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Open Source: Niche Markets, Linux and Microsoft

If you are a Linux protagonist who has been around as long as, or longer than, I have, you have seen responses like these over and over as to why Linux distributions will never go mainstream on the PC desktop:

  • “Linux will always remain a niche platform because it does not have a native release of Adobe (Photoshop / Creative Suite / etcetera)!”
  • “Linux does not have Microsoft Office and Microsoft Office power users require Microsoft Office!”
  • “The web portal at (insert portal here) needs Internet Explorer. There is no native release of Internet Explorer for Linux, so no one will want to use Linux!”
  • Program X does not have a Linux version or equivalent!”
  • Or other claims along the same lines …

Yes, these comments usually do have exclamation points to show how emphatic the claimant feels about the statement. I think these claimants have the equation backwards. All of these cases are what is known as a “niche market”. How many people using PC systems need to use Adobe Photoshop? How many Microsoft Office users are a “Microsoft Office power user”? How many end-users of a PC system need to go to a web portal that requires Microsoft Internet Explorer? (I will ignore the fact that many of these “IE only” web portals usually work just fine if one fakes the browser string with Firefox or Opera.) How many people need to use Program X on their PC?  I am thinking, “Not that many.”, for all the above.

To me this suggests that the Microsoft platform is the niche platform:

  • Do you “need” Adobe (Photoshop / Creative Suite / etcetera) for your job? Then you are a niche user.
  • Do you “need” Microsoft Office because you are a “power user”? Then you are a niche user.
  • Do you “need” access to an IE only web portal? Then you are a niche user.
  • Do you “need” to run Program X on your PC? Then you are a niche user.

The vast majority of PC users do not need, or want, any of the programs that are often claimed to be the problem holding back adoption of Linux on the PC desktop in the mainstream. In my experience with the few end-users I have switched from Microsoft to Linux, some of them did have special needs that precluded using Linux on their desktop PC at this time. The others have zero problems using a Linux desktop PC.

These latter are people that do not try to solve PC problems themselves. They call a “computer guy” when they have problems. They would call a “computer guy” even if they ran Microsoft systems and had a problem. They have no “need” for any of the niche usage scenarios above. They are perfectly content that they can send and receive e-mail, access FaceBook, play Flash games, browse web sites, use personal finance software and make a simple spreadsheet with LibreOffice. All from their Linux based desktop PC.

One of these Linux desktop users is also a Skype user and there are “millions” of Skype users “out there”. Skype usage is less of a niche market than it used to be. That is going to be problematic once Microsoft kills Skype development for other platforms in favor of its own software now that Microsoft owns Skype. The “embrace, extend and extinguish” paradigm is still Microsoft’s bread and butter. But if Microsoft does what I suspect, Skype will end up being merged into some Microsoft based software. At that point our smart FOSS developers will likely figure out a way to inter-operate with the Microsoft software from FOSS programs. However, this “problem” would be non-existent if end-users were aware of and used FOSS communication projects like Ekiga.

So, that said, how do we get from where we are to the mainstream desktop?

The “problem” with adoption of Linux on the end-user desktop is not these niche usage scenarios. As I see it Linux adoption is a fourfold problem, apathy, education, marketing and pre-loading agreements.

  • Apathy – Okay, there is not much we can do about this one. If an end-user is apathetic about what operating system is on his or her PC just let it go.
  • Education – There are still many people who have no idea what Linux is or can do for them. I still meet people who have not even heard the term Linux. When I can, I give them a brief overview of what Linux is and then give them a Live CD distribution to play with. Those of us who are Linux professionals can take the opportunity to present Linux systems at local Chamber of Commerce gatherings and local technology shows.
  • Marketing – There is no one company marketing Linux to the masses on a large scale. We will see no advertisement on television or in print from an “Apple” that offers an alternative to Microsoft. Most of the “Linux Big Boys” are only marketing to businesses. Actually I think this should be one of the jobs of The Linux Foundation. But until that organization takes on major advertising, we can use local media and continue to use positive “word of mouth advertising” to “market” Linux.
  • Pre-loading Agreements – Microsoft has pretty much sewn up the pre-load venue with major PC manufacturers. Sure, some of these manufacturers give a slight nod to Linux and offer a few systems with Linux pre-loaded. But I am not content with the puny offerings from these major manufacturers. (Of course since my company builds custom systems with Linux pre-loaded this should come as no surprise to our regular readers.) I do not expect this to change any time soon. So, no consumers are likely to see a Linux based PC from HP, Dell, etcetera on the shelves at Best Buy. The only way I see to overcome this at this point is with education and marketing. If we can create a demand for Linux systems like Apple has done for Apple systems, the end result will be Linux systems on the shelves at major retail outlets.

