When I started this blog I said I wasn’t going to get to delve too deeply in to the Linux distribution that underpins the overall Zonbu service…
I am going to take some time and explore the decision they made, other major choices in the market and the impact their choice may have on marketability, flexibility and user perception.
The current Zonbu distribution is based on a customized version of Gentoo Linux.
Popular Linux site Distrowatch describes Gentoo as “…a versatile and fast, completely free Linux distribution geared towards developers and network professionals. Unlike other distros, Gentoo Linux has an advanced package management system called Portage. Portage is a true ports system in the tradition of BSD ports, but is Python-based and sports a number of advanced features including dependencies, fine-grained package management, “fake” (OpenBSD-style) installs, safe unmerging, system profiles, virtual packages, config file management, and more.”
Not surprisingly, Gentoo has a reputation as being the domain of serious Linux hackers and people who are comfortable at the command line. Such people enjoy compiling their own software and engaging in the kind of arcane Linux command line and compiler gymnastics not seen by the rest of us since the early 90’s.
While I can find my way around the command line interface, those gymnastics aren’t for me. In fact I’m not even sure I understand everything they said in that description.
I have to admit, given the aforementioned, I’m quite confused by Gentoo as the distribution of choice for the Zonbu service/product given that its stated target audience isn’t expected to be particularly computer (or Linux) savvy.
One possible explanation is that the end-user never really touches the underlying operating system components, so what difference does it make? If Zonbu do their job really well I guess it won’t matter.
Perhaps it can be argued that Gentoo offers the most versatile toolset and package repositories to build a system for non-technical end users. But I have to tell you, that seems counter intuitive to me.
A rising tide lifts all boats
I’m on record (or at least I’ve made my technical friends listen to me say) that I think Christmas, 2007 will be the approximate tipping point where desktop Linux will become viable for non-gaming home PC users.
Desktop Linux has been advancing in leaps and bounds for the last few years, and the past twelve months have seen some wonderful developments. The emergence of Ubuntu Linux, with its strong financial backing, hands-on leadership and a proven release schedule, has lead to increased acceptance of the idea that Linux does indeed have a place on the desktop. I don’t want to over focus on Ubuntu at the expense of all the other great releases out there (PCLinuxOS, Fedora, Mepis, Debian etc) but the reality is that Ubuntu has been a major force in changing the landscape.
To confirm this, you don’t have to look any further than the fact that you can now buy brand new Dell PCs with Ubuntu pre-loaded; no more Microsoft tax.
On a personal note, I’ve been running Ubuntu on various work servers for over a year now, because with version 6.06 they offered a special Long Term Support edition with three years of guaranteed support for patches and security fixes. Someone thought about server OS selection from the perspective of an IT/IP Manager and realized that was a key selling point.
Looking at it from the end user perspective; that is the kind of thinking I like.
Ubuntu works really well as a desktop linux…
After the positive experience on the servers I decided to drop the latest Ubuntu (7.04) on one of those $500 Acer laptops I mentioned in this post. It works well, really well. I had a bit of a problem getting the wireless working because I needed to use a wrapper to run a windows driver under Linux, but even that was relatively easy to configure.
The reason it was easy to do is because Ubuntu has a huge community of users and staff who can help you if you get stuck or simply have a question. In fact, I know of many folks, who dabble in various Linux distributions but get most of their help and information from the excellent Ubuntu Forums.
Taking the other side of the argument, I think the choice of Gentoo Linux to underpin the Zonbu project is a questionable one.
When your target audience is the general or “average” home PC/broadband user, then you want to make as many decisions as possible that make it easy for the end-user to identify with your product. Decisions that help the end-user relate to your product and make them feel comfortable and feel like they are making an informed decision buying it.
Gentoo Linux? They’ve never heard of it. Doesn’t matter if its better or not, or if its more convenient or not for the Zonbu support team.
Ubuntu Linux? It’s been all over the news, Dell sells that don’t they? I’ve seen billboards for it. Isn’t there some space travelling South African Internet billionaire behind it? I head it was easy to use, like a Mac!
Easy as 1, 2, 3
1) Has the end user ever heard of the magic operating system running on your magic box and do they associate it with something they can be comfortable with? Safe with? Who can they look to for a reference?
2) Is there a vibrant community that new users can reach out to and ask questions and explore? If they really like this “Linux” thing, can they easily move to a full PC install running the same version and minimize any potential friction involved with migrating?
[Moreover, is there a large existing vibrant community that can embrace your product as an extension of an idea they already support and evangelize on your behalf to their peers and circle of influence? Passion can almost always trump logic, especially when the passionate are high influence tech savvy people others seek the opinions of.]
3) Are the software repositories supporting your OS choice well known, well stocked and well respected? People want to know that there is a future in this beyond the viability of a small start-up with a neat idea.
Ubuntu Cheerleader? No. It’s about customer acceptance.
Do these comments make me an Ubuntu cheerleader? No, they don’t.
I use and respect the Ubuntu product, but my comments are with my business hat on. I’m a business person, and I take a keen interest in marketing and customer behavior. Gentoo is simply not positioned for average home use. Ubuntu is, and has significant marketing force behind it.
People get excited about being part of the Ubuntu community and there are lots of others to share their excitement and questions with – and that matters a lot when you are a small startup with an unusual new approach to PC’s.
You’re known by the company you keep
As a new company, starting small, it pays to find as many popular coat tails to ride as possible. The converse is also true. It’s important not to get tied down by partnerships and affiliations that are going through strife.
I’m not going to get in to the details here, you can read more on the Gentoo founders blog, but suffice it to say that the Gentoo community has its own challenges at the moment, with momentum and direction being two of them.
Distro passions and opinions aren’t even really the issue, but feel free to let loose in the comments if you want.
The real issue is making decisions that resonate with the end user. When you’re targeting the average home user, comfort and familiarity matter.
Ubuntu plays well in that space, Gentoo does not.