That porridge is too cold. This porridge is too hot.

But I can’t seem to find any porridge that is just right. Except that for “porridge” you should read “software”, and for “too hot” read “too expensive”.

For years now it’s been possible to request CDs of Ubuntu releases, which were delivered completely free of charge – as mentioned a couple of times before on this blog. Alas! That is now set to stop.

More specifically it’s set to stop for people like me, who have had free CDs in the past, and who seemingly don’t contribute to Ubuntu. If you’re a new user who has never requested any CDs before, you can still have one. If you’re a developer or artist who has made significant contributions to Ubuntu then you can become a Ubuntu Member in order to continue receiving free CDs.

Other than a few bug reports, I don’t really contribute much to Ubuntu itself – certainly not enough to become a Ubuntu Member. But that doesn’t mean that I do nothing. I’m one of the many users round the world who know enough about computers to be the local go-to guy when things go wrong. As such I’ve used Ubuntu CDs for proving that hardware is (or isn’t) working, even on a Windows machine. I’ve used Ubuntu CDs to recover data from otherwise non-functional systems which won’t boot from the resident OS. I’ve used them as sandboxed environments for examining potentially dangerous files. I’ve installed several virtual machines from them. And of course I’ve installed a full copy of Ubuntu onto several real machines – converting a few Windows users in the process.

Many of these tasks are made a bit easier by having a properly pressed CD in a sleeve which explicitly states that it can be installed on more than one machine. It gives an air of legitimacy. If fixing a machine appears to involve an OS burned onto a CD-R, with a hand scribbled label, some people might wonder what makes that OS better than the dodgy copy of Windows that their friend got off eBay.

I understand why Canonical has taken this step – but it does seem like a step too far to me. I’d be more than happy to pay the delivery costs for my Ubuntu CD, they don’t have to send it to me for free. I’d be happy to pay for the CD and sleeve itself, so that they’re not out of pocket. I’d even be happy to pay a little over the odds so that they can make a small profit, or to subsidise those CDs that are still sent out for free.

But I don’t want five CDs. I particularly don’t want five CDs at a cost of £5 + VAT + carriage. Yet that’s the smallest quantity I can order from the Canonical shop. Sure, £5+ isn’t hideously expensive for a fully-featured OS, but compared to downloading it for free it feels that way, given that four of them will probably join my pile of prospective drinks coasters. Here’s an idea: if you really want a fiver off me, then send me a variety pack – a Ubuntu CD, a Kubuntu CD, a Xubuntu CD and a Ubuntu Server CD. That’s one less CD for you to send, but a better value prospect for me.

So the CD’s have gone from being too cold, to being too hot. They’re too cheap for Canonical to continue sending out, but too expensive for me to want to buy five at a time.

With the imminent release of Ubuntu 9.10 (“Karmic Koala”) Canonical are integrating support for “Ubuntu One” – a storage facility hosted on their servers. You can get 2GB of storage space for free, which is a pretty good deal by anyone’s standards. Need more space? Perhaps you want 5GB or maybe 10GB. Sorry, you’re out of luck – the next step from “2GB for free” is “50GB for $10 per month”. That’s $120 per year, or just shy of £75 at the current exchange rate.

For £75 I could buy a 1TB external hard drive, and still have change. For £80 I could get a 500GB NAS if I want to put my backups a little further away. Even 64GB USB flash drives have dropped down to about £80 now, if I want to be able to access the data wherever I go. None of these options offers quite the same facilities as a cloud-based storage service, but if all you want is somewhere to back-up some important files you might find they’re good enough.

2GB for free is great. 50GB for £75 per year is too much space for too much money for a lot of people. Where’s the middle tier option of 15GB for £25 per year?

My girlfriend’s company has a Linux server. On that server is a copy of VMWare Server, running two Windows virtual machines. She’s a partner in a small design and print business, working mostly with Macs. They have one Windows VM to run Sage (accounting software), and one to run MS Office (for those annoying customers who come in with their “artwork” prepared in Publisher or Word). Apart from her business partner, there is one employee and an occasional part-time worker. That’s three-and-a-bit members of staff in total – it’s not exactly a big business.

VMWare Server is great except for a couple of things. Firstly it has a dreadful web interface to manage it (replacing the stand-alone application, which worked quite well, from earlier versions). Secondly the web interface doesn’t work on Macs. The latter point is a real problem, as it means that any use of the virtual machines takes place via a Linux box they’ve got in the office. One Linux box to manage two VMs means inevitable time-sharing.

An obvious solution would be to switch from VMWare Server to VirtualBox, which does at least have a Mac client. But whereas VMWare Server is free of charge, VirtualBox is only free if you use the Open Source edition – which lacks support for USB devices and RDP connections, both of which would be invaluable. The commercial version, however, starts at $50 per user. That’s $200 (or $150 if they never let the part-timer anywhere near it). Compared with free-of-charge, that’s a lot of money.

So they make do with the porridge that’s too cold, because despite the annoying time-sharing, they can’t really justify spending that much money just to open a few Publisher documents. Sun’s porridge is just too hot.

I work for a small company with about a dozen employees. We have a copy of the Open Source version of SugarCRM which we use for our minimal CRM requirements. Our requirements are so minimal that the CRM software only gets accessed once or twice a day, and only then by three members of staff.

But the Open Source version of SugarCRM isn’t perfect, even for our modest requirements. There are some features of the commercial version that we’d really like to have. But the cheapest commercial version costs $360 per user, per year – with a minimum of five users. So that’s at least $1800 per year! We’ll make do with the Open Source version, thanks. Sure, the cold porridge might lack some flavour, but at least it won’t scald us.

What all these situations have in common is that they involve Open Source software which is available free of charge, or for too much money. Where is the middle ground? The £2 Ubuntu CD? The £20 per year storage solution? The £20 VirtualBox licence? The £200 SugarCRM licence?

Note to software vendors: if you offer your wares for free, make sure the step up to the first tier of your paid offerings isn’t too steep, or you might end up getting burned by your own porridge.

Comments (3)

  1. Mark,

    A couple of comments, your girlfriend could run her business on open source PostBooks which can run on the Linux server. Its actual cross platform so you could use it with Mac, Linux and windows clients all at the same time. More info at

    Same solution for your SugarCRM problem. PostBooks includes a fairly robuts CRM component. Certainly enough to track customers, issues, oppourtunities, etc. An if you use it in a hosted mode, its accessible everywhere.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion Mitch. Unfortunately my girlfriend is tied to Sage, like so many small businesses in the UK, simply because that’s what their accountant uses. Sage is almost a de facto standard here amongst small-to-medium sized businesses – she wants to run a business, not deal with accounts, so if the accountant wants her to use Sage, she uses Sage. In fact I suspect that the WINE folks could make Linux practical for a lot of small businesses in the UK if they could support Sage.

    I went to your website to have a look at the software you’re promoting, and couldn’t find a download link – not even for a demo version. It may well be just the right bit of software to replace our SugarCRM installation, but unless I can try it out anonymously and in my own time, I’m never likely to find out.

Comments are closed.