Last month (Battle for the Desktop: Why Linux Isn't Winning, issue 72), I recounted my misadventures in trying to install Linux onto an IBM ThinkPad, and called several unnamed venders to task for failing to provide adequate documentation and/or customer support. Or testing their software before releasing it, but that's a different story . . .
Well, I actually sold that laptop to a fellow writer (who is perfectly happy with it running WordPerfect under W*ndows 98 Second Edition). I am currently looking for a slightly newer ThinkPad that will support booting directly from a CD. I haven't found one yet, because I'm on a tight budget and, given my previous experience, I want to get something that is at least marginally capable of running Windows XP. Yes, I know I just used the "W" word again (for those wishing to stone me, there's a pile of rocks to your left. Anyone wishing to lynch me, however, must supply their own rope).
As far as distributions go, I'm waiting for the latest version of Libranet Linux (due at the end of the month, although they've already delayed the release once - apparently wishing to make sure it works before they ship it. What a novel idea!). They are the one vender from last month's article that actually bothered to answer my email, or to publish their hardware requirements. Meanwhile, I downloaded their old version so I can try it out on my desktop before purchasing the new release. Libranet is based on Debian, and I have heard that Debian actually provides some of the documentation I keep ranking about. If any other venders are already providing the documentation and support I'm referring to, then please understand that this article is directed at those venders who aren't - which is the majority of them, in my experience.
Windows XP is now out, and I continue to be amazed at the opportunity that Linux venders have squandered. After I couldn't find a functional version of Linux (remember, that pile of rocks is to your left), I was forced to upgrade my home PC to XP. XP doesn't really do anything 98 wasn't supposed to be able to do, although I've been running it for almost three weeks now and only had it crash twice (a record for a Microsoft product!). Both times it even rebooted itself without locking up. But Microsoft's infamous Product Activation and obnoxious attempts to hijack everything in the world even vaguely related to computers have continued to sour people on the idea of even trying XP. If any Linux vender had a functional OS, packaged with a good suite of business applications, they could be eating Microsoft's lunch right now.
The first and foremost step in winning the battle against Microsoft will be to introduce a concept which is apparently entirely unknown in the Linux community. This revolutionary new strategy is called Customer Service. No, by this I do not mean the customer is always right (I work in a retail store, remember?). Nor do I mean that Linux should be made into an idiot-proof, one-size-fits-all Windows clone that does all your thinking for you - whether you want it to or not. What I mean is that the objective, goal and overall attitude of those wishing to advance Linux should be to meet their customer's needs. Listen closely here, because there's something that a lot of Linux people are currently not understanding: The objective is not to get the software on the CD. The objective is for the customer, i.e.; the end user, to be able to successfully use that software in his business, life, Conquest of the Galaxy. Whatever.
In the late Douglas Adam's science-fiction satire Life, the Universe and Everything, he introduces a whimsical invention called the "SEP Field" (chapter 3). He begins by explaining that to make something (say, a mountain) truly invisible is both infinitely complex and requires fantastic amounts of energy. But if you erect a cheap and simple SEP Field around the mountain, "then people will walk past the mountain, around it, even over it and simply never notice the thing is there. An SEP is something that we can't see, or don't see, or our brain won't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem. That's what SEP means. Somebody Else's Problem. The brain just edits it out; it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is."
Well, apparently there are a lot of Douglas Adams fans in the world of Linux. Because the single most common response I got from those who objected to last month's article was that I was blaming vender's for things beyond their control. This is a view that is certainly shared by the venders themselves: Your software doesn't install? That's not our problem! There are no instructions telling you how to configure our firewall? Too bad! The software works, but you can't get it to do what you want? Well, figure it out yourself! What? You want us to tell you if Linux will work with your hardware before you buy it? Well, that's certainly not very reasonable of you to expect that level of service!
Now, for the record, I will concede that if it's an obscure printer that only 3 people in the world are using, then it's probably never going to get supported. In which case, you should at least be able to tell your customers that it's not supported, so they won't waste their time trying to get it to work. But the real bottom line is that this doesn't solve the user's problem. And if you're honest you will have to admit that the attitude of dismissing users valid problems as being Somebody Else's Problem covers a whole lot more than just print drivers in the world of Linux.