There are people who should stick with Microsoft or Apple systems for their niche usage. For the rest of the PC user base, Linux on the desktop is ready to go.

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31 comments to Open Source: Niche Markets, Linux and Microsoft

  • Oops, I had a typographical error in the first sentence. :( Fixed now. :)

    Added later (5 AM local time): Yikes! Looks like I hosed the theme settings while trying to fix a comment glitch. Oh well, another lesson in “Don’t click buttons to see what they do.” At least I finally got the site mostly legible again. I apologize for any problems this may create for our readers. I will get things straightened back out later. I’m already way past my bedtime for an old guy.

    • I guess it is time to talk to the theme authors again. It appears the theme is not supporting direct, nested comment replies after a recent update. I can make nested comments from the admin theme, but not on the public pages. Boo! :P

      • Oh ho! Looks like it is a CKEditor <> theme interaction. I disabled CKEditor for comments, and now can post a nested reply by clicking the word REPLY in a previous comment. Sorry for the problems folks. I’ll get it fixed or just leave CKEditor disabled for comments. I should not try to fix problems when I am tired like I did last night. :P

  • I use Windows because I need it to run Microsoft Visual Studio, so I can program for Windows. It is very much, as you say, a niche usage. It is the only reason I use Windows.

    In fact for everything else I use Linux, and Windows runs in a Virtual Box VM.

    You are quite correct Windows is a niche market, that, due to the Pre Load Agreements, has the appearance of a major market. I suspect that Microsoft realised this very early on, and made sure they were guaranteed sales by negotiating these pre Install agreements.

    You did however miss one market, that has been of major importance to Microsoft, and which has guarateed sales in a fairly large niche market, gamming. This may become less of a Microsoft owned niche over time, as the independent game developers are releasing Linux versions of their games.

    • Hi Tracyanne, thanks for your niche usage scenario. :) I left off gaming because, even though that is a large niche, it mainly is a specific demographic that only or mostly cares about games. Specifically 3D, First Person Shooter (FPS) games. The people for whom I am writing generally do not fall into that demographic. Once gamers want to grow up and join the Big People, then they will be part of the group I am trying to reach. ;)

      • Joe

        Hey now, I’m a 41 year old gamer and having raised 5 kids, I take a little offense to the “Once gamers what to grow up” part. I agree 100% with the rest of your article, but if it weren’t for the gaming industry, I would have never been interested in computers as a young boy and never made it into a career for myself and my family.

        That said, I find Linux a fine platform for gaming. I play all the modern FPS and MMORPG games just fine on my Linux laptop and so do my wife and kids.

        The problem is that every one wants to get 1000 fps out of their computer and it becomes more of a speed race than actual game play. I was involved with the CPL for many years and played on nothing but Linux software and did quite well, I might add.

        • Hi Joe,

          Heh, I too am somewhat of a 51 year old “gamer”, with my own family as well. However, at my current point in my life journey, gaming is no longer my raison d’être.

          At one time I ate, slept and breathed Gaming. Then I grew up in my mid 40’s and finally realized gaming, specifically 3D computer gaming, is just a way to avoid / escape Real Life. That is what I meant by “grow up and join the Big People”. :)

  • Mark

    I used to use linux… now I’m back to win7 at home, and mac at work. They both just work. no more compile… remember where hacky little config file is to change networking… no more fiddling forever to get 3d graphics to work…. no more rpm dependency nightmares.. and don’t get me started on iptables. 

