About those Linux boxes

by William Grosso

Since I posted my
predictions for 2003
, I've received a fair amount of feedback. Most of
it has centered around the third prediction:

3. $300

Linux boxes at Walmart
(and other low-end retailers) will become the standard system for

home users. I honestly think that the introduction of these boxes by mass-market retailers was

was the most significant tech news for 2002, and that the significance was mostly missed.

Walmart is

7">lowering costs
by using Linux. And they're producing PCs which are more than good

enough for most applications. This is huge, and along with Apple's resurgence, signals the

re-emergence of Java on the client side.

The objections seem to fall into two main categories:

  • Sure, some people will buy those boxes initially. But sales will fall off because Linux is not usable enough. Where "usable" is a combination of "user friendly" and "runs the right software."
  • Sure, some people buy those boxes. But they install (pirated copies of) Windows on them soon after.

It's not very difficult to address these objections. There are lots of responses that could be made. For example:

In short: there's enough software, it's usable enough, people don't like changing software (much less changing operating systems), and pirating (or even just installing) Windows is a substantial technical hurdle.

But I don't want to spend too much time on those arguments. Because they're "here and now" arguments that talk about "what are people in January of 2002 doing with their Linux boxes from Walmart." And I want to talk about the future. What I wrote was a prediction about what's going to be true in December 2003, not a statement about what's true now.

And there are a few interesting points which I didn't mention in the predictions column, but which I want to bring
up here. None of these are killer arguments, but they cumulatively imply low-end Linux is awesome.

There's a lot of vendors moving in. There are literally dozens of vendors selling Linux desktop boxes. It's not just Microtel selling boxes at Walmart. There's a lot of movement here, and there's a lot of competition. That means a fair number of companies will die. But it also means that the products will quickly evolve, and that's good for the customers.

These are not the networked computer, 2003 version.. That was a corporation-only vision, and required massive buy-in (for example, IBM's network computer required an IBM server and only interoperated with IBM equipment). These are all full-fledged independent systems based on open standards. People can buy and use single units and those single units will work as standalone units and as part of existing networks. As part of this, there's a very nice incremental adoption path available for corporations (it's not an all-or-nothing decision).

China and India. They're big. More than a billion people each. And they're just at the beginning of the computer adoption curve. But it's beginning to look a lot like both of these nations are going the linux route. For example, here's href="http://www.techtv.com/screensavers/linux/story/0,24330,3395670,00.html">an article on China with some pretty good links.

On the other hand, it also looks a little like Chinese programmers might be forking linux without

sharing code
. That's interesting-- it's hard to fight piracy across international lines. But it might be equally hard to enforce open-source licenses.

Does Microsoft have any brand loyalty?
One of the ways you fight encroachment from
underneath is by having brand loyalty. I buy Del Monte tomatoes rather than the supermarket-brand tomatoes because I know Del Monte does canned tomatoes well. And I'm more
likely to buy other Del Monte vegetables as well, because I trust Del Monte to do a good job. I have never heard anyone say anything even remotely similar about Microsoft or Microsoft products.

What would Michael do? I'm not a religious guy; this isn't about the Archangel Michael. It's about Michael
. And the question is simple: if he were an undergraduate at UT Austin today, where would he be focusing his energies? Where are the entrepreneurial opportunities for ambitious and bright entrepreneurs who have a limited budget? I think Linux has it all over Windows
here, and that means that there's going to be more market innovation and responsiveness from
Linux PC makers over the next 12 months than from Windows PC makers. The people who make Linux PCs are just going to out-innovate everyone else in the mad-scramble to move some boxes.

It's got the right spiral. Suppose you buy some of these arguments, but not all of them. And you say "All right. I'll grant you that Linux desktops will get maybe 10% of the new purchases on the low end of the market by years end. Windows will still be dominant. New machines will still mostly be Windows. And all the older machines will be Windows." That's a reasonable proposition to make. Then I have one question: what happens in 2004?

So what do you think? And where does all this lead?


2003-01-06 06:30:00
reinstall windows? -nah.
Folks who -can- reinstall windows wouldn't be bothered buying these $300 machines in the first place most likely, and hence anyone buying them are likely looking for what is basically a "dumb appliance".

Email, surfing, document writing (maybe) without a crash. That's what these folks are after.

2003-01-06 08:48:52
Installing Windows vs. installing Linux
For years I have been listening to all the kvetching about how much harder Linux was to install. What they meant was installing Linux was harder than upgrading Windows. None of the people had ever installed Windows on bare metal with hardware of unknown compatibility. They upgraded or updated Windows on boxes that were known to be compatible with some Windows version.

It will be interesting to hear about people doing bare metal installs of Windows.

It took me six months of trying, researching, bugging every consultant and new hire that walked in the door to upgrade from MS-DOS to Windows 3.

Installing wireless cards took 3-4 hours for the first two Linux boxes. I spent it downloading different pcmcia and driver packages, reading the docs while compiling and installing the packages, etc. Now that I had a working WLAN, it took 2 hours to install the wireless card on Windows, mostly waiting for the stupid OS to re-boot. I'd rather read docs than watch a re-boot. So much for ease of installation.

2003-01-06 10:31:35
Linux for dumb applicances is GREAT
When people spent little money and get a great package, they are doing well. More money to have a life! Sometimes little money is all there is to spend ..
2003-01-06 11:36:39
Friend's Support
One barrier that you did not mention is "All my friends have Windows therefore I will buy what my friends have". People feel safe buying what others have and feel they can ask their friends when problems arise. This is changing but for now I think one should market $300 Linux PCs as Web Appliances with added features, perhaps with the OEone (www.oeone.com) Desktop interface.
2003-01-06 15:28:01
Installing Windows vs. installing Linux
Windows is absurdly easy to install these days. A Win2K installation on new hardware took me just over an hour. After a 40 minute install of the OS, all of my hardware, even the stuff that was built onto the motherboard, was recognized and working with the Microsoft drivers. I took another 20-25 minutes to install the drivers that were provided by the manufacturers, and everthing still worked. I won't debate that older versions of Windows were a pain to get working, but everything from 98 on is a breeze.
2003-01-07 08:22:27
people who don't like chex cereals have never tried chex cereals
Not true. I've had a number of problems installing Windows 98, Windows NT, Windows XP, and Windows 2000 on machines that are built to run Windows.

On the other hand, I've had problems installing Linux on machines that are built to run Windows, too.

I think Michael's point is that things will change when the average Joe can get a machine built to run Linux. I don't think it will take over the market in a year or anything, but it will give all those Microsoft bigots pause when they see how much reliable capability can be delivered so cheaply. PC manufacturers and resellers, many of whom have mixed feelings about their de facto required partner Microsoft, are rapidly warming to Linux.

Perhaps a better phrasing of the prediction: Linux will enter the desktop channel and take market share from Microsoft.

2003-01-07 11:50:15
In my experience, most family PCs (which is the market we're discussing?) get used at least 50% of the time for games. And the need to run the latest games is a big driver for buying a new PC. I don't think Linux is there yet (although I do seem to remember a distribution, possibly Mandrake, bundled with the Sims).
2003-04-06 16:03:07
reinstall windows? -nah.
Dumb appliance?
1.3Mhz AMD Duron processor,(expandable up to Athlon XP2400), 40GB hard drive, and 256MB SDR memory may not be cutting edge but its hardly a dumb box. Especially for somone who up-grading from a Windows 95 box.