Am I being unreasonable in expecting venders to actually solve their customers problems? Many of you have said that the Linux venders are not responsible for third-party problems. Well, let me tell you a little story: Last year, everyone in our office chipped in and got our boss a Handspring Visor for Christmas. The first week he had it, he installed some third party software that wiped out the USB connection in his Windows box. We called the third party vender and they denied all knowledge of the problem and had no idea how to fix it. We then called Handspring and explained that the Visor connected just fine until we installed Somebody Else's software, and now it wouldn't connect at all. We'd already tried uninstalling the third party software, we'd tried reinstalling the Windows USB drivers, we even deleted all references to the bad software from the Windows registry. Still no USB connection. Did Handspring have any ideas? Their response was: "No problem, we've done this before". Their phone tech then preceded to lead my boss, step by step, thru opening the Windows registry, finding an obscure entry and editing it. The tech then cheerfully waited while the computer was rebooted to make sure that the problem was fixed. Now, Handspring is not responsible for Windows, and they are certainly not responsible for the third party software that caused the problem. But Handspring knows that the value of their product depends upon being able to connect it to a PC. So they make it a point to know how to fix connection problems instead of just blaming them on someone else. The last that I heard, Handspring was selling Visors as fast as they could build them, largely to business people. These same business people won't take a copy of Linux for free. So which approach do you think is more effective? Let me give you a hint: We now have a total of six Visors in our office, and zero Linux boxes.
Wait! Stop. I can already hear your screams of protest. Every Linux vender on the planet is now getting ready to email me to explain that they don't have the resources to do that! Maybe IBM can afford to have world-class Customer Service, but the poor little Linux venders and software companies can't even afford to have anyone answer the phone now. How are they supposed to provide support for their customers? Well, I have a solution for them. You see, there's this newfangled invention called the "Internet". People can build something called a "website" and post information on it. What? You've already got a website? Well, let's give it a little test: Go to ibm.com, look up a model of computer and see how much information IBM provides to help their customers use it. Now go to a couple of Linux sites and see how much information they provide. Oops. I hear more screams of protest. You are now yelling "Do I have any idea what it costs to build and maintain a professional quality website like IBM's?" Well, perhaps not (although if IBM has more money to spend on website development than you make, then they must be doing something right <g>). But I do know a way the smallest Linux vender can compete with IBM in terms of information available, if not polish and web graphics.
Again, the key to IBM's website is not that they manufacture their own servers. The key is that IBM is concerned with making sure that their customers have whatever it takes to use the products. IBM doesn't just say "Well, we built a perfectly good laptop, it's not our problem if you can't get it to work". IBM makes sure that you can get it to work. In like manner, I propose that Linux venders build support websites with two key features:
1) The vender should post current information on their distribution's file structure, boot options, port assignments, common command line switches, etc. This should also include professional HOWTO's on installing a new X server, recompiling the kernel, trouble shooting network problems and any other common difficulties. Isn't this all available on the net? Yes, and every HOWTO on the net includes the disclaimer "This works with SUSE, but I don't know about Red Hat" or "I tried this with version 5.1, but 5.2 does it differently". The vender is the one who knows both the file structure and correct procedures for that specific version. And that is the information people need to have. One of the great strengths of Linux is that you can work on it yourself. But if you were trying to fix the engine in a '96 model Mercedes, how would you feel if the Mercedes factory sent you a repair manual for an '84 model Ford along with a note that said "Well, this is pretty close, maybe you can just figure out the differences"?