  • Hey Mark,
    When did you switch back to Windows?  1997?  That old compiling software and manually editing config FUD hasn’t been relevant for some time now.  Get advise on choosing a distro that fits your needs and works well with your hardware and you’ll never need to use the command line.  You might want to because it’s so powerful but that’s a different issue.

  • Linuxrich, Mark has never used Linux. You can tell, he’s repeating FUD that was certainly never true in 2000, when I first started using Linux. And isn’t true now, as my next door neighbour, and several of my customers have discovered in the last few days.

  • Zahid

    Very nice article and promising. Hope many desktop and laptop users will understand this fact in time.

  • […] Open Source: Niche Markets, Linux and Microsoft If you are a Linux protagonist who has been around as long as, or longer than, I have, you have seen responses like these over and over as to why Linux distributions will never go mainstream on the PC desktop: […]

  • Fred

    Mark, things have changed considerably in the Linux world since you last tried it, whenever that was.  I’ve had various Linux distributions installed on my computer at home for almost seven years now and not once have I ever had to do my own compiling.  I’m currently running CrunchBang and I love it and have no plans to go back to Windows — EVER.

  • Linux is now quite a viable alternative for many end users.  Most of the machines used at my place of work are Ubuntu – with only a few “niche” users needing to have Windows installed.
    The biggest niche that has been raised over and over again is the gaming niche – although I believe that this is becoming much less of an issue as the console market has taken more of the gaming market share in recent years.
    If only developers would have the bravery, or perhaps the budgets, to develop games that work on linux as well as on Windows, and consoles.  Then there might be a more even playing field.
    Playonlinux and windows “emulators” plug this gap a little – but performance hungry gamers are not going to be satisfied until games run as fast on linux as they do on windows.

  • Joe

    Oh well, another lesson in “Don’t click buttons to see what they do.”

    That’s not something any hacker would even think, let alone say. We have to find out.

    And the worm has turned. Linux now “just works” more so than MS. No downloading drivers for the new hardware, etc.

  • lxskllr

    I think Linux is less approachable to the middle of the road Windows user. The guy that knows Windows pretty well, but isn’t especially computer literate.

    Mom will use what you give her, and will be happy with that.

    The true power user can work through the occasional issue, and will appreciate the extra power Linux provides it’s users.

    The middle of the road guy gets frustrated when things don’t work exactly as they did in the past, and doesn’t have the knowledge, or inclination to figure it out. He just throws up his arms, and says “This doesn’t work!”

  • Stas

    I would say that the main Linux adoption problems are:
    – crappy Skype for Linux frequently freezes, drops calls, won’t make another call until X restart, problems with sound in many cases,
    – automatic updates often suddenly break a system, e.g. total loss of X, network connectivity, sound, laptop suspend/resume functionality, etc,
    – Flash often crashes or freezes on many workstations.
    To geeks these problems are so minor that they rarely notice them. But for the mere mortals (the vast majority) they are show-stoppers.
    I am a bit skeptical that the world will switch to Ekiga, HTML5, and completely Linux compatible hardware overnight or even over a few years (unless somebody as mighty as Google wins everyone over with Hangouts and other goodies).

    • Hi Stas. Interesting opinions you have there.

      Skype – Closed source, third party software that also has problems under Microsoft systems. No FOSS programmers can fix it. Complain to Microsoft now that Microsoft owns Skype. Oh, good luck with that by the way. ;)
      Auto-update = broken system – I’ve not had that happen unless I use a testing source a.k.a. “cauldron” source for updates. Maybe your distribution needs to be adjusted. IOW, get a better distribution. :)
      Flash – Closed source, third party software. Flash also has problems on Microsoft and Apple systems at times. No FOSS programmers can fix it. Complain to Adobe.

      Only one of your complaints, automatic updates, has anything at all to do with Linux and FOSS. That one is even questionable given the many different distributions available. Not all distributions are equal when it comes to updates and stability.

