Saving PC sales

So today I’m reading that Dell may be stepping away from the consumer PC arena. What could a prospective PC retailer do to save sales?

While I’ll be ranting about Canonical, Ubuntu, Linux and GNOME a lot, please note that this is just a mention of a possible platform a device maker could have opted for. Same goes for Dell: I’m talking about them, but it mostly applies to others. And what I’m talking about is that people want an integrated (but powerful) solution that ‘just works’.

Figure out that people want the sleek and fancy. Steam is fancy. App Store is fancy. iTunes is fancy. Intel AppUp from 2011 was decidedly not fancy, and in fact, it was a prime example of the “old” way of doing things one the PC: let’s just pack random garbage in front of the customer and hope he’ll not only bite it, but happily chew it. (Just remember all the “photo handling” software that shipped with your digital camera, or “antivirus protection” demo software shipping with your shiny new PC.)

Thankfully, the latest version of AppUp from 2012 is a bit fancier, although still somewhat weird.

Figure out that people want to do things differently. How happy are users with the operating system you’re shipping? I personally like Windows 7 a lot lately (more on that later). But how integrated it is with your product? What does your product do? Is it just another box? Admittedly, it may be a neat, shiny box, but what does it do? Oh — this thing on it isn’t your product? Uh-huh, so you’re just another box-maker?

Hint-hint: end users like custom (but usable) stuff. At one point, aforementioned Dell has promoted Ubuntu on its machines. What they haven’t done is sit with Canonical and decide how to make Ubuntu the operating system for their machines. Not only that — they should have thought about how to make Dell’s laptop the machine for running Ubuntu.

Dell and Canonical could have figured out what exactly people want and how they want it done. In my previous life as a Linux user, I was quite “needy” and I desired customizability, shunning Ubuntu for Debian. But that’s not what people want. People want stuff to “just work”. I want it too nowadays. I also want a company to figure out how the user interface should work, and make it work that way instead of me. I want them to figure out what is the best way for me to achieve my goals.

And then I want them to proscribe that as sacred rules to developers on their platform. Then I want them to justify why those sacred rules exist. (The way NSDocument class works in Cocoa frameworks has recently allowed Apple to introduce “recent files” list for an application in Lion’s Expose for an application’s windows, as well in the Dock icon menu.)

I want those sacred rules to be sane and enabling to the developers, instead of arbitrary decisions slapped together by a bunch of monkeys. (And I’m not pointing fingers at a single platform or library here — but pretty much at most platforms and libraries out there.)

Figure out that people want to do stuff with their machines. After securing a deal with Canonical, Dell should have attempted to secure a deal with, for example, Adobe to port at least their flagship product Photoshop to Linux (or more specifically Ubuntu). There are bound to be many, many hurdles along the way. But instead of toying with The Gimp and waiting for them to actually make a tool that is usable by real people, getting Adobe to bring their product over would make the platform (and products) stand out and appeal to an audience. And if Adobe doesn’t want to cooperate, invest those profits in your long-term gain: look at Photoshop and replicate it under Linux, including keyboard shortcuts and whatnot.

Go and fix OpenOffice’s interface, or at least lift what you can in designing an office suite that works and looks as an office suite should. Or write your own — Apple surely did with iWork, and they worked on that even before iPhone and iPad were insanely profitable like today. Compared to today, iPhone was only mildly popular.

Can you see the big picture now? Can you see how a platform could have and should have come together to save, for example, Dell?

As Apple has built their OS on the strong base of BSD userland and Mach kernel, Dell and Canonical could have delivered integrated products based on GNU userland and Linux kernel. They should have worked on securing partnerships to deliver key products to what was (and is) a nascent desktop environment.

Apple did not use window compositing to bring you toys like a 3D cube, but to bring you tools to switch between windows and apps. Dell and Canonical should have and could have slimmed down Compiz. GNOME 3’s window manager is a nice experiment in this direction, but on the first look at it, it lifts off of Apple so blatantly in some ways that I can’t help think they should have and could have done better. It could have and should have been better than what Apple does.

Figure out how to cut the stuff out. As mentioned, I personally like Windows 7 a lot lately, but it hasn’t struck the good balance between exposing whatever a power user needs and hiding anything that a common user doesn’t need. It’s still too complex for a common user, and at the same time, any attempt at simplification and hiding stuff just means the actual stuff you need is now hidden behind menus and behind more menus and behind more menus. See: attempting to configure just slightly more complex wi-fi setup in Windows 7. Something is seriously wrong if it’s easier to change resolution and color depth in Windows 95 than it is in Windows 7.

Compiz needed to be cut and configured to sane defaults. Or it should have been thrown away and a custom manager should have been written.

As long as we stick to the UNIX principles wherever possible, I can take your window manager and throw it away. Or I could write my own settings app. But if you do a good enough job, I will not want to.

I currently am not inclined to go away from Mac, and the amount of customizations I do is minimal. Some people use custom app launchers, I’m satisfied with launching apps through Dock or Spotlight.

But in case I want to move away, I’m hoping GNUstep takes off and provides a viable way for people to port their OS X apps to other platforms. I hope for a healthy GNUstep ecosystem where people are free to share code, but also to sell the fruit of their labors.

But I am not really interested in moving away right now, because Apple delivers a good, complete, healthy ecosystem today, along with an integrated hardware+software stack where things like driver issues are rare and shocking events happening mostly to early adopters — definitely they are not common daily appearance for most users.

To save your sales, deliver a healthy, integrated hardware+platform+applications ecosystem. For a corporation as big as Dell, any investment into their own platform would have been an investment into long term future. It would have been diversification and it would be a way to stay unique long-term. And not doing a good job on creating a platform when you’re a multi-billion dollar company, especially in cases where you can already take other people’s work, should be inexcusable. In fact — I’m not sure if not even attempting to do it may be an even greater sin.

Make yourself stand out with an outstanding product that “just works”. Half-assed experiments with Linux just because it’s Linux and “free” won’t save you and will flop.

Delivering a complete product starting with a laptop designed around a platform (which may be based on Linux), and delivering a complete platform designed around your laptop is a good way to start.

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