You can’t make money with the Linux Desktop

Some days ago Mark Shuttleworth was quoted in computer world blog, saying that he’ doesn’t think you anyone can make money of the Linux Desktop while he’s probably right with that but it has to be pointed out that Ubuntu was the nail in the coffin of Linux’ desktop business.

I’ve never seen selling shrink-wrapped packages of free software as a workable idea.

An idea was born

In the late 90s and early years of this millennium there were a couple of Linux distributions like Mandrake (now Mandriva) that created the first Linux distribution primarily for home desktop users, while not much of anything worked back then they still had this idea of a business model. A business model that wasn’t producing much of a revenue but at least, they didn’t stop trying. The Linux Desktop was born back then, and people started to realise that there is the possibility that one day people might actually consider using Linux for non-server, or non-scientific tasks.

One who had this vision of a Desktop for everyone, a Linux for human beings was of course South African Entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth. In 2004 he formed canonical, a company to finance, promote and support Free Software and like we all know created Ubuntu Linux, a distribution with the goal to bring Linux to your home based on Debian.

The new kid on the block

So, there was another distro in the wild that no one would care about, so what made Ubuntu as popular as it is today, the most popular Linux distribution?

Marketing, and some good ideas. Using Debian and with it vast repositories of software was one of those good ideas Debian at this point was the  epitome of software freedom and Ubuntu inherited this brand along many of its users that liked the idea of a distribution centred around the desktop, me being one of them.

Selling the cow

But the most brilliant move that was made was shipping Ubuntu for free around the world, right at your doorstep. People didn’t have to download the ISO-images, they got a nice looking pair of CDs and they were completely sold to this idea of Linux for humans, for everyone and getting it for free.

What followed was an uproar in the geeky, techy parts of the Internet, people heard about this new kid on the block. Blogs, news sites and forums talked about it, and soon everyone knew about Ubuntu, a new brand was born.

This huge resonance was something that other desktop distribution could not reproduce, perceived as old and boring, without a millionaire behind the scenes paying for the shipping, and offering everything they offered for free. They just could not compete with that.

You might also like

2 thoughts on “You can’t make money with the Linux Desktop

  1. The other thing is that from-a-box software like Mandr{ake,iva} comes with a support contract. Back then, you *really* needed a support contract if you weren’t a geek…maybe even if you were since it might be hard to find someone nearby if you needed help (not every city had a LUG).

    As the Linux desktop becomes easier to use, support contracts for desktop users become less necessary. Corporations still want them, of course, so that’s where Canonical selling support contracts comes in, but in order to get Linux on the desktop at work, you’ve got to get the people using it at home and loving it, so they request it at work. Ubuntu and GNOME have made big steps in usability in recent years, so it’s much easier for home users to get into it without worrying about a support contract.

    I do think some home users still need support though. Some people don’t want to have to Google, learn to use IRC, or go on the forums. They just want a 1-800 number so they can ask for help. For them, Canonical’s $250/yr pricetag is just too much, I think. 30 days of support for help getting setup and started? Hey, you can probably charge them $50, and well, most people aren’t going to really need any help again past the first month of “how do I install things?” “how do I get my webcam going?” stuff.

  2. @Mackenzie: I agree, there was without question progress, and many don’t longer need that support. For those who still need ‘some’ support $250/y is kind of tough, and I don’t think that one month of support bought afterwards is any better way of distributing support contracts even if it’s only 50 bucks. I doubt people who really need it can manage to get it.

    Once bug#1 is solved or in reach Canonical could start selling support in boxes with a physical manual, a map of Azeroth and a Kinky Kangaroo figurine and people will probably buy it. It probably won’t help making money directly but they could afford to, not running the risk of losing a lot of money in the process.

    Problem remains that people who need support to get their stuff working don’t get support for whatever reason and therefore don’t use Ubuntu or stop using it, and there is currently just no viable channel of distribution. Only possible measure to fix this problem just make it work, the apple-way if you will but without the luxury of unchanged hardware and this isn’t going to happen.

    I think it’s kind of sad that we have depend on the industry, and a lot of companies spending their money on Ubuntu not because of the Free Software aspect but because of low cost and Open Source, to get Free Software on our desktops. And Yes, I know Ubuntu isn’t one hundred percent Free Software, but as long as those who don’t care about FOSS are the ones paying for all the fun, it’s probably not going to get any better.