      I am not sanguine that the masses will adopt Ekiga either. But my assertion still stands that Linux users who want a “free” video communications package should not be looking to Microsoft’s Skype. Since it is also available for that other platform one can suggest to one’s friends and acquaintances that Ekiga is a good solution for this. I have so suggested once or twice myself.

  • Ken Jennings

    I have only one laptop (a rather powerful beatie) running Windows natively used only for games. The only place it ever goes on the internet is Steam. If I need to do anything else on the web for any purpose I use another computer running Linux.

    Anything on the web is done on Linux. Any programming for work is done on a linux system. Any graphics work is done on linux. Word processing, spreadsheets, etc work fine on my Linux systems. (Actually, I could write a book about MS Excel’s dangerous calculation unreliability.)

    So, at least around here that pretty much makes Windows a niche OS — good for games, not much else.

    Yes, I did buy all the Humble Indie Bundles for Linux. Whenever Half-Life/Black Ops/Portal show up on Linux, then I’ll be able to live with only Linux.

  • Rob

    I’m using Fedora 16 beta right now. Been using linux as a second OS for 8 or 9 years now. Mostly Mint and Ubuntu. I am not what you’d consider technically proficient at linux.

    I keep Windows around for two reasons: 1) Games; and 2) Netflix. As the author defines it, I suppose I’m a niche Windows user. I think that’s accurate. I use linux for everything else.

    The problem I’ve had when I try to get people switched over to linux is primarily one of convenience. Most everyday, non-techie users that I’ve installed linux for do not want to dual boot. They get tired of it. Whichever OS they use, they want a single one that does everything they need it to do. If they game or watch Netflix, or other so-called niche uses, then they’re not interested in linux.

    The problem with the niche-user scenario above is that I think most people want one OS. If most of them have ever a single niche use that requires Windows, then they’ll stick with Windows. Maybe linux does everything else they want to do, but so does Windows, so they figure why have two operating systems?

    So while there may be a lot of small niches (and a couple of large ones) the problem linux has to overcome is that any person no matter how small of a niche user has no incentive to use linux. While every niche you describe may be fairly minor (with the exception of gaming) a lot of people have at least one niche use.

    Me, I dual boot Win 7 and Fedora, and I’m almost never out of Fedora. I boot into Windows to play games or watch a Netflix movie. Most people I’ve tried to convert to linux look at that and say “why don’t I just keep Windows?”

    I think that’s the hurdle we have with the everyday non-techie users.

  • Jecker

    I believe what Linux Desktop is missing is someone like the late Steve Jobs. Someone who can present Linux to the public in a simple way and make it sexy. Linux is still a not so known OS, and until Linux becomes more well known, it will stay a “niche” OS.

  • Grant Johnson

    A few things:
    1) Joe – Sure, editing a text file for a configuration change occasionally is a pain, but you usually don’t have to, usually there is a GUI, just like Windows. When there is not one for the Windows setting, you have to go and edit the registry. Is that really easier than a mostly readable text file?
    2) The desktop – who cares, it is like saying that we want to be the best at buggy wheels. The new world is mobile, cloud, and web applications. Linux already owns a good share of this. Let them fight over the past, we will create the future.

    • Grant,

      Thanks for your input. “2) The desktop – who cares…”? I do care, for one. I have poor eyesight and real problems when trying to read miniscule mobile device screens. I have to have at least a laptop / notebook with a minimum 15″ monitor to be able to use a mobile device. That laptop / notebook is part of what needs a “desktop” version of Linux for me to use it. I am sure there are many others like me who do not prefer the dinky screens on most mobile devices for general computing work.

  • travis

    two things, first Mark has a point, even if it is different issues. I run mepis as my primary, but have 7 because sometimes i just can’t figure out how to do something. The beginning tutorials usually start with a phrase like “type X into Y” it took me forever to find Konsole (especially since it is not always stated that Konsole is what you are looking for), and still have issues installing programs etc. There are also more glitches (that I can’t fix myself) on Mepis, I am thinking of trying Mint, but wasn’t a huge fan of Ubuntu. So windows is easier to use for most, even of the specific issues he mentioned aren’t an issue anymore.

