If you read recent press coverage of Google’s Nexus One, it all seems to make sense. Phones weren’t going to sell well being sold only online without a chance for people to try them in person in a brick-and-mortar store. There wasn’t an advertising campaign for it. Very few articles or blogs about the end of Nexus One seem to think there was a problem at all with the phone itself. No one says the phone wasn’t ready for consumers or that it was too difficult to use.
Yet two years ago when Asus was just starting to be successful with the Eee PC netbook (which came preinstalled with a version of Linux, which Microsoft had to stop right away by resurrecting XP for the first of many times to come), that’s what a lot of the press coverage assumed. Geez. I mean, a lack of advertising campaign or in-person models to try out in the store couldn’t have anything to do with Linux netbooks not selling. It must be that Linux is too hard to use. It must be that Linux isn’t ready for consumers. It must really be that consumers just prefer Windows when given the choice.
Well, there is some truth to that in that the Linux distro Asus chose to put on the Eee PC was essentially crippled (not at all like Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, Fedora, Debian, OpenSuSE, or any of the other popular distros of the time). It wasn’t even vanilla Xandros. It was a custom Xandros that could be customized only through pasting cryptic commands in the terminal.
Nevertheless, if they’d marketed it correctly, Linux could have been a success. The problem with Linux on “the desktop” (or the laptop or netbook) is the myth of meritocracy. You don’t win by being the best. You win by marketing.
Think about it.
When the iPad was announced, critics focused on the features it didn’t have (no webcam, no Flash, no USB ports), but Apple with its clever marketing department convinced the hoards that the device was magic, so the hoards bought it. If a Linux tablet had been released without Flash, people would have just laughed and said “This is the reason Linux will never succeed—they need to realize the masses use Flash.” But Apple releases a tablet and all of a sudden people are actually saying Flash isn’t necessary. HTML5 is suddenly the wave of the future. Apps for websites are suddenly better than just going to the websites themselves.
I also see a lot of Linux poo-pooers claim Linux doesn’t have any apps, and that Windows users have certain killer apps they need, and that’s why Linux won’t succeed. Well, when Android first started, it had very few apps. In fact, for the end of 2008 and all through 2009, iPhone fanatics kept pointing out how many hundreds of thousands of apps the iTunes App Store had compared to the few thousand Android had. Well, Android now has almost 100,000 apps. If this pace continues, the iTunes App Store and Android Market will probably have the same number of apps by this time next year. The Linux desktop (as opposed to server or embedded) has been around since… the late 90s? Android has been around since 2008. The Linux desktop isn’t mainstream but Android is.
What should we learn from all this? Marketing matters. Being able to test a physical product out yourself matters. Dell selling badly marketed (or even anti-marketed) Ubuntu models on its website isn’t going to sell Ubuntu preinstalled in great numbers, nor are relatively obscure vendors like System76 or ZaReason without a proper store front or brand name recognition.
I would love it if all the bugs in Ubuntu (or some other popular Linux distro) could be fixed. I would love it if some more attention would be paid to ease of use or to making more applications available in the software repositories. I would love that. But that won’t fix Bug #1. If Linux wants to make a dent in the desktop/laptop/netbook world, it needs to give up the idea of being good enough and start embracing the idea of crafting, shipping, and marketing a product—yes, one people can try out in a brick-and-mortar store. In other words, what I said two years ago is still true.