The tough world of selling something that’s free

The tough world of selling something that’s free

Just how can you make money from a system that’s meant to be free?

That’s the challenge facing Ben Thompson of LinuxLabs – a open source business that he has recently relocated to Northland from Tauranga.

Thompson is a one-man-band and has run the business for eight months.

He has qualifications in networking and computing and has been messing about with computers and telephony since the Commodore 64 days of the 1980s.

Thompson received his ‘calling’ for Linux when he lost faith in Microsoft, because he found Windows “very frustrating”.

He saw a business opportunity in that there wasn’t really a market as such for open source.

“We are trying to convince an ignorant public that there is an alternative to Microsoft,” Thompson says.

Until March, the business was based in central Tauranga overlooking the sea on a busy main road.

People would call in or Thompson would take off in his van to visit potential customers.

He hasn’t really targeted businesses yet, but winning a major business customer up north to install Linux, plus lifestyle reasons prompted the move to Kaitaia.

Private consumers now have to trade up from Windows XP and this is driving many to look at open source, says Thompson, but he concedes it is not easy making Linux pay.

“Most of my money would be in repairs or showing them how to use Linux more effectively. You don’t get the repeat business as you do with Microsoft from rebooting machines.”

Thompson says security is a major driver for customers, claiming Microsoft cannot keep up with the criminals but Linux and Macs can beat them.

There are also the various forms of Linux to consider, says Thompson.

SuseLinux is more proprietary-based, he says, with licences available from Novell. Here, the money pays for the support, rather than the licensing system giving users a better quality service.

Ubuntu is community-based and is freely available, though Dell has decided to sell Ubuntu as an alternative to Vista on its PCs and laptops.

Thompson says most Linux evangelists tend to specialise in one or the other, but he believes he can handle all types of Linux.

While Thompson has just 200 to 300 customers in the Bay of Plenty, predominantly consumers, he believes Linux has much to offer businesses.

Linux has grown-up, with users including overseas governments and the French police, he says.

Linux systems tend to be more stable than Microsoft and don’t have the same licence fees, though providers such as Red Hat do charge for the software, says Thompson.

“It will take a few years before Linux will make a difference,” he says.

Thompson plans to re-establish Linuxlabs in Kaitaia, with the security of the major customer to fall back on.

“When we set the customer up with Linux, we will be able to make a big noise for Linux. I will be moving from the consumer to the small business.”

Thompson says he should be able to make a living in support and installation.

He plans to target schools, claiming Ubuntu is designed for schools wanting something cheap with many worrying about upgrading from Windows XP to Vista, which is forcing some to upgrade their PCs and operating systems.

“Most cannot upgrade to Vista without replacing their hardware,” he says.

In his new location, Thompson plans to find a shop for his business and hopefully someone to join him in the business.

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