    Second point is that most of these “niche windows markets” wouldn’t be niches for windows if there was larger Linux support. If Linux had 20% of the desktop market, more developers would make linux distributions available. Maybe not microsoft, but Adobe, Oracle (who does a lot anyway) etc. look at server applications available, there are many more of the server apps available for linux, because linux has a larger presence in servers, the same would follow for desktops.

    • Travis,

      Thanks for your comment. Regarding “Konsole”, that is not always what one is seeking for the command line. I do not use KDE or Konsole. I use the real console, ssh+bash, xterm or Xfce Terminal Emulator, depending on which system I am on and which system I need to access that needs some CLI TLC.

      So, to have instructions for command-line (CLI) telling people to use Konsole would be wrong in my case. One needs to educate oneself if one is going to administer one’s own Linux PC. Otherwise, call and pay a “computer guy/gal” who is familiar with Linux.

      That said, one place to get sort-of real time help is the Freenode IRC network. Most major Linux distributions and FOSS projects have a help channel on Freenode. irc://chat.freenode.net/ or http://webchat.freenode.net/ Be polite and respectful on IRC and you will usually get polite and respectful responses. Just ignore anything that you might take as an offense because sometimes you will get responses that are not all that “friendly”. Especially if an easy web search or the project docs cover your “problem”.

  • Don

    “As I see it Linux adoption is a fourfold problem, apathy, education, marketing and pre-loading agreements.”

    Rarely mentioned is “fear.” No, not terror–just the fear of Windows boys that they will have to flounder around a little before they become the experts that they think they already are with Windows. My theory is that the fear of being/appearing clueless for even a few minutes overcomes the potential benefits of switching OSes. That and the biggest of the big: “I need my windows only game because being good at it is part of my identity.”

  • travis

    thanks gene, I definately have found most answers on google for whatever i need in linux, you guys have a great support community, and it seems most issues i have, someone else has had before me. Paying someone to run my linux for me defeats half of my purpose, which is to become as good with linux as i am with Windows. I can do anything and everything wiht my windows box, I even tweaked vista to run faster than the current ubuntu when they both came out. for me it is not about finding an easy road, it is for as much control as possible, and i am reaching the limits that windows can offer. not to mention all of the other great reasons to run linux. linux is great, and as i get better at it, it gets better for me. I want to push myself to see what i can learn.

  • Steve

    Linux promoters seem to think that a default Ubuntu install will suffice for any user. It may even be good enough for the kind of user who doesn’t know anything and just wants to do web, photos and such.

    For the user who needs more than a “for dummies” OS – the “power user” on Windows – converting is a big adventure with a lot of learning. Consider how much time a newbie has to spend doing web searches and reading, to find out how to install the Nvidia driver, configure services, set up NFS like Windows users do with SMB, maybe get LAMP development going on, and so forth.

    I’ve barely succeeded so far with Debian and Xfce. In my opinion, the greatest obstacle is the horrible GUIs, which seem to be getting worse every day. The likes of Ubuntu Unity and Gnome 3 are unusable for the kind of person described above, who needs to do a lot of serious work, and likes keyboard support, text instead of icons, etc..

    Conversely, I believe that a really usable interface would enable Linux desktop adoption to take off in a big way. You may think I’m crazy, but that means something more like Windows 95/XP and less like a cellphone. The so-called “experts” who are intent on “dumbing down” interfaces are the worst enemy of progress for Linux.

    • Hello Steve,

      Actually I promote Red Hat -> Mandriva derivatives such as Mageia Linux. IMO these are much more user friendly “out of the box”. One will find the Mageia Control Center hard to beat for ease of use GUI administration.

      FYI, the nVidia drivers are an easy install with Mageia and the “nonfree” sources enabled for proprietary software. However, I will concede I have had to tweak the grub stanza to get my video card working once the driver was installed. But it appears that is due to a motherboard <> video card interaction problem, not the installer or driver’s fault.

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