Open Source, Linux and the importance of marketing and public perception

published Sep 20, 2006, last modified Jun 26, 2013

As the final deadline for my thesis on Open Source approaches fast, I'm hard-pressed to find conclusions and projections to be made out of a full 5 months of academic work.

Most of the conclusions are not Earth-shattering revelations, but things we already know -- mainly, that we've got all the assets we need to make Linux world domination happen.

But there's one particular thing you and me know for certain... yet we're doing practically nothing about it!

Anyone could have guessed that my undergrad thesis work is centered on Open Source; more accurately, we deal with devising strategies for Linux and Open Source adoption and penetration growth in the SMB sector of Guayaquil, Ecuador.

By the way, you can get the info and (of course, Ogg Theora-encoded) videos from the site itself. As a matter of fact, the thesis is being done using a fully open source methodology underpinned by MediaWiki. Too bad most of you won't be able to read it, since it's in Spanish.

A fairly sizable part of our work was identifying Linux and Open Source weaknesses, and finding out how they fared in practice. Mind you, we fare pretty poorly, guys. We're all tech, and no heart.

Do you know what my thesis' first and foremost conclusion is? Linux and Open Source lack marketing. Ergo, we lack brand recognition. Ergo, we lack public trust. Ergo, misconceptions abound.

One of our interviewees said (in connection with Ubuntu) during a focus group: Oh, I see what they're doing, they're offering the software for free, so they can later change their policy and start charging us for updates. I'd rather pay a set amount of money upfront than having "them" change the game rules on me later on.. Being that we were conducting a focus group, the methodology forbid me from evangelizing on the true philosophy underlying Ubuntu (or Open Source). But I felt this nearly uncontrollable fit of anger when I heard that comment.

Almost all of our interviewees found Ubuntu Linux easy to use (no surprises there). Most of them were truly astonished as to how much punch Ubuntu packs in a single CD. A large portion of the interviewees were actually willing to try it, especially if the BSA threatened to crack their businesses down (that they were using pirated software is, of course, not a surprise as well). Just a single person, who seemed to hate computers, did not find anything to like about Ubuntu (and this person fits the reproductive learning profile -- she memorized procedures instead of learning concepts about computer usage).

And it's our fault. We've failed to annihilate public perceptions. We keep preaching to the choir, and continue with our inbreeding, collectively patting our backs as we marvel at our technical prowess, while blindingly ignoring our utter failure to generate double-digit growth and adoption rates. Our biggest competitor from the proprietary camp is having a blast while convincing everyone that Linux is shady and all things free are akin to viruses and other types of malware. They're deftly playing into Joe Sixpack's confusion about computers. By now, you should have learnt the lesson: technical or moral superiority doesn't win the battle -- and it never has. Marketing is paramount -- good tech plus zero adoption just doesn't count.

So, what are we doing about it? We can't pool our resources into a single, giant marketing machine. Sure, great strides have been achieved in that direction... for single, niche OSS projects such as