Who Switches First, Business User or Consumer?

Would the switch to Open Source software — or for that matter, anything that’s not Microsoft — be as attractive or even more attractive to individual/home computer users than business users?

ZDNet‘s Dana Blankenhorn thinks business users, and in particular Microsoft Office users, find it far more attractive from a cost point of view, while individual/home users will continue to be shy about it. He writes in his Open Source blog entry The real threat to Microsoft in open source:

When any good goes into mass production its cost goes down. Microsoft has flouted this law for decades. In fact, today’s Microsoft Office costs as much, or more, than it did 20 years ago, despite the fact that the number of users has grown exponentially.

Open source projects pass these savings on to the consumers of software. It’s not just free to get. It’s free to upgrade. And you only pay for open source when you need someone’s help, for training, for implementation, for fixes. Then, you pay only for the cost of the labor you need.

For a scaled user this makes open source a real bargain. The labor costs exist anyway, even in Windows IT shops. The costs of transitioning to open source are manageable, and the later savings go straight to the bottom line.

I certainly agree with the above, or I wouldn’t be doing this blog. But Dana goes on…

This is not as true for individual users. For a consumer with a PC or two, the costs of Windows now includes some management services, and support. Even for a small network manager (and this includes many homeowners) there are education and training costs to be paid up-front, plus the possibility of big-ticket service calls down the line.

I think it is as true for individual users. Although many of them just “buy a computer” without thinking Windows vs. whatever, all it would take is a strong advertising campaign and a cheaper computer than a Mac (whether it run Linux or Mac OS X or anything else) to hit the market. I think this will happen within two years. In short, Vista will face serious competition.

Cost, of course, is not the only issue. As a consumer and unofficial support dept. for my extended family’s computers, I have to agree with the comment to Dana’s blog entry that single Windows users get very little support. Let’s not forget that Microsoft typically refers customers with problems to their hardware vendors. Thus, support for a Windows PC has been largely the province of Dell, Sony, Toshiba, Gateway, or your local computer fixer who put together PCs from parts. Consumers bounce back and forth like a pinball between the flippers of the manufacturer’s support department and the Microsoft support department as they pointed accusing fingers at each other. To make matters worse, support from companies like Dell is worse than no support at all. These companies seem to spend more on advertising their wonderful support than on improving their support to make it even moderately useful.

Microsoft’s own updates are suspect. Remember that many of the problems caused by the Windows SP2 update include issues with anti-virus programs, remote desktops, filesharing, email notifications, and online multi-player games — activities that affect consumers. The SP2 problems related to anti-virus applications were disconcerting, because these applications are the first line of defense against virus attacks. Perhaps Microsoft didn’t move fast enough to help the vendors of anti-virus applications, because Microsoft is looking to expand into this area with its own anti-virus products.

The market takes a while to educate, but people will eventually understand these issues, and competitors will exploit them with advertising campaigns. Meanwhile, the mainstream business market is moving more quickly to embrace Microsoft alternatives.

Small business owners and workers — the ones caught in the middle between consumer issues and business issues — are likely to be slowest to adopt something other than Microsoft, if only because they’ll continue to use what they have and probably won’t upgrade to new Microsoft products, either.

Mitchell Kapor, Lotus founder, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a man who, by fighting the ultimate spreadsheet war with Lotus 1-2-3 against Excel, gave Bill Gates the most competition Microsoft ever had. As Kapor put it in his own blog:

Ultimately, positive action to rein in Microsoft will be taken when the general public realizes they’re being had; that as a society we’re being forced to pay huge costs in lost productivity due to the unnecessary difficulty of using computers; and when the basically amoral and ruthless character of Microsoft’s leadership is graphically revealed.


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