Linux: The Joe Sixpack Strategy

Linux: The Joe Sixpack Strategy

Summary: On the surface, it would appear that a slowing economy might pave the way for increased Linux and Open Source software adoption by the unwashed masses, those who may want newer software than what their current XP system provides but don't want to pay the high premium of upgrading to Windows Vista/Windows 7 and all new software to go with it.



On the surface, it would appear that a slowing economy might pave the way for increased Linux and Open Source software adoption by the unwashed masses, those who may want newer software than what their current XP system provides but don't want to pay the high premium of upgrading to Windows Vista/Windows 7 and all new software to go with it.

Ubuntu and OpenSUSE are excellent free end-user operating systems, and will certainly provide much if not all of what "Joe Sixpack" wants to do with their personal computer, but the reality is there are significant obstacles that must be overcome in order to get a large chunk of the eligible target audience of the existing legacy Windows XP installed user base to move to a Linux OS.

So what exactly in terms of effort would really be needed to get anywhere between 20 and 40 percent of the existing Windows XP user base to move to Linux? Much of what I am proposing in this post may not be realistic, especially given that what would be required to actually pull this off would involve capital investment and alliances formed by companies that don't necessarily like or want to work with each other today. But in the grand tradition of throwing stuff up against the wall and seeing what works, I'd like you to indulge my little thought experiment.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

Obtaining mind share

Right now, your average end-user who doesn't frequent technology sites like ZDNet probably have very little idea of what Linux is. The fact of the matter is, Linux has had little public exposure in the popular media in the last several years, this despite the rapid growth of the OS in the enterprise as an application server and in embedded systems. IBM ran Linux commercials from 2004 to 2006, but they were targeted towards the enterprise, not the consumer. To gain significant mind share, particularly of the American public, Linux is going to need lots of TV commercials and product placement. To do this, somebody is going to have to spend money - but the question remains, who? If we're talking desktop Linux, it's going to have to be entities that have distributions that could be promoted as real Windows alternatives. Fedora is out of the running because it gets outdated every year, and despite Redhat's solid enterprise growth and business model, they have little interest in promoting Linux on the desktop.

The only free desktop-friendly Linux that has a long term support lifecycle is Ubuntu, which has a 3-year LTS version in addition to its 18-month support cycle for non-LTS releases. OpenSUSE currently provides a 2-year support cycle for its versions, but neither of these two entities can successfully promote a Linux advertising campaign on its own. They'll need to form a coalition with other companies to pay for the commercials and marketing and distribution campaign, and it's unlikely that with Novell's existing alliance with Microsoft that OpenSUSE will be the end-user free distribution of choice to promote to everyone. Ubuntu has a billionaire investor behind it, and certainly he can pay for a few commercial spots, but that won't cover the infrastructure that will be needed to actually pull the end-user migrations off at a large scale.

Forming alliances and data migration

A large scale end-user migration to Linux will require significant back-end Internet hosting infrastructure. Assuming that the Linux that ends up getting promoted is Ubuntu, it will need much more serious and much more expensive hosting and content caching than Ubuntu has now.

Hosting and availability of the software isn't even half the problem, though. To get Joe Sixpack to switch to Linux, he's going to need an easy way to move from his existing XP OS to his end-state, with all of his important data -- his Office files, his emails, his contacts, MP3 files, digital photos and what have you, so a foolproof migration process is going to have to be designed. According to my fantasy scenario, Ubuntu and Google join forces and Google provides a freely downloadable program that installs on the client Windows PC, sets the user up with an online Google account, and sucks out all the office files, email and other critical data, backing it up to the cloud, which would be automatically restored to the target Linux install. Additionally, this program should be able to tell the user who is installing it if they are a candidate for Linux in the first place and if they are willing to suffer the consequences of a migration - i.e., you appear to have a bunch of incompatible games installed, we see you've got a ton of DRM-restricted music you bought on iTunes, et cetera.

Ideally, Joe Sixpack should be able to walk down to Wal-Mart, RadioShack, or Best Buy, pick up his "Google Linux Starter Kit" which comes with a specially modified Ubuntu CD and a 300GB USB hard disk for $99, which he just pops into his Windows XP PC, and an advanced installer routine backs up his data, reboots the system, installs Linux, migrates his email over to Gmail, migrates all of his personal data and gives him a fully-functional and easy to use environment, with all the necessary plugins enabled for multimedia, legal DVD viewing, etc. The benefit of distributing this with a hard disk is that if Joe has a hundred gig of MP3 files and 10 years of digital photos, Google won't necessarily need to provide a few hundred thousand or a million Joe Sixpacks with Carbonite-level data backup online to perform the migration.

In the event Joe Sixpack is too PC-challenged to hook up a USB drive and pop a CD into his PC, then there needs to be some sort of $99 "Bring your PC in" option where a tech will perform a scripted installation and data migration, along with the previously mentioned caveats that would have to be disclosed to the buyer before performing the service (if you're a gamer, you got too much DRM crap from iTunes, et cetera). Note to Apple: we need a Linux version of iTunes.

