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The rise of the $99 ‘consumer’ Linux distribution

And why it's a great deal

Newsforge logo $99, give or take $20, seems to be the new price point for full-featured, consumer-level Linux distributions. This is a great deal for non-technical users, since most of the new-wave consumer Linux products give users a much prettier and easier experience than traditional, all-GPL distributions tailored for a geeky user base. Whether or not the current explosion of Linux use by ordinary people is "good" is still open to question, but I suspect the answer depends more on who is doing the answering than any other factor.

A friend and I were recently discussing what people need in a computer. He said, "If you have a) web browser, b) email program, c) word processor, you've covered the entire needs of 75% of all PC buyers."

Really? What about browser plugins? Some hard-cores may not like Flash and Quicktime movie clips and would rather die than contaminate themselves by having a .pdf file open automatically in a browser window for them, but most Internet users like that sort of thing. I'll side with the majority on this one. I want to be able to view every kind of multimedia there is -- in Linux -- and if that takes the commercial Crossover plugin and some proprietary software running behind it, then that's what it takes.

Open Office? It's good as far as it goes, but its commercial StarOffice cousin does a somewhat better job of opening and editing some MS Office files, and offers lots of cool little add-ons like a wide selection of templates and clipart. For those of us who deal with MS Office users as part of our daily work routine, the commercial product may be worth its extra cost -- especially if that cost is buried in the price of a full-featured, partly-commercialized Linux distribution.

I prefer the Messenger email program in Mozilla to any other I've used, and I see no advantage whatsoever to commercial (but still cost-free) Netscape. I also like the Mozilla browser itself, perhaps because I've become used to it. Yes, Opera is smaller and lighter and is probably worth its modest cost to many, and Phoenix and Galeon and Konqueror and the others are all wonderful, but I don't have a personal need for a browser other than Mozilla -- once it has all the correct plugins installed, anyway.

I have other personal software preferences, and so do you. Yours are probably not the same as mine. If we all liked the same thing, there would only be one program , that did everything we all needed, and we'd all own it.

Easy installation, easy upgrading

I am perhaps the millionth person to mention that one of the biggest barriers to Linux adoption is software installation and upgrading complexity. Despite my personal doubts about the way Lindows has been promoted, I believe Robertson's Click-N-Run concept deserves to be widely copied. The basic idea isn't really all that different from Red Hat's RHN or Ximian's Red Carpet services. There are plenty of computer users -- including me -- who don't mind spending a little money to have the convenience of no-hassle software installation and upgrades.

How much we're willing to spend in return for what level of service is still open to question. The idea of software subscriptions is still new. Is $99 per year too much to pay? $119? $69? $59? What about "tiered" subscription prices, with a home and small office selection priced at $79 per year, and a professional developer/sysadmin package running $119 per year, possibly even $199 per year for a super- deluxe package of some sort. What about multiple machines on a home or small business network? Site licenses for larger businesses and educational institutions? A lot of this is still being worked out.

I believe $99 per year for a home or small office Linux software subscription is about all the market will bear at this time, and that for $99 most customers are going to expect StarOffice, Crossover, and other commercial programs that give their Linux computers essentially the same capabilities as their friends and coworkers get from Windows (and a bunch of Windows programs that cost a bunch more than $99 per year to buy and keep reasonably up to date.)

The Debian advantage - plus ease of use and commercial software

Debian is stable, stodgy, and adheres strictly to the GPL/Free Software creed. The .deb package update system, when used properly, eliminates the dependency futzing that can make working with RPMs such a tedious task. Lindows is based on Debian. So is the less-hyped but more competent Xandros, which has received high marks from almost everyone who has reviewed it.

There are other companies currently working to make "Debian plus proprietary goodies" end-user distributions, and a few that have already tried and failed. The trick to success -- aside from the basic concept of "taking in more money than you spend = profit" -- seems to be packaging software and updates so they automatically not only install but appear on menus and, if they are plugins for a browser or another base program, automatically launch without users being forced to set up symlinks or path variables or any of the other fun so often associated with making different pieces of Linux software work together.

I have installed and set up Debian by myself exactly once, and I did it on a test machine I didn't need for everyday work. I will never do it again because it took far more time than I could really afford to get everything going.

For those whose jobs or hobbies are necessarily computercentric, Debian and Gentoo and Slackware and the other "geek" distros are great, but for those of us who use computers for things like writing, bookkeeping, and Web development they are simply too tedious and time-consuming for everyday use. We need all the "one click" features we can get. Indeed, the fact that I could copy text blocks in Linux with a mere two mouse clicks (left button highlight, center button paste) was a major reason I originally switched from Windows to Linux; when you write and edit all day long, every day, those control-v and control-c keystrokes add up in a hurry.

