Maybe ‘Free’ doesn’t justify the cost of entry…

I have seen infinite amounts of ‘Why Linux hasn’t succeeded on the desktop’ posts, and truly, they’re all right and wrong at the same time.  The reason services, products, and other things don’t take off can usually be traced back to one problem:  Entry barriers.

Linux has astounding barriers to entry, despite it being ‘free’.  Even Ubuntu, heralded as one of the easiest of the Linux distributions available is a serious PITA to even find, let alone install, if you’re not skilled with your computer.  Let’s look at the steps a ‘normal’ switcher would have to go through just to get find and get Linux.

  1. Find out about Linux: The user needs to find out that the alternative exists.
  2. Find the distribution they want:  This is both simple and difficult because Ubuntu is nearly synonymous with Linux anymore, but lots of options do exist. 
  3. Download a .iso file that they have no idea what to do with, this may very well be the users first experience with torrenting as well.
  4. Find out what to do with this .iso file, and how to burn it properly, and check for burn quality
  5. (optional) set their bios to boot from CD.

Now, OEMs make things a lot easier, but they still have higher barriers to entry than a normal PC would.

  1. Find out about Linux.
  2. Find an OEM where Linux is readily available (DELL, if you dig around the site a little bit)
  3. Purchase.

Now, I won’t insult you by bothering to go through the steps that it takes to get a Mac or a Windows PC, because the barriers are most certainly lower there.  I’m sure you can figure that out, but I’ll include an edit if enough people want me to. 🙂

So, we’ve looked at the barriers to JUST finding out and getting ahold of Linux.  Those are significant alone for the majority of PC users out there.  That’s also just a generalized example, I’m not accounting for the varied amounts of frustration, pain, and lost time that just doing these things to GET Linux will earn you.  As you well know there are a lot of other barriers to entry and use, that include:  Learning how things work, learning the CLI (Command Line) and learning how the concept of repos works and how it differs from the regular .exe installer’s we’re used to seeing.  The user needs to learn about their hardware, they need to learn about drivers, etc.

So, let’s assume that the user goes through all of this, what did they earn?  They earned an operating system that seems to be more geared towards (poorly) mimicking Windows functionality and UI for the sake of ‘familiarity’.  They’ve earned a more secure, but less functional, less friendly version of Windows. 

And therein lies the biggest problem, the barriers to entry are so much higher than the barriers to leaving.  It’s easier to go back to  OS X or Windows than it is to stick with Linux, and that’s a problem.  Ubuntu, or another distribution, needs to change things.  They need to give Linux a new interface, they need to make changes to make it clear that the users ‘aren’t in kansas anymore’.  Users are not going to jump through dozens of flaming hoops to get to a prize that is functionally a dulled down version of what they were using before.  The barriers to entry must be lowered, and the barriers to leaving must be raised if any degree of success is going to be attained ‘on the desktop’. 

That’s my personal take on it, at least.  Take it with a grain of salt, much like every other post on this subject.

*** Disclaimer:  “Linux” in this post and all future posts of mine is used to refer to “GNU/Linux” but without the annoying “GNU” portion. 

Rant Over.  Flame On.

– Adam.

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  1. jesus said


    Yet another stupid flamebait on the world wide web…

  2. panickedthumb said

    Less functional and less friendly than windows I disagree with

    But I’ve always said that the biggest barrier to adoption is the fact that Linux isn’t (very readily) pre-installed on OEM machines. Dell is a good step, but it’s not all.

  3. Adam said

    panicked, by Windows standards it’s less functional. Flash, codecs, etc. are a PITA and a serious sore-point.

  4. Brian said

    It amazes me how many Linux enthusiasts insist that Linux is ready for the desktop. It may be ready if you know what you’re doing (and you’re lucky with the hardware you have), but for many people Windows does what they need it to do. The cost of entry is a major hurdle: if you’re lucky, Ubuntu will install without a hitch. But what happens when your Broadcom wireless card isn’t recognized, or your ATI graphics card has a buggy driver? Linux certainly has come a long way, but it still has a ways to go, especially before it’s ready for everyday people. It’s still not a “pop in a CD and FOSS nirvana is yours forever more” endeavour.

  5. panickedthumb said

    Flash is just as easy now. Go to a website that uses flash, click the yellow bar, next, next, done.

    Codecs are as easy now as they are in Windows, but they haven’t been. It’s just a matter of installing ubuntu-restricted-extras.

    But you say “by Windows standards.” If Windows is setting the standards, then sure, everything will be less functional. By Linux standards, Windows is less functional, by Mac standards, both Windows and Linux are less functional. Each OS has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. I just think Windows has far fewer strengths and far more weaknesses than Linux.

  6. panickedthumb said

    Brian, I would say that the industry has a long way to go, rather than Linux. ATI drivers are released by ATI. Broadcom support is controlled by Broadcom. These are fundamental changes that have to happen in the industry before Linux can be truly viable. The Dell deal is a good start.

    But the rhetoric “ready for the desktop” is meaningless. It’s certainly ready for the desktop. I can do everything on it I need to. It’s ready. On Windows however, I’m functionally limited and treated like a child. Windows must not be ready for the desktop. Right?

    No, there is no such thing as “ready for the desktop.” It’s marketing double-speak at best.

  7. Doug Jenkins said

    You already know my position on Linux…back in December you installed the intial version of my current distro (PCLinuxOS) on my system! And you know I also understand your position, as well as your points about the difficulty in discovering Linux in the first place. I know you also understand the freedom, friendliness and the frustration of the both Linux and its community.

    I have talked to enough techs who maintain Windows systems and owe their livelihood to its vagaries and ‘ease of use;’ and have yet to understand what Microsoft was doing for five years in development of Vista.
    Yes, some things are easier and some things seem just so when you have the ‘majority.’ That doesn’t make you right or righteous.

    My business just acquired a new Dell color laser printer….no Linux driver supplied by Dell…hmmm…so much for their Linux effort!

    God Bless

  8. Adam said

    Also, to clarify more on my point about Linux being like Windows. It’s designed to be anymore. The communities responsible for creating the interface, the programs, etc. aren’t introducing anything new, they’re mimicking functionality that you can find on Windows for the sake of functionality.

  9. elcasey said

    It’s free as in freedom, not necessarily as in beer. And yes, Linux remains the domain of “skilled users” as a desktop OS — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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