As WorksWithU reported last week and Canonical announced the following day, the company has released a new set of support services targeted at Windows and Mac OS X expatriates migrating to Ubuntu.  At first glance, the entry-level "Starter Desktop" package might appear a bit lackluster, at least to experienced Ubuntu users.  But that's exactly what Ubuntu needs in order to break into the mainstream.  Here's why.

When I first read the details of the Starter package, priced around $55 according to Linux Magazine Online, I wasn't impressed.  Tasks like configuring Evolution and installing the flash plugin in Firefox are so trivial and so exhaustively covered by tutorials on blogs and the Ubuntu forums, I thought, that no one would be willing to pay money for assistance with them.

Then I remembered that I'm more of a geek than I'd like to admit, and that tasks that seem trivial to people like me can be impossibly intimidating for individuals switching to Ubuntu, even if they are well documented online.

From a normal person's point of view--a normal person being the kind of computer user who is unsure of the difference between Windows and Microsoft Word, or between the Internet and Internet Explorer--$55 sounds like a reasonable price to pay for a year's worth of help configuring Ubuntu for the simple tasks that normal people perform with their computers: Web browsing, email, playing multimedia and word processing.

Reassurance and Professionalism

Canonical's decision to offer an affordable phone- and email-based support service will also go a long way towards accommodating non-geeks who are used to calling corporate support centers, rather than turning to community members or Google, when they have a problem.

Geeks may prefer community-based support in forums and IRC channels over being put on hold with an offshore call center whose service representatives do little more than follow a script.  But normal people expect an experience like that, dismal as it is, when they have computer problems.  Having a number to call is a significant reassurance for individuals considering a move to Ubuntu.

Along similar lines, Canonical's development of a support plan aimed at desktop users (previous offerings were really only realistic for enterprise customers) adds a sense of professionalism to Ubuntu's image.  Whether they choose to subscribe or not, many non-geeks will be encouraged to know that Ubuntu has a solid, corporate-sponsored support infrastructure behind it, which is more than most Free operating systems can say.

It remains to be seen how well Canonical can actually deliver the support promised by the Starter package, and whether the new offering will help generate the revenue needed to make the company self-sustaining.  I'm also skeptical about the other support plans introduced last week, which, at $110 and $220, seem less realistically priced than the Starter package.

In any case, a move to deliver a more traditional desktop support infrastucture, with all the reassurances that non-geeks need to feel comfortable in front of their computers, is a solid step in the right direction for a company aiming to bring Ubuntu Linux to the masses.

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