In addition to "Google Linux Starter Kits" PC vendors will need to be able to sell Google Linux-preloaded systems in the $400 range, sans monitor, for those customers who would prefer to purchase a new system rather than in-place upgrade their existing system. However, you'd still need some sort of migration procedure along the lines described above, where Joe brings his old PC into the store and a tech moves the data over to the new one.

I'm sure I've left a ton of other details out, but we need to start somewhere and a clearly defined and executable plan if Linux is to break ground with more than just the early adopters and power users. Got more to add to the Joe Sixpack strategy? Talk Back and let me know.

Topics: Linux, Google, Hardware, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Start with, What's an operating system?

    It's what makes the computer work when you buy one. When even Microsoft cannot maintain substantial retail sales, it seems obvious that most people have lost any interest in the operating system they might have had.

    And that leads to a pricing difficulty. Windows on a PC costs the OEM (what?) $50 for a home user. A $99 retail box of Linux would already be a software loss.

    Seems obvious that the only way to sell Linux to home users would be if it came on a computer knowingly purchased.
    Anton Philidor
    • The Apple model

      Set up the system so that they are so cool, you'll live with a few hassels
      to have one.
      I've ended up buying a MAC mini so I can have my unix cake, and good
      support from all sorts of vendors too. However, it tripple boots Vista and
      Ubuntu too 8)

      For me it was easy to switch because for a long time I have avoided any
      apps with proprietary DRM or data files, and used apps that worked on all
      platforms. There are some nice open source apps that just don't exist on OS
      X though, but thanks to KDE4 and the project to port KDE to OS X, then I
      will still be able to run Amarok and K3B without needing to use a Virtual
      machine 8)

      What I love about OS X and my Mac Mini - The easy setup, the remote
      control, Apple Script (it only took about 2 minutes to write a script to
      mount all of my network shares on logon, which un linux requires root to
      make a target folder, map mount the SMB resource into it, and understand
      all of the options for the permissions masks etc). I like the fact that out
      of the box you can tunnel SSH sessions, burn CD/DVDs, make disk images,
      boot the mini into a firewire-slave disk mode (a pity this is gone from the
      new macbooks now) Bootcamp made installing Vista the easiest install I have
      ever done of an MS OS, and it works well.
      What I hate about OS X and my Mac Mini- X11 apps look clunky in aqua. and
      iTunes, and Front row don't play anything except quicktime, (however thanks
      to XBMC, I don't care 8)) and Bootcamp! If it can be so easy to create one
      extra partition for Windows, why not allow me to make another one for
      Linux? It was a major rigmarole to mess around with the partiton editors to
      create a third partiton and keep the windows one at the end.

      Now if there was a Linux PC providor that gave the same experiance as
      Apple, with classy high quality hardware and good third part supported
      products, then Linux will start being ready for Jo Sixpack.

      However I fear this would start a dumbing down of the default Linux
      environment to protect people from themselves.

      I like the fact there is such choice, and that I I can keep on upgrading my
      linux install with the latest features at no further cost. But I also know
      that OS X Snowleopard and Windows 7 will cost a couple of hundred dollars
      each come upgrade time.
      • But you're not Joe Sixpack.

        Joe wouldn't even understand what you just described. And that's the problem!
        M Wagner
        • But Joe does understand

          plug it in and turn it on. The Apple model of the turnkey solution
          works for Joe Sixpack. And Joe can take his PC down to the local
          Apple store and they'll do all the migration stuff for you when you
          buy a new Mac.
          • A compressing operating system 100X faster then Windows XP

            I think if you really want people to look at a new
            operating system your going to need a system that is faster and here's the thing i have been testing
            my code (that uses equations to compress as much as you want) under OpenSuse and under windows (using perl) and have found that Linux is faster , so then buy compressing every thing into equations would make for a faster web it would make dialup just like broadband cable internet. If the whole operating system uses my algorithms then that would make the
            operating system faster by being able to move data
            from one device to the other faster.. and so by providing a faster operating system that allows you to surf the web faster a lot faster, and providing
            a almost virtual limitless hard drive space (using compression .NOS )file this will put microsoft face to face with the beast that is biting its head off.

            IF you would like to Talk further please email me
            hopefully to someone that does some operating system
            work under linux
            mrbaker_mark@yahoo.ocm Thanks
          • Web compression operating system

            I few things i need to add is that this would also make a safer internet by compressing everything that comes in to the port and evaluating it in a compressed state
            would make very hard for any one to hack into your computer.. the price tag is equations being executed on the users CPU to decompress data ... but you could get 200/Gigabytes a second on dialup!
          • What Makes You Think Joe Doesn't Understand?

            What makes you think that Joe Sixpack doesn't already understand. This is not rocket science. Not even computer science.