2) But the venders can't possibly test every piece of hardware, or know every different network configuration! So they shouldn't even try to offer user support, right? WRONG! The second feature that needs to be on the vender's website is an area where users can post HOWTO's of their own. Again, this information needs to be version specific. Not just how to install some printer under some version of Linux, but detailed, step by step instructions for how to install a Canon BJC250 with distribution 6.5. That way the first person with a BJC250 can pass the correct settings on to everyone else (otherwise everybody is forced to reinvent the wheel). But the Internet is already loaded with Linux HOWTOs. Why add more? Several reasons. Aside from version specific information, having the HOWTO's submitted to the vender for posting means the vender can, if not test each one, at least visually inspect all HOWTO's for apparent errors before posting them. Which at least prevents some joker from telling newbies that the first step in installing a printer is to reformat the hard drive <g>. This would also represent a tremendous research tool for the venders. By adding a couple of radio buttons for user feedback, each HOWTO could be rated (on a scale of 1 to 5) on both whether the HOWTO addressed the user's problem and also how well it solved the problem. That way if a vender gets only 5 hits a month on how to handle MP3 files, but 200 hits on how to burn CD's, then the vender can tell what to improve or add in the next version. And if only half of the people trying to burn CD's actually succeeded, then maybe that problem needs to be fixed. This feedback would also make the HOWTO's self-correcting. HOWTO's that consistently solve people's problems could be made a permanent part of the vender's documentation, possibly even be put into the man pages. Any HOWTO reported as unhelpful or counter productive could be dropped.
If I were a vender, I would carry this idea one step further. Whenever anyone submitted a HOWTO that got positive user feedback, I would send the person who submitted it token of appreciation (a toy penguin, or a pen with the company logo, or a baseball cap with "Linux Software Team" embroidered on it). Does anyone doubt that in less than a month there would contests among your more technically inclined customers (notice I didn't say Computer Geeks ) to see who could collect the most pens, caps, whatever. As a vender, I would encourage this by giving a special prize (T-shirt, jacket, Handspring Visor) to whoever submitted the best written and/or useful HOWTO each month. Wouldn't that cost a lot of money? Well, let's see. If someone spends 10 hours researching and solving a problem for your customers, and you give them a $5 baseball cap, then you've gotten expert technical support for 50 cents an hour.
Many of you are now saying that I'm just being silly. After all, there are all kinds of Linux users groups, mailing lists and clubs already out there. Why should a vender waste his precious time hosting one more? The answer is: Because of your customer, that's why. Imagine for a moment that you are the CEO of amazon.com and you've just learned that your server has crashed. You call the head of your IT Dept. and ask "What happened? How soon can we be back up?" The head of your IT Dept. tells you "Beats me. I have no idea what happened. But I'll start asking around with some friends of mine, and maybe one of them can think of something in a few days?" How long do you think the head of that IT Dept would have a job? Allow me to let you in on a secret: If some little one man operation with a single printer is using your software to make a living, then keeping that lone printer running is just as important to him as amazon.com's web server is to them. Users groups are wonderful resources for learning, sharing solutions to problems, etc. But the bottom line is that it's the venders who are responsible for keeping their product working. And if the customers can't trust the venders to take that responsibility seriously, then they're not going to buy the software.
And unless I'm mistaken, the people who are now yelling that they don't have time to build a useful website were the same ones who were yelling a few minutes ago that they can't keep up with the Customer Service demands they've already got. Well, everybody that can find the information they need on your website is one less person phoning your understaffed Customer Service Dept.. And if the customer does phone anyway, then which takes less time: Explaining something to him on the phone (and hoping he takes good enough notes to actually do it), or looking it up on your own site and emailing him printed directions to solve his problem? And as for not being able to afford to provide Customer Service? Well, several of the larger commercial venders are now charging for Customer Support. Unfortunately, what none of them have figured out yet, is that you have to actually provide the support in order for customers to be willing to pay for it!
In closing I would like to say, for the record, that I am NOT attacking Linux. I like Linux (and will probably enjoy it even more once I find a distribution that actually works <g>). And I think everyone would be better off if Microsoft had some serious competition. But so far, the best explanation that I can come up with for the behavior of most Linux venders is that they are secretly owned by Bill Gates. Because Microsoft couldn't come up with a better strategy to protect it's market share than what many Linux venders are already doing!
The author is currently in hiding at a secret location, after having narrowly escaped an angry mob of torch-waving penguins.