If there were some sort of GNU Cooperative that catered to your needs as a free software end-user, what would it have to do? What services could it provide. What attitudes should it take?
What has interested me for a long time is creating a decent, reasonably priced, quality-oriented (e.g., non-distributor-built-whitebox) Linux hardware platform for Linux end-users, catering to the people who know free software best and really like it: you and me... I see this as most relevant to improving open source software acceptance, since most people begin hacking around with free software at home.
Such ideas right now are ignored by larger corporations right now because they are unprofitable. You won't find a Linux box in CompUSA or Microcenter anytime soon. Margins on server boxes are 400%. Margins on your average PCs are about 25% - 30% at best, cost at worst. In our case, we're planning to use a standard and fair margin of 10 - 15%. Meaning, if the Cooperative buys something at around $34 each, it sells for $3.40 - $5.10 extra, in turn, going directly into expenses. Money after expenses is donated to the FSF and Debian.
I spoke with a friend who works at Compaq as to how they could support PCs; she confided that Compaq is always on the brink of dumping its entire PC line, since it only represents less than 5% of the entire revenue Compaq takes in.
This being said, the goal is to create something that is *not* scalable to the entire body of computer users. It would not be feasible (at this time) to expect something like this. Fortunately, I don't expect that people will drop everything and switch to Debian from proprietary software in the next few years; evangelization should also not be our focus. Instead, let us continue to build something brick-by-brick that is remarkably efficient, clean, and flexible to take care of our own needs as free software users.
Yet defining "our needs" is difficult. Since Linux and *BSD users are largely ignored, there's not a whole lot of information about who uses free software. This is one of the reasons I'm posting this to you, my peers - I'm curious. On one hand, being ignored is good; there are merits to being left alone by the larger companies. Poorly built hardware is not dumped onto the market as with Windows machines - there still seems a certain element of quality to Linux solutions that exist. And, using old equipment is great -- we don't have to figure out which elements don't work, as most of their idiosyncracies have been documented.
Yet on the other hand, there is a real need to support Linux users who want a full solution that uses newer technology as opposed to older stuff.
My general understanding is that it is not going to be Red Hat or any other VC-backed company moving in this direction. They cannot afford to run lean and they are struggling just to keep it moving on the enterprise end; it has to start from the ground up.
The basis of my idea is to treat system building like an open source software project. Use a legal entity (e.g., a "cooperative") with low overhead to "slide" certain, agreed-upon goods to end-users using relatively low margins. The entity would take care of the accounting work and handle negotiating for the cooperative.
Everyone involved must be an end-user in some sense; it's not a cooperative otherwise.
Members would find an open standard (open design) of a few current configurations that work well together and have a high degree of price/performance. There will probably be a few factions who want to use particular hardware -- these can all be listed.
IMHO, it is important to use name-brand, well supported parts. The problem with today's current listings of "what appears to be compatible" with free software is that some of it is outdated, it's confusing for people to narrow down choices.
If implemented properly, people can use the list like a shopping list, ordering parts from vendors.
Why focus on only a few sets of hardware? If the group is able to focus on a particular set of hardware, the "cooperative" will be able to purchase them in small bulk batches and sell them at significantly reduced margins to members. Members can upgrade their boxen as they see fit. If too many sets of hardware are supported, the cooperative cannot function -- it would become a standard retail operation because the cooperative would have to offset losses in products that aren't selling well.
My idea is that hardware can be purchased assembled or raw (OEM, plainboxed), depending on what the user needs. It would not be in retail packaging.
Hardware should be, for example:
a.) Non-proprietary. If it doesn't work 100% with free software, it shouldn't be included.
b.) Non-dirty. As an example, this means using more expensive, better- built, "clean" motherboards without built-in sound and video.
c.) Upgradeable (to a certain extent). The user should be able to update it (i.e., not have to throw the box away in 1 year to buy another one) in a non-proprietary way.
My idea is that people would not have to "pay" to be a member, rather they would contribute into the product by voting and participating in message groups. They would have a stake in it simply because, if they want to upgrade their boxen, they want to make certain that good hardware is used. I'm also thinking along the lines of Debian right now: stability should be a key element.
The person who runs the cooperative is more of a "monitor" who makes sure that operations are functioning well. He also assembles boxen for people who want to pay a certain percentage for assembly. When jobs become available that the "monitor" can't do, he keeps costs down by bringing in users from the community as consultants... or trading services for hardware.
a. Collective bargaining strength. We could even bargain with Linux Service Providers (LSPs) for things like discounted technical support.
b. Support of a platform that is used and agreed upon by many people; support is more widespread and more business will be lost by vendors who do not support drivers for free software.
c. Self-sustaining. Should paid consultants be needed by the Cooperative, the money remains within the Community as individuals are hired within it.
d. Lower Prices. Significantly lower cost of hardware purchases, particularly for individuals. Corporations who want to implement end-user-based Linux solutions (e.g., non-server) would also benefit.
e. Flexibility. Ability to help people on an individual basis to cover their hardware needs.
a. Users must know how to install equipment; it is not for everyone.
b. Telephone support would be limited. There would be no "distribution-base" support. However, this would be less of a factor if we can create listings of "HOWTOs" (e.g., installing a new motherboard into the Blackbird) with diagrams.
c. User apathy would hurt the system; the users (and especially the "committee" should be interested and familiar with products out on the market.
d. The model doesn't scale well. On the other hand, the amount of Linux end-users in comparison to Windows users is very small. Equity- based venture capital (VC) would be a definite no-no, as it would break the system.
e. International concerns. Since free software is used by everyone, a Cooperative should not simply be applicable to North Americans. There must be a way for a Cooperative to handle international issues (such as power conversion, shipping, etc.) just as large companies do.
I'd like to get some feedback about this idea -- think about it, hack with it. Is it viable? What are your needs as a user? What services can make it more useful?
I'd also like to hear from people who would be interested in becoming involved.