            Being a Computer OPERATOR barely takes a HS education. And believe me, Joe already knows how to export .pst files from Outlook and to import them to Evolution.
            Wine Arbitrage at
            Seamus O'Brog
          • That's actually quite interesting.

            If I remember correctly, someone was trying a similar method primarily geared toward web communication, whereas your idea does both system and internet communications.

            What sort of hardware would it actually use to take less of a performance hit while compressing/decompressing the data during normal and more complex operations?
          • even better !!!

            Well sorry about the late post
            but the other side of the coin is the
            fiber-optic cpu PCI-X card that you would
            install just like a graphics card
            and would use a color scanner with 2 LCD screens
            that are both connected to the scanner by fiber-optic tri-branch ( <- trying to find a company to manufacture it )
            so the equations would be found at the speed of light!
          • Compress for as long as you want

            You mean you can waste as much time as you want on smaller and smaller increases in compression. Maybe if your decompression time is highly asymmetric (shorter) it might be worth it on systems that are mostly idle. If it is anywhere near proportional...ICK!!!

            Yes compressed disks speed OS and other data loading from disk assuming you have spare CPU power. That has been observed from DOS 4.0.

            Most of us are aware of the speed increase for compressed webpage transmission assuming the user browser can handle it. Of course a lot of ISP already do that for users so little is gained by doing it again.

            There is a point at which you cannot compress info any more without losing info. The closer you get to that point the less actual increase in compression for equal computation time.

            Or perhaps you are not actually compressing but creating a larger and larger dictionary of substitution codes. But there is a point when the codes are longer than new phrases being substituted. And of course there is that pesky frequency of occurence versus lookup time.
          • But Joe can't afford a Mac. Wasn't the point, economic OS alternative?

            Heck I can't afford a mac, ok maybe a little one. Base price of the least expensive Mac is at These PC boxes ready for linux are even cheaper.
          • But do you

            Joe Sixpac is a guy that just uses the computer, doesn't care to know anything about it. Most Apple buyers don't know how they work, but they can usually migrate files. Joe Sixpacs don't buy Apple.

            Why wouldn't he be able to buy a 16 or 32 GB Flash Drive, move over what he needs put Ubuntu on, take the files of the Flash drive.
          • Apple is anti-Linux

            Acknowledging that OSx is Unix, Apple is the Darth Vader to the Rebels (Open Source). Apple is the BMW of computers (with all of the positives and negatives associated with BMW).

            Linux will never match OSx, because OSx is only run on tightly controlled hardware, the antithesis of the Linux and Windows model.
        • Joes Sixpack doesn't need to understand...

          ...any of the previous comments about network shares and updates. He isn't likely to be worried about sharing files between multiple computers, because he probably won't have more than one computer. And if there is more than one computer, the kids will have their own while he (perhaps with his wife) uses his own computer that doesn't have any interaction with the kids' computer. And updates with Linux are easy, especially with Debian. Just wait until the system reminds you there are updates available and tell it to install the updates. This updates not just Linux itself, but all of your programs installed from the libraries supported by APT (or your distro's package manager). Installing programs are even easier than with Windows. Just open the program library and find the one you want then tell Linux to install it.
          • 4th Graders Linux certified

            Linux is so easy that the few schools that use Linux are finding that kids as young as 4th grade can pass professional certification with some to help read the more difficultly phrsed questions.
          • Windows still has application conflicts

            Linux libraries are so far beyond the .dll thrashing and competing of different Windows vendors that any install goes 10 times as fast on Linux. And if you are ever missing something the system just finds it for you.
      • Huh?

        I'm not as ignorant as Joe Sixpack, but I did not understand most of what you were talking about. The perception (maybe the reality) is that Linux is for people with far above entry-level computer knowledge. Unless that changes and installing Linux is as straightforward as upgrading to the next Microsoft OS, this will be self-perpetuating. Back compatibility (avoiding the need to buy upgrades of programs we are satisfied with in their current version) would be nearly essential (that's why I didn't want Vista, regardless of it's inherent problems.)
        • Mistaken Perception

          Current Linux installs itself from DVD without any user input required except to say what class of applications and services you need. Some distribution even speak to you about those choices (something Windows cannot do) and take you to internet websites were experts can chat or talk to you about your choices using internet telephone.

          Plus you get all the applications you need off most distribution DVDs or simple website connections.
          • No Risk Linux Trial on your current machine

            Some Linux distributions even install so that you can just click a box and say "Nope give me back my Windows installation". Within seconds, and in some cases without even a reboot, Linux is gone and Windows and its blue screens are back. Very clean and slick.

            You just need a few gigabytes of free space to store all the old Windows OS and Windows apps during your trial period. Most new machines have hundreds more Gigabytes than you need.
    • You're comparing the retail price of Linux with the OEM version of Windows

      The OEM version of Linux is $0. And, with Windows, you are 100% responsible for customer support when you get the OEM discount.

      And, it was a proposal.