in calling you on when I thought you were full of bull. Maybe you should cut back on the steer meat! :)
    • Very expensive and spotty service.

      Interestingly my company was contacted a couple months back by Dell wanting us to provide on site support for customers. Never being one to turn down a business opportunity I contacted them via phone and got the 411 on the program.

      The bottom line was that they were charging a set fee to do specific tasks. As an example it paid $45 to go to someone's home/ofice and replace the hard drive. The issue of course is that when I am paying someone by the hour, providing a company vehicle, insurance, and other "overhead" it simply wasn't worth it. I figured that on the average call I would lose around $8 an hour.

      In short, I turned the opportunity down and Dell went else where. Eventually they found someone to do it and it turned out to be a young guy I had interviewed a few months earlier for a tech position but lacked both training and the required skills. (I guess that says something about Dell?)

      For him it was an acceptable pay rate, as long as he lied to his insurance company about using his personal car for business, (No insurance on any PCs or parts while in the car on "business") carried no libility insurance when he was on the customers site, didn't report it on his taxes, etc. Basically a disaster looking for a place to happen.

      Being realistic, if you want quality people (any technology) set up professionally (with insurance, taxes, overhead, company vehicle or paid mileage with insurance, etc.) you need a call out charge of around $100, and an hourly rate of around $40 to $60 after the initial charge. The plain simple truth is people simply do not want to pay this sort of rate. Heck, just try selling them an extended warranty sometime.

      What about walk in service? Again if you have a proffesional operation, pay a decent wage, have insurance, building overhead, etc. it still is not cheap. In my area I could do it for around $45-$60 an hour but I can get "shop" space pretty cheap. (Most automechanics are in the same price range.)

      The idea sounds great on paper Murph, but when faced with the real world it falls a part pretty quickly. The advantage (as you pointed out) Windows has is that everyone knows a "Windows Geek" they can call on for nothing or next to nothing for help. Until that is true for another OS (Linux, BSD, even Mac) poeple are not going to make the switch when there is nothing to be gained .
      • $45 to replace a hard drive? At home?

        Ahm... how much do they charge for getting someone's data off the old hard drive?
        Is there a separate charge for bringing it back to the shop?

        At a price like that, other companies selling service, including retailers, would be better off firing their own staff and replacing them with Dell's.

        The prices you mention as your thought seem more consistent with reality.
        Anton Philidor
        • restoring data is and additional charge

          If you look at the price sheet from geek squad they have a fixed price for somethings and a hourly rate for others.
        • Yup, but that is to unplug the old plug in the new.

          Recovered data is not Dell's problem, only the failed hard drive. Of course the replacement Disk will be a mirror of the orginal drive as it shipped with the machine. If you have data, other apps., etc. you are on your own.
          • Wrong No_Ax -- The Drive Is Normally Blank

            Dell typically does NOT send out any data on the drives they replace. That's what the system disk is for, to re-install the OS. Applications supplied with the nachine come on their own CDs. I have helped four customers in the last four years with Dell drive failures, and the drive was an image of the original only once, after I bitched at Dell for a half-hour. In that case, it was a laptop drive that needed the Dell utility partition for future troubleshooting. You guessed it, the other three didn't have the utilities intsalled as there is no practical way to recreate it (that I'm aware of -- requires a separate boot area.)
            • Hmmm, noine I've seen.

              But then I didn't waste a half hour complaining. Your mileage may vary...
      • And yet, some people are happy with such service

        Best Buy has the geek squad, a group of people paid to make service calls at their customers homes. Geek Squad charges less that what professional services normally charge, but for what most home users need these kids normally know enough. Do you think that a person that goes to someone's home to change a hard drive or monitor needs to be certified on Cisco Routers? No.

        Why pay for a brain surgeon when all you need is a nurse to put on a bandaid? Murphy's idea is not so far fetched. Best buy seems to be making money off of Geek Squad so it must be feasible.
        • Not really... In most cases the bill is a lot higher.

          From what I've seen of the geek squad you are given a quoted price but there are always additional charges. Using the failed hard drive example yes there is a flat charge for drive replacement, but it does not cover the cost of trying to recover or transfer your data, for that there is an "extra" fee...
          • recoving data costs extra

            I think that I said that. :) Still, a geek squad kid costs a lot less that someone of your caliber and someone that knows nothing of computers would rather pay him that pay you your rate.

            Most home end users do not have complicated tasks that need to be performed. Using my father as an example a wireless router is about the most difficult think that I could think of. Let's be honest, what can you do over what a geek squad kid could do to recover some persons personal files from a hard drive. He probably uses the same software to do the job that you would use. You did not need to write software for it and he does not either. It is not rocket science and most teenagers are up to the task and would be just as fast at it as you are.
            • I agree, you get what you pay for.