This kind of detail may not be important to a computer pro or a "scratch my own itch" programmer, but it is the kind of thing computer users notice like mad. A company that can take something raw and vital, like Linux -- especially Debian Linux -- and make it smooth enough for the general public to ride without losing its essential vitality or taking away the behind-the-facade (non-GUI) tools that power the thing certainly deserves to earn some money in return.

(You may now argue about how to funnel at least some of that money back to kernel developers, Debian maintainers, and all the rest of the unpaid people whose work underlies any Debian-based -- or any Linux-based -- commercial software product. This issue is far from resolved. It's worth an article or ten of its own, for sure.)

Free and free -- and how they interact with proprietary software

I am, personally, a license pragmatist. I prefer to use Free/libre software if possible, but I have no problem with a programmer telling me, "I worked hard to make this software, and I expect you to pay me for my efforts." If that programmer's work will save me time or trouble, or will allow me to do things with my computer I could not do without that software, I will happily pay a reasonable price for it. The only time I really resent proprietary software is when someone tells me I must have a particular program to function, but this usually has more to do with proprietary file formats than with proprietary software. With Linux software you don't usually have this problem. Even the proprietary-looking ".sxw" format StarOffice uses is just zipped XML.

So fine. As long as I am not forcibly locked into one software company's products, and that company gives me good value, I will pay and be happy about it. Sure, if a Free/free tool is available that does the job as well as I need it done, I will inevitably choose that one, same as any other sane person would. I am, for example, writing this essay with Free/free Bluefish, a text and HTML editor that is better than any other piece of Linux text editing software I have ever tried -- including StarOffice -- for producing copy that will be published on the World Wide Web. But if I found a commercial product that offered enough of a productivity advantage over Bluefish to justify its cost, I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

And, like most people, I have software needs that simply aren't being met by the free software community. There are times when proprietary software is my only choice.

Tax software is a prime example . What programmer in his or her right mind is going to come up with a Free/free equivalent of TurboTax? The problem with tax software is that making it isn't so much programming as interpreting ever-changing, constantly disputed tax laws. It is a job for accountants and lawyers assisted by programmers, not a job for programmers working on their own. I suspect that, for the foreseeable future, the software required to handle U.S. (and many other countries') income tax filing requirements is going to be proprietary. And I would love to see TurboTax ported to Linux -- or at least have their online version work with Linux and Mozilla, which it doesn't now. Grrr. (Perhaps it works with Explorer through Crossover Office. I haven't tried. Have you? What happened?)

For the moment, considering the fact that there are things many of us need to do with our computers that can't be done with existing Free/free software -- like tax preparation -- we end users must accept a mix of Open Source and proprietary software whether we like it or not.

But Linux is free!

You can download any one of a number of distributions for free, along with enough free software to make a usable system, no problem. Lindows can charge for its slicked-up distro, Xandros can charge, SuSE can build installation tools you only get if you give them money, Red Hat and Ximian can charge for update subscriptions, and a dozen or a hundred other companies can go into the business of selling Linux packaged in one way or another, with or without additional commercial software included, and if you don't want to spend the money you will still be able to get Linux for free.

You have probably heard the saying, "Linux is only free if your time has no value." There is truth in those 10 words. I have had periods in my life when I was broke and had time on my hands. In those circumstances I would have chosen a free distribution, no question. But right now I am employed, even overworked, and if I can save time by spending a little money, I will.

There are, of course, limits to this. When I heard how much a plumber wanted to charge for changing a kitchen sink faucet, you'd better believe I was soon under that sink, on my back, with a faucet wrench in my hand. If my income goes up, I'll be less likely to do my own plumbing, car repairs, and computer admin work. If it goes down, I'll be more of a do-it-yourselfer. Once again, pure pragmatism.

Right now, I'd happily pay $99 -- or $119 or $139 -- for a Linux distribution that saved me a lot of time -- and provided a bunch of cool features -- compared to the downloaded copy of Mandrake 9.0 I am using to write this story. I might even pay a $99 annual subscription fee for access to a good selection of easily installed Free/free and commercial software -- and regular updates -- for that distribution.

Would I pay more than that? Well... maybe. And maybe not.

How about you? How much would you pay for a Linux distribution that took essentially no work or skill to install and administer? What commercial software or other features (like compatibility with popular online tax prep applications) might make you decide to lay out $100 or more for a Linux distribution or annual Linux software subscription?

Or are you satisfied with what's available Free/free?

Do you believe that all Linux distributions and software should be Free/free?

Is there -- as plenty of business types seem to believe -- a huge potential market for commercialized desktop Linux distributions that offer "extra value" of some sort, even if you are not in the market for that sort of thing yourself?

I hear plenty from people who are in the business of marketing consumer-friendly Linux distributions. Now it's your turn. Do you think they're on the right track?


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