Letters may be edited – and how!

The Guardian’s technology editor, Jack Schofield, was obviously feeling jealous of the volume of flames generated by Charlie Brooker’s “I hate Apple” article last month. Last week, he wrote a column in which he argued that Dell would find it very difficult to sell PCs with Linux pre-installed (which has been the subject of a concerted campaign by many Linux users recently).

He made some good points in the article – for example, the difficulty of choosing which version of Linux to offer, and the fact that the additional support costs and low volume sales would outweigh any savings from not having to pay the “Windows Tax” – but then went on to characterise the typical Linux user as “the sort of buyer no-one really wants”:

What Dell really needs are more high-end gamers who buy top-spec PCs in fancy cases for £2,500 or more, not low-end Linux users looking to save £25 on Windows.

“Low-end Linux users”? Well, I wasn’t about to take that lying down, so I wrote the following email in response (on my – ahem – low-end Dell Dimension PC, but we’ll let that pass):

I suspect Jack Schofield is right that only a small proportion of those calling for Dell to sell PCs with Linux pre-loaded will actually end up buying them. Personally, if I wanted a fully “deFenestrated” PC I’d rather buy one with no OS installed (already available from Dell if you ask the right questions) and install my own preferred Linux version on it.

However, Schofield’s depiction of typical Linux users as tightfisted low-end purchasers is surely incorrect. The typical user of desktop Linux is more likely to be motivated by principle (software freedom) or geekery than by cost-avoidance. Many Linux users are precisely the sort of people who will be looking to spend four-figure sums on high-end, performance PCs – it’s just they don’t want to run Windows on them.

Individuals who use Linux purely for cost reasons quickly become disillusioned, because they often expect a system that is identical to Windows in every particular except cost. However, Linux is different from Windows at almost every point (normally to Linux’s advantage, but still different), and those who lack the other motivations to carry them up the learning curve will often give up in frustration – especially when they run up against some of the remaining difficulties with using desktop Linux in a proprietary software world.

I wasn’t expecting a personal response from Jack Schofield, but he replied with a very gracious email – any email that starts by describing my comments as “much more intelligent than the average response I’ve had” is going to get me on-side pretty quickly 🙂 – which pointed out that I had probably overstated the willingness of Linux users to spend large amounts on high-end PCs. Schofield may well be right, though (as I pointed out in return) my central point about the true motivations of desktop Linux users still stands.

So anyway, I was looking forward to seeing if my original email would get published in this week’s Technology Guardian. The good news is, it was. The bad news is – well, see for yourselves:

I suspect Jack Schofield is right that only a small proportion of those calling for Dell to sell PCs with Linux will buy them. If I wanted a “deFenestrated” PC I’d rather buy one with no OS installed and put my preferred Linux version on it. However, the depiction of typical Linux users as tightfisted low-end purchasers is surely incorrect. The typical Linux user is more likely to be motivated by geekery.

I’m not sorry the letter has been cut down in length – it’s always a pleasure to see what a good job the Guardian sub-editors can make of editing things down like that, as can be seen if you compare the two versions side by side – but it’s absolutely maddening to have the reference to software freedom removed. The end result reads like yet another snide reference to Linux geeks (in their mothers’ basements, no doubt).

I’m tempted to write and ask them to replace my name with “Alan Smithee”

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3 Responses to Letters may be edited – and how!

  1. Der Bettler says:

    If Dell really wants to make a go at this, then they’ll certainly need some experts in the Linux culture to work with marketing if they expect it to succeed. It will be simply impossible for Dell to offer many installed options, so they’ll have to make decisions. KDE vs. Gnome, Beryl vs. Compiz, Firefox vs. Opera vs. everything else, etc. And even if they pick a distribution, they’ll have to pick a release version. Obviously, whatever they decide (personally I think going with Ubuntu would be wisest) cannot please everyone. So they’ll have to work to sell this to the Linux crowd. The upside, though, is that Linux users, even if they don’t spend small fortunes on PCs, are generally the people that non-experts go to for advice. If Dell takes this seriously, then the Linux users may become fiercely loyal and recommend Dell to more family and friends.

  2. Thanks to the great Gods of Chance and Google, I’ve just stumbled into this, and (sorry) can’t resist responding.

    First, my comment wasn’t so much about Linux users as about Dell buyers and Dell’s business. You’ve taken it in a specific way because you are a Linux user, but it wasn’t written the way you’ve taken it. (There is no view without a point of view, and you’ve imposed your point of view, rather than taking mine.)

    My point was that Dell already has plenty of buyers who are looking to save a buck. Sadly for Dell, 10% of £350 is only £35. What Dell needs (to become more profitable) is more buyers who are looking to spend £1,500 to £2,500, because 10% of that is £250. And becoming more profitable is what Dell is in business for.

    If you look at what Dell has done more recently, eg the XPS and Studio ranges, then you can see Dell is trying to do that.

    In the case of Dell doing Linux, practically all of the debate was focused on price, and on saving the relatively trivial sum that Windows adds to the price (unless adding Windows subtracts from the price). Go read IdeaStorm. How many people are asking for Linux on $3,000 XPS boxes?

    In any case, you could have taken the reference to “low-end Linux users” as an implication that there are also “high-end Linux users” 😉

    Second, it’s not usually one of my jobs to pick letters for publication, and I don’t edit them. We have subs who do that job.

    What I observe is that it’s pretty easy to get published if you make your comments in two witty lines, and gets dramatically harder beyond 200 words. See Keith Flett for tips!

  3. John H says:

    Oh, Jack, not another ego-surfing journalist. For shame! 😉

    (Though one of the bloggers on my sidebar had Paulo Coelho turn up one day. So you’re in good – or at least famous – company…)

    As for the Dell/Linux thing, I entirely agree that the price issue was overplayed by all sides. The savings on not paying a Windows OEM licence fee are really not worth talking about, and like you say the margins for Dell on their low-end stuff make the whole thing a waste of time for them anyway.

    Plus presenting Linux as just “a way of saving money” is a guaranteed way to end up with lots of disillusioned users who aren’t motivated to deal with the Linux learning curve. Counterproductive in the (not very) long run.

    As regards the editing of the letter, as I said in my post I thought the subs had done a pretty good job as regards how the letter actually read, but it was a shame they altered the balance of the content so much in the process. But I know how these things work, and I wasn’t losing much sleep over it – I wasn’t about to do a Giles Coren on you!

    What I observe is that it’s pretty easy to get published if you make your comments in two witty lines, and gets dramatically harder beyond 200 words. See Keith Flett for tips!

    Oh, I’ve had my fair share of “Mike Giggler” shorties published in the main letters page (you’re not the only one who can egosurf). And FWIW, I count your comment as being 309 words long. But then I don’t run quite as tight a ship round here as the Guardian…

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