Linux in Government: Neglecting the Community, a Commentary
When one compares the enterprise market to the consumer market, one can understand why Red Hat, Novell SuSE, IBM, HP and Sun have put their focus on the enterprise market. That doesn't provide accountability to the tens of thousands of people who made GNU/Linux competitive in the enterprise market in the first place, however. So, let's look at the current situation.
Today, the shining star of Linux success sits atop the government sector, including the DoD; state and Federal agencies; related industries and the vendor community. Logic dictates that Linux vendors would chose a $200 billion market sector with over 10,000 competing vendors and higher profit margins. Few would argue that taking on the consumer sector with half the revenue potential, fewer competitors, fewer opportunities and tiny profit margins makes sense. After all, it's not personal, it's just business.
As Jonathan Schwartz of Sun eloquently put it, "Linux is a social movement". As a social movement, pure Linux vendors need to show some consideration to the community that gave them the economic advantage that allows them to compete in the enterprise space. I for one participate so I can have an alternative to Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X on my desktop.
Companies that benefit from the development efforts of volunteers have, at least, a social debt to pay. Establishing decent and relevant Linux community relations departments would make for a good first step. Recognizing the motives of the at-large GNU/Linux community also would help. Even a "thank you" every now and then would sit better than the blank stares we see at LinuxWorld.
Whenever I read an analyst's commentary about how Linux isn't ready for the desktop, I respond with some disbelief. If we translate the analyst's remarks from their subtext, we usually discover that Linux isn't ready for the analyst's desktop. I run into few if any journalists who can do much more than use their computers as word processors. Even the best amongst them haven't heard of Linux.
How do I know this?
I have press credentials, and I pitch articles to publications. I attend press club meetings, go to seminars, correspond with colleagues and take up shop in the media areas of conventions. I have seen a plethora of journalists wind up with Linux and open source as part of their beats who literally do not know the meaning of either term. So, they cut and paste press releases and call someone in the IT community to get a quote or two. That doesn't make them authorities on Linux as a desktop platform, yet they portray themselves as such.
The information void within the media exists on the consumer side--the side we wake up to in the morning and read for news and information. Now, move over to reseller news and government magazines, and GNU/Linux has beat writers looking for stories. Also, look at those publications advertising sections, and you find the usual suspects spending money on big spreads.
Even when the major Linux vendors establish community relations departments, they do not set them up for the people looking to run Linux on their home computers. The community relations departments focus on doing seminars for the Navy, the Department of Homeland Security, EDS and the Oil and Gas Producers of Texas. Their definition of the community does not include the people that I call the Linux Community.
The people who want to move away from Microsoft and Apple would like to see Linux on their home computers. They would like to read about it in in People magazine, Information Week or the technology section of their local newspapers.
Unfortunately, Linux consumers have to go looking for Linux news. Usually what they find is press that focuses on the business market. Linux consumers should realize they're listening in on the wrong conversation. When Jonathan Schwartz writes in his blog, he's not writing to retail customers. He's having a conversation with someone else, a business user.
Jonathan Schwartz is President and COO of a company that does not make computer products for consumers. Sun doesn't make a laptop or a $499 Celeron workstation with a monitor and printer included. You won't find iPods in the Sun catalogue. Simply put, he's not talking to the general Linux community or to the typical Linux Journal or Slashdot.org reader. He's writing to enterprise customers residing in a place where Microsoft occupies a spot among 10,000 vendors.
Jonathan Schwartz has a significant market to address, as Sun has a two-decade history of putting workstations in businesses and enterprises. One company that moved from Seattle to Chicago has 200,000 employees, and 50% of their users are on Solaris workstations. When I consulted at Ericsson, 30% of the workstations had Sun labels on them.
So when Matthew Szulik made his infamous statement, he also was talking about the enterprise market. At the time, Salon wrote:
Matthew Szulik, chief executive of Linux vendor Red Hat, said on Monday that although Linux is capable of exceeding expectations for corporate users, home users should stick with Windows: "I would say that for the consumer market place, Windows probably continues to be the right product line," he said. "I would argue that from the device-driver standpoint and perhaps some of the other traditional functionality, for that classic consumer purchaser, it is my view that [Linux] technology needs to mature a little bit more."
The 10,000 or so vendors in the enterprise market probably read the statement correctly and didn't react as the Linux consumer most likely did. Szulik also said, "Linux is capable of exceeding expectations for corporate users....". That statement stands consistent with the market Red Hat has chosen to pursue.
I have one little problem with what Szulik said, however. Red Hat more than any other company has benefited from the GNU/Linux community. Dave Whitinger of Lxer.com said it best in an interview I did with him: "I remember walking into Bob Young's office as he was literally giddy with delight that he had just obtained a million dollars from an investor. I asked what he had to give in return for the million, and Bob exclaimed, 'Only one third of the company!'"
Consider that for a second or two. At one point, Red Hat was so dependent on the GNU/Linux community that it needed only a small equity position to function. I wouldn't mind so much that Red Hat stays mainly in the enterprise market space if it put some effort into the consumer space. By the company's own admission, work done on Fedora--the free project--benefits Red Hat products, and those remain aimed at the enterprise.
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