Will a $19.99 Ubuntu Succeed Where the Free Version Hasn't?

Best Buy is selling Ubuntu (with limited support) on its retail shelves. But what happens when newbies discover it?
Canonical, the company behind the Linux distro Ubuntu, has collaborated with software distributor ValuSoft to sell a boxed version of Ubuntu 8.04 into Best Buy retail stores.

Is $19.99 a better price point for Ubuntu than $0?

There’s been a Linux question that’s been bothering me for years now: why does Joe or Josephine Average still pay over a hundred dollars for an OS?

OK, maybe those who pay for an OS don’t know that alternatives exist, but in that case why is there such a huge demand for pirated copies of Windows (and Mac OS now that people are starting to hack them to run them on normal desktop PCs) when there are free operating systems available?

Downloading a full ISO of Windows or Mac OS X from Pirate Bay, or finding a crack that works for Vista, takes a little bit of research. So I find it hard to believe that these kinds of people are ignorant to Linux. Sure, there are people for whom a Linux distro isn’t going to cut it (those wanting to play games, or run certain apps). But for a vast number of users out there (think about the “Web surfing, Facebook using, Gmailing, YouTube watching, IMing, write the odd school report” crowd), a distro like Ubuntu offers pretty much everything they need.

So, now Canonical has added retail distribution to the free Web download model for Ubuntu. For $20, shoppers at Best Buy will be able to pick up Ubuntu – Complete Edition. In exchange for the twenty bucks, users will get Ubuntu 8.04 on CD, a quick start guide, and – most importantly – 60 days of limited support from the ValuSoft team, who have been trained and are backed by Canonical (support is limited to installation and getting started).

Now, on the face of it that sounds like a good deal, and on the whole it is, but I can’t help but feel that targeting the kind of people who might be looking for an OS for $20 at Best Buy might not be the best thing that Canonical could be doing. Ubuntu is a great Linux distro when it works, but if you can get it to work out of the box, then you’ve paid $20 for a CD that your local neighborhood geek could have given you for nothing. (Or, if he’s not feeling generous – and these local neighborhood geeks always seem to be male – a few bucks).

The truth is that a Linux install goes pretty smoothly on modern systems, especially desktop PCs. However, if things go wrong, and they can go wrong, then even with the backing of tech support, a Linux newbie is going to see a side of Linux that they’ll probably not forget.

Again, if I take my experience of Linux as a benchmark then what I’ve found is that if things go OK and you only see the happy face of Linux, then the world is a happy place. But if things start going wrong, and for one reason or another Linux shows you its Mr. Yuk face, then things get real ugly, real fast.

And to make things worse, very rarely is the fix that you have to do to get the happy face back a simple one. More often than not, it involves downloading mysterious packages, a lot of time at the Terminal window inputting indecipherable commands, and a lot of hoping and praying.

My advice to anyone thinking about making the move to Linux is to do it, but don’t believe anyone who says it’s easy or who claims that there isn’t a learning curve to climb. You can be pretty good at driving Windows or Mac OS and that doesn’t counts for squat because almost nothing that you’ve learned about either of those OSes will help you tame Linux.

I also wonder if Canonical and ValueSoft are ready for the kind of questions that they are going to be getting from users. I’m guessing that the FAQ will look something like this:

• ”Where’s the Start Menu?”

• “How do I get XYZ bit of software working?”

• “How do I get XYZ bit of hardware working?”

• “Why doesn’t iTunes work?”

• “Where’s Windows gone?”

I’m glad I live in a world where Ubuntu (and the myriad of other Linux distros) exists, but I do worry that those who come across it on a shelf at Best Buy aren’t really ready for what Linux has to offer.




Tags: Linux, Windows, Ubuntu, Vista, OS X


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