If the Lindows model succeeds, the desktop Linux dream will become a reality. One thing more: we'll have a new software industry that funds and harvests the best of free software.
In February I took the train from my home in Santa Barbara to the Desktop Linux Summit in San Diego.The train is a pretty good deal. I paid around $50 for a round-trip business class seat, which was cheaper than gas for a car, cushier than a first-class airplane seat, and equipped with AC power for my laptop. Most of the trip was through paradise: Emerald-green farmland, red rock canyons and suburbs bounded by enormous mountains capped in snow.
But the most interesting part of the trip, at least for me, was enormous industrial district that starts in the San Fernando Valley, follows the concrete trough of the Los Angeles river through downtown, and then spreads across several hundred square miles of Los Angeles and Orange county flatlands. Sliding past the window are endless yards of lumber, fabricated metal and piping of all sizes.The variety is endless. There are freight yards filled with cable spools the size of jacuzzis. Nursery supply yards filled with huge trees in tubs. Acres of cargo containers containing who knows what.
To most people this is the kind of wasteland that served as the noir backdrop for Ridley Scott's "Bladerunner". To me it's a living model of the computer industry's future -- one in which commodities are considered good and necessary things.
Throughout its short history, the computer industry has treated commodity software as undesirable stuff with low margins or no margin at all. Yet mature industries thrive on commodities. Lumber and mining companies, metal fabricators and blow-molded plastic manufacturers are all in commodity businesses. So are companies that store and ship commodity goods. There's plenty of money to be made in all those businesses, or they wouldn't continue to thrive.
When the software industry grows up, it will come to a new understanding of commodity value -- especially of the commodity we call free software. That's not "free" as in beer or speech, but free as in limestone, wood and silicon. Those are all elemental substances free produced by nature. In a similar manner, free software is produced by human nature.
It's hard to see the economic value of free software in an industry still dominated by a giant mutant company that leverages its monopoly position to extract 85% margins from customers who have little choice in the matter -- a company with profits greater than Wal-Mart's, mostly derived from selling bits that are naturally free.
But "still" is the operative word in that last sentence. At some point it will dawn on the computer industry that there are better ways to put commodities to work. And when that dawn comes, it will be the beginning of the end of Microsoft's monopoly.
I believe I witnessed that dawn at the Linux Desktop Summit in San Diego.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect before I got there. The show's planning was beset by problems. There was a communications breakdown of some kind between groups setting up the show. Some speakers and companies dropped out. The one thing everybody agreed about was that the show was less about Linux than Lindows. And after I got a chance to see what Lindows.com was up to, I decided that was a fine thing.
Because if the Lindows folks succeed at their mission -- which I think they have a very good chance of doing -- Linux on the Desktop (LOTD) will finally become a reality, and not just a nearly empty hole between servers and embedded devices, where Linux is clearly well on the road to World Domination.
While Dell, Gateway, HP and IBM all sit on their hands and wait for the market to all but scream at them to get serious about Linux desktops, Lindows.com does the hard work of actually making the market. Not just with a cool new distro, but with a business model that creates a win-win market for both free and commercial software.
Lindows.com is the creation of Michael Robertson, the founder and former President and CEO of MP3.com. Listed among Fortune's "40 Richest Under 40", Robertson easily could have retired to a life of liesure and portfolio management after selling MP3.com to Vivendi. Instead he decided to do something no VC would ever fund: Compete straight-up with Microsoft in the operating system business.
Where others look at Microsoft's success as a problem, Robertson sees it as pure opportunity. He's kind of twisted that way. Here's what he told me when I interviewed him at the show:
Right now we're watching hardware vendors duke it out over seven percent gross margins. Terrible business. Meanwhile Microsoft is taking all the high margin software profits for themselves. So you have this cuthroat business making the razor handles, and Microsoft taking all the profits making the blades.
In the future that's going to change. The hardware companies will partner with companies like Lindows.com, which are interested in making the relationship work for both sides. They'll say "Hey, I'm willing to invest in factories and companies that will put together PCs and market and sell and support them. But I want partners who will get me more than just margins on the raw hardware. Any razor blades you're selling to your customers -- virus protection, web filtering, email service, whatever -- I want a piece of that." And we're here to give that to them.
I'm not just talking "add a SKU to your online Web store." We're already doing that with WalMart.com. I'm talking about really marketing in a big way; one that relieves these big hardware companies of their painful situation. They're all selling a commodity, which means the leanest and meanest low cost provider will win. That's Dell. The other guys -- the losers of today -- are going to say "We need to change the model a little bit, by looking for a better deal from partners with a better model for selling what runs on their OS."
That better model is called Click'N'Run, which is built into LindowsOS, which is built on Debian Linux and KDE.
Think of LindowsOS as Linux leveraged to maximual user convenience. Robertson's goal is ease of use that's plainly superior to Windows, especially when it comes to adding and running new software. That's what Click 'N'Run is all about. You want the latest LaserJet drivers from HP? It's there in the "New Arrivals" aisle of the Click-N-Run warehouse. Click on the download link and LindowsOS runs the installer, which brings up the Konqueror browser. After that, it's a quick direction-following exercize. Soon you're printing on your LaserJet. Want K Stars, a desktop planetarium? No sweat. Click on it, and it's yours. GIMP? Sure. Click and run.
But those are all free (as in beer) software. Click-N-Run mixes commercial software into the same aisles. If you want Marble Blast, that'll be $9.95. There's also an annual subscription fee. What that fee buys is something you've never had with Microsoft or Apple: A real relationship with your OS supplier.
The old software industry model was all about manufacturing. You make a product, release it to the supply chain and measure success by quarterly sales results. If you have any kind of a relationship with the final customer, it's remote and indirect. If you seek a real relationship, it isn't always a mutual or trusting one. Mostly you want to make sure the customer isn't using a "pirated" copy of your product.
With Click-N-Run, the relationship goes both ways. And if it's a trusting relationship, Lindows.com can intermediate with the makers of the free as well as the commercial software it supplies. Rather than saying "How did version 1.04 do with high income East Coast customers?" they can say "How many people download software in the Games category? Or how many are downloading GIMP plug-ins? If ten thousand people download AbiWord and it becomes clearthat a significant number of them would like AbiWord to add a feature, maybe Lindows.com or one of its partners will fund development of that feature, even though they don't make money on the product itself.
My point: with Click-N-Run, Lindows.com has the means in place to become the most customer-responsive software company in the world -- and do it in a way that helps everybody win.
How close have they come to some ideal here? Well, Lindows.com also introduced a new $799 laptop at the show that only weighs 2.9 pounds. One of the attendees called it "a sysadmin's PDA." Which it is. But my six-year old kid also fell in love with it. He's a reader now, and figured out Click-N-Run in about ten seconds. Then he downloaded a bunch of games that he played on the train all the way home.
We have three platforms running in our household. Guess which one the kid likes best now?
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.