Linux Mindshare: Getting inside the buyer's head

a guest column by John H. Terpstra

In this guest column at DesktopLinux.com, former SCO evangelist and Samba.org team leader John H. Terpstra weighs in on what is needed to win the consumer in the bid for Linux on the backend and desktop. Terpstra argues that emphasis on open standards and what Linux can offer an organization is a powerful message that is often mired down in arguments about TCO and other contrasts that often don't add up in a straight line comparison of Microsoft versus Linux. The essay explores the issues and offers some food for thought . . .


Linux Mindshare: Getting inside the buyer's head

by John H. Terpstra

DesktopLinux.com

January 30, 2003

Comments about "single-source" as opposed to "proprietary" software abound today. There are different definitions or perhaps interpretations of what constitutes these approaches. One common thread in these opposing models is consumer expectation -- and how both sides approach the customer is key to shaping the desktop computing market.

What follows are key issues that must be addressed for Linux to win the buyer's agenda. Over the past 5 years I have been asking a lot of questions. So far I have polled well over 1000 VARs, about 300 senior business IT people, and around 50 government employees from around the world. Here are some key themes from feedback received.

Users/buyers want freedom of CHOICE

This is a prevailing theme from all parties -- it is inherent in business, in life, and in software choice. Consumers understand that a choice of a single solution is not a choice at all. In a marketing climate that bombards buyers with messages, explaining the open source proposition takes a little time and patience. This simple process can be summed up for the buyer to recognize that:

Companies that have been helped over the proprietary data format hurdle using this logical approach have adopted a stance that favorable of open standards. What follows, in reality, is that the buyer has adopted open source.

Complexity versus simplicity

This shift in paradigm, that is a logical progression for a consumer, translates directly to productivity issues. Complex software requires additional user training, which is costly in terms of a training budget, up front costs, and total cost of ownership. However, often overlooked in the equation and considerably more costly to a company or organization is lost productivity. Corporate budgets that are training-centric can be shifted or replaced, but lost time in actual productivity in the company's own business cannot be recouped.

For example, many companies are just as concerned at the cost of training as well as the employee's productivity that is lost while being trained. In fact, one manager stated the while the price paid for a staff member to attend IT training was used as the reason for rejecting the employee's request for training, the real reason for refusing the employee was the estimated TOTAL cost of training. This total of course included an estimate of the value of lost time.

Highly complex products also incur higher infrastructure support cost. As an example, the cost of gaining MS MCSE certification has surged from about $4000 in 1996 to over $25,000 in 2002. Those with MS MCSE certifications seek radically higher salaries for their merit. The best of MS MCSE's land well-paying roles because of the shortage of skilled and competent MS MCSEs.

All of this just emphasises the fact that all complexity comes at a price. Technologists are quick to provide supporting agruments for complexity, but upper management often prefer a simpler and lower cost solution. We should keep this in the forefront of our thinking when we offer competing solutions to an existing complex one.

Integrity is a big issue

Integrity covers a wide number of factors. Take any single issue -- performance, reliability, security -- and on its own, there is not enough compelling evidence to cause a change in buying behavior. Bundle these issues together and the buyer feels greater need to remedy the larger problem.

Issues
Unfortunately, the Linux camp has not succeeded with our message that Linux is Linux is Linux either. This can be addressed, and is currently the focus of organizations such as The Free Standards Group and other initiatives that promote unified deployment standards and
interoperability. The single best feature of Linux is one single file format standard that complies with open industry standards.

Unrealized Functionality

There is a significant perception in MS Windows BackOffice 4.5 and MS Windows 2000 BackOffice are not meeting user expectations. Oftentimes, Microsoft users are not getting the functionality they thought had purchased.

Factors that create the gap between expectation and realization are many and varied. Most stem from buying based on a slick sales brochure, rather than from research and careful trial-based evaluation. There is a rabid belief that Microsoft solutions are so simple that anyone can deploy them. The truth is, they are complex. And, just like Linux implementations, require expertise.

Buying prior to testing, and without evaluation usually leads to implementation, since oftentimes software has already been paid for upon acquisition. Deficiencies are later excused since the budget has already been spent. Open source effectively creates a different evaluation and purchasing cycle -- one that focuses on the merits of the software itself.
In any approach to selling Desktop Linux to the enterprise, it is important that the community and commercial interests touting open source related solutions focus on the end goal. That is satisfaction and open standards - and NOT necesarily Linux. Sure, Linux can cost less, but the end goal affordable results is a far better reason to select Linux over other OSs. Linux is open source, and that is powerful. However, customers need to focus on Linux as a platform that is based on open standards. The real value to the comsumer is the proposition of not being tied to any company or specific technology that could lock them into a costly or dead end proposition. Embracing Linux is NOT anti-Microsoft, it is pro-user and pro-results for any company seeking to unencumber its software infrastructure.

At the end of the day, Customers/Buyers want freedom of choice, seamless interoperability, managed and controlled budgets, and happy end users -- all things Linux can deliver better than any other operating system available today.

By focusing on the hot spots of the customers'/users'/buyers' agenda we standa greater probability of gaining his/her attention and commitment to our cause.

About the author: John H Terpstra is a respected business computing authority, John Tersptra co-founded Samba.org and specializes in transitioning businesses to Open back office alternative technologies. jht@primastasys.com.

Copyright 2003 by John H. Terpstra.