Just as good as Windows just isn't good enough

When in doubt, people (and the organizations they run) buy what they know. They don't take chances unless the payoff for their choice is clearly worth taking the risk of trying something outside their comfort zone. Does Linux fall into your comfort zone?
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor
Marc Wagner
My colleague, Chris Dawson, has been writing extensively about the Intel Classmate recently.  This is a fine bare-bones machine designed to compete against the XO from the OLPC foundation.  Its great advantage over the XO is that, while it offers similar functionality, it is expandable as prices for RAM and FLASH storage drop, and it runs both Linux and Windows XP Pro unmodified, right out-of-the-box. 

In a recent piece (And the Nigerian government chose Windows why?), Chris asks why in the world the Nigerian government would choose to buy the Intel Classmate and run it with Windows XP Pro instead of running it with Linux.  (In a later piece, whether they actually intend to run Windows on these computers has been called into question -- but it doesn't really change my point.)

The answer to Chris'es question is really quite simple -- and does not require to reader to assume that there is a conspiracy being orchestrated by Bill Gates and Steve Balmer. 

Few of you will remember those classic Xerox adds where the customer says, "I know, it's just as good as a Xerox." and the saleman responds with "But it is a Xerox!"  The point is that for Linux to overcome Windows in the marketplace, there has to be a clear advantage to running Linux.  It cannot be Just as good as Windows.

Education IT folks might argue that the users of these systems don't NEED to run Windows because they will be dedicated to specific education-based tasks.  (Working in an environment where more and more publishers are including Windows-based software with their textbooks, I might argue this point but for emerging markets, the point is still taken.)  

So why might a foreign government choose to give their schoolchilren Windows-based Classmates instead of Linux-based Classmates:

  • The decision-makers are not IT folks, or even educators, so their decisions maybe somewhat uninformed or short-sighted. 
  • For a government buying machines in very large volumes, the up-front cost difference is negligible -- if there even is a price difference. 
  • In this scenario, TCO does not come into play because ongoing support will be local and will come from other funding sources.
  • Buying what you know is safe

It's this last point that I want to stress.  The conventional wisdom was that no one ever got fired for choosing IBM.  Well the same rule applies for Microsoft.  Everyone has heard of them.  Even if they are familiar with Linux, how many non-IT people could name even one distribution of Linux?  (I suspect not very many.)  On top of that, there are more commercial software titles for Windows -- thousands more. 

In the end, if all else is equal, Windows get the nod because it is a safe choice.  Microsoft as a company will be around for decades to come.  While the same can be said for Intel and Novell, and even RedHat, someone completely unfamiliar with Linux or Mandriva, or Ubuntu, may not be confident that those vendors will be around next year. 

Apple keeps its niche market by offering its customers something more than what Microsoft offers.  MacOSX is elegant, highly integrated, and capable of doing anything Windows can do.  Put simply, Apple succeeds because the product is sexy.  And there is a significant number of software titles published for it.  Plus it can run everything Linux can run.  And buyers know Apple is going to be around to support its products -- customer service is simpy not an issue.   Can Madriva make the same claim? 

Today, Linux vendors do not (I did not say cannot) offer customers such a value-added experience.  Intel is offering its cusotmers choice.  Good for them.  Now it's up to Mandriva (and any other Linux vendor wishing to fid itself installed on the Classmate) to make its case.  Whether they will or not remains to be seen.

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