Linux/OSS developers: stop following and start leading

Remember the "It's just as good as a Xerox." ads of the 1960's? No, probably not! Well, the point was "Why buy something that's 'just as good' when you can have the original?" To compete, the Linux/OSS community needs to be original -- offering just another 'clone' product isn't good enough.

This morning, I read a piece by my Education IT colleague, Chris Dawson, entitled Making “hamburger of Microsoft’s cash cow” and I was struck by one important observation:

"Open Office needs to worry less about duplicating features of Office and more about “selling” itself as a viable piece of software in its own right. "

The thrust of the article was a discussion of a Microsoft study regarding "user satisfaction" with Microsoft Office as compared to OpenOffice in an educational setting. We don't have to guess what Microsoft concluded. (See Microsoft funds questionable study attacking open source in education.)

I've been around long enough to know that whether it's Microsoft or some independent entity conducting these studies, their conclusions should always be taken with a grain of salt. Conclusions mean very little if one doesn't also take into consideration "the conditions of the test" -- those initial assumptions made by those conducting the study (presumably) in order to try to remove bias from the results. So, putting the study aside ...

I want to talk about the quote above and discuss for a moment what it takes for a product to gain and retain market dominance. After all, Microsoft was not always the market leader -- not in operating systems, not in word processing, and not in spreadsheets -- let alone in the more broadly-defined personal productivity arena.

Microsoft didn't invent the personal computer and they didn't invent the first PC operating system. They didn't even invent the first MS-DOS (they bought and re-branded 86-DOS from Seattle Computer Products.) Nor were they the first to use a "window-like" GUI (Xerox PARC was). What Microsoft did (and still does to this day) is innovate -- take what they've got, and improve upon it in unique ways! This is the key to their success.

In light of the litigation of the last few years, it has been argued by many that Microsoft has maintained its market dominance by using questionable tactics. Others might argue that Microsoft could not maintain it's market penetration if it didn't offer a superior product at a fair price. (After all, many find the Apple Macintosh to be superior but can't or won't pay the premium price!) There is a third argument though ...

Microsoft continues to dominate the personal computer marketplace because their competitors do not wish to compete at the commodity price-points found there.

Now that Apple has ported MacOSX to Intel, it is clear that Apple could market a complete computer system of comparable performance to any entry-level Windows computer on the market and do so at very similar price-points. (And don't tell me they do! Without a keyboard and mouse, the Mac mini retails for $270 MORE than the Vista-based COMPAQ I recently bought!) For their own reasons, Apple chooses NOT to compete with Microsoft OEMs at entry-level price-points. But this post is not about Apple, it's about Open-Source software ...

The Open Source Software movement began as the GNU project (see to produce software which could be shared without licensing fees or restrictions of any kind -- as long as the source code is freely available. Originally, GNU software offered free alternatives to UNIX utilities and programs -- and not much has changed!

Today, the flagship of the OSS movement is GNU/Linux. The Linux OS kernel was written and is maintained by Linus Torvalds. GNU represents a plethora of OS tools and utilities that round out Linux functionality. Personal productivity is represented by OpenOffice (an open-source version of Sun's commercial StarOffice product -- itself a Microsoft Office-compatible personal productivity suite.)

So, what we have in GNU/Linux is a clone of UNIX and what we have in OpenOffice is a clone of Microsoft Office. By themselves, these products are free for the taking for anyone who wants to download and install them. Each is promoted by their afficionadoes as "Just as good as ----". Just fill in the blank with "UNIX", "Windows", or "Microsoft Office".

In reality, GNU/Linux and OpenOffice are anything but free for the vast majority of consumers who have neither the time nor the expertise to download, install and support them.

Some of these consumers might search out a third-party OEM selling Linux and OpenOffice preinstalled (this is easier with the Dell/Ubuntu deal in place) but support is an extra-cost option which the typical consumer will have to bear.

The most robust consumers might even go out and buy a complete Linux package from any number of vendors offering complete support at prices comparable to what Microsoft charges for a retail package of Windows.

Just like those old Xerox ads of the 1960's, you can have MS-Windows/MS-Office or you can have something that's "Just as good as MS-Windows/MS-Office." Put in those terms, which would you choose?

I don't believe that Linux vendors wish to compete with Microsoft for the consumer desktop!

To make this point, all one has to do is look at the enterprise machine room. In a project-driven environment, there is no room for preconceived notions about vendors or their products. You select the vendor who can provide a cost-effective solution for an immediate need. Since projects are built around product life-cycles, the enterprise (and their vendors) understand that during the next product life-cycle a different vendor could be chosen. In this competitive environment, Linux vendors do very well.

Because it is a commercial environment, Linux vendors stand to make considerable profits by innovating. (They have to give away Linux so they must provide add-ons, such as full service and support, to make a profit.) Their support costs are low because their customer comes to the table with considerable UNIX or Windows experience. This is not so with consumers who, for the most part cannot support themselves.

To compete as effectively in the consumer desktop space as they do in the machine room, OSS vendors and developers need to stop copying software functionality from commercial desktop vendors (predominately Microsoft and Apple) and start introducing new and unique solutions to common IT problems. Only through such innovation can the OSS movement hope to create consumer interest on the merits of GNU/Linux -- not just the upfront price (which is rarely a good indicator of TCO.)