In the world of consumer electronics, if you don’t give the buyer what they want, they’ll go elsewhere. We’ve recently witnessed this with the Firefox browser. The consumer wanted a faster, less-bloated piece of software, and the developers went in the other direction. In the end, the users migrated to Chrome or Chromium.

Linux needs to gaze deep into their crystal ball, watch carefully the final fallout of that browser war, and heed this bit of advice:

If you don’t give them what they want, they’ll leave.

Another great illustration of this backfiring is Windows 8. The consumer didn’t want that interface. Microsoft, however, wanted it because it was necessary to begin the drive to all things Surface. This same scenario could have been applied to Canonical and Ubuntu Unity — however, their goal wasn’t geared singularly and specifically towards tablets (so, the interface was still highly functional and intuitive on the desktop).

For the longest time, it seemed like Linux developers and designers were gearing everything they did toward themselves. They took the “eat your own dog food” too far. In that, they forgot one very important thing:

Without new users, their “base” would only ever belong to them.

In other words, the choir had not only been preached to, it was the one doing the preaching. Let me give you three examples to hit this point home.

  • For years, Linux has needed an equivalent of Active Directory. I would love to hand that title over to LDAP, but have you honestly tried to work with LDAP? It’s a nightmare. Developers have tried to make LDAP easy, but none have succeeded. It amazes me that a platform that has thrived in multi-user situations still has nothing that can go toe-to-toe with AD. A team of developers needs to step up, start from scratch, and create the open-source equivalent to AD. This would be such a boon to mid-size companies looking to migrate away from Microsoft products. But until this product is created, the migration won’t happen.
  • Another Microsoft-driven need — Exchange/Outlook. Yes, I realize that many are going to the cloud. But the truth is that medium- to large-scale businesses will continue relying on the Exchange/Outlook combo until something better comes along. This could very well happen within the open-source community. One piece of this puzzle is already there (though it needs some work) — the groupware client, Evolution. If someone could take, say, a fork of Zimbra and re-tool it such a way that it would work with Evolution (and even Thunderbird) to serve as a drop-in replacement for Exchange, the game would change, and the trickle-down to consumers would be massive.
  • Cheap, cheap, cheap. This one is a hard pill for most to swallow — but consumers (and businesses) want cheap. Look at the Chromebook sales over the last year. Now, do a search for a Linux laptop and see if you can find one for under $700.00 (USD). For a third of that cost, you can get a Chromebook (a platform running the Linux kernel) that will serve you well. But because Linux is still such a niche market, it’s hard to get the cost down. A company like Red Hat Linux could change that. They already have the server hardware in place. Why not crank out a bunch of low-cost, mid-range laptops that work in similar fashion to the Chromebook but only run a full-blown Linux environment? (see “Is the Cloudbook the future of Linux?“) The key is that these devices must be low-cost and meet the needs of the average consumer. Stop thinking with your gamer/developer hat on and remember what the average user really needs — a web browser and not much more. That’s why the Chromebook is succeeding so handily. Google knew exactly what the consumer wanted, and they delivered. On the Linux front, companies still think the only way to attract buyers is to crank out high-end, expensive Linux hardware. There’s a touch of irony there, considering one of the most-often shouted battle cries is that Linux runs on slower, older hardware.

Finally, Linux needs to take a page from the good ol’ Book Of Jobs and figure out how to convince the consumer that what they truly need is Linux. In their businesses and in their homes — everyone can benefit from using Linux. Honestly, how can the open-source community not pull that off? Linux already has the perfect built-in buzzwords: Stability, reliability, security, cloud, free — plus Linux is already in the hands of an overwhelming amount of users (they just don’t know it). It’s now time to let them know. If you use Android or Chromebooks, you use (in one form or another) Linux.

Knowing just what the consumer wants has always been a bit of a stumbling block for the Linux community. And I get that — so much of the development of Linux happens because a developer has a particular need. This means development is targeted to a “micro-niche.” It’s time, however, for the Linux development community to think globally. “What does the average user need, and how do we give it to them?” Let me offer up the most basic of primers.

The average user needs:

  • Low cost
  • Seamless integration with devices and services
  • Intuitive and modern designs
  • A 100% solid browser experience

That’s pretty much it. With those four points in mind, it should be easy to take a foundation of Linux and create exactly what the user wants. Google did it… certainly the Linux community can build on what Google has done and create something even better. Mix that in with AD integration, give it an Exchange/Outlook or cloud-based groupware set of tools, and something very special will happen — people will buy it.

Do you think the Linux community will ever be able to give the consumer what they want? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.