The Software Counter Culture


From upstate New York to Seattle, teenagers drop into a shop called Zumiez to find snowboarding and skateboarding hardware, clothes, and shoes. In a retail sector where "bleeding edge" threads and gear have driven rapid growth, this 89-store chain, based in Everett, Wash., can't open outlets fast enough. Given the anti-Establishment bent of some of its young customers, it's appropriate that Zumiez also has tapped into the anti-Establishment software trend by bringing Linux to the mall.

By the end of May, the 1,200-employee, privately held chain will have installed open-source software on the PCs at all its retail locations. Those computers are using the Red Hat version of the Linux operating system to connect to Zumiez' point-of-sale (POS) retail-management system. According to Zumiez' retail-systems manager, Rory Hudson, the shift to open-source software will cut the tech budget by between $250,000 and $500,000 a year.

Zumiez' decision illustrates a nascent trend among small and midsize businesses. While exact numbers are hard to track, major Linux suppliers have seen an upturn in downloads and service requests from entrepreneurs. "We have a lot of small companies running our software," says Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik. Adds Hudson: "Our stores don't really have that much need for computing, so we didn't want to spend the money to buy Windows software."

DRAMATIC SAVINGS. Zumiez has used the open-source Apache Web server to manage its online operation for several years, during which time Hudson watched Linux develop -- but from a distance. Initially, "there weren't enough applications to stack on top of Linux to justify a big shift," he explains. Last year, however, Zumiez' POS supplier, Apropos, decided stop building software that ran on proprietary Unix operating systems and switched to open-source Linux.

That stoked Hudson, who knew he would save the $1,200 he was paying for each copy of proprietary Unix that ran on the PCs used for the POS application. The shift also opened the door to installing a Linux desktop in each store.

Generally, desktop software and user interfaces that run on Unix leave something to be desired, and Linux has begun to make significant headway in both areas. Zumiez also wanted to add e-mail to its store computers so that employees could communicate with each other and the home office. For that, Hudson turned to Evolution, an e-mail product from Ximian that runs on Linux. He also added the open-source Mozilla Web browser from Netscape to eliminate the need for printed brochures and training manuals.

NO MORE PENS. The clincher was an open-source spreadsheet program that could read Microsoft Excel files. Zumiez' upper management had long struggled with ways to move sales reports and other spreadsheet data to the stores but were unwilling to pay for Microsoft Office software suite when it would get only minimal use. Instead, the sporting-goods chain had used a decade-old Lotus 1-2-3 system, and some information was even being recorded by hand, Hudson says.

Thus far, the Linux experiment has panned out. The machines on which it runs are dated, but they still do the job the stores need. Says Hudson: "They are slower than new machines, but they don't detract from productivity."

None of this should be taken as an indication that Microsoft Office is at risk -- or even that open-source is set to dominate the small- and midsize business market. Rather, Zumiez is an extreme example of a lean IT operation. According to its technology director, Lee Hudson (no relation to Rory), Zumiez now spends just 0.33% of its total sales on technology -- about one-sixth the average for the retail sector.

"GETTING BETTER." Ultimately, Lee Hudson envisions an operation that's entirely open-source. "We're always working toward that end," he says. "Linux is getting better, and the applications that run on it are getting better."

A couple of years ago, such a statement might have elicited hoots of derision. But with companies large and small holding down IT spending, Zumiez could be as much on the leading edge of software as some of its clientele are on the bleeding edge of extreme sports. By Alex Salkever, BusinessWeek Online's technology editor


Toyota's Hydrogen Man
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW
 
blog comments powered by Disqus