Linux: The Joe Sixpack Strategy

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.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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.

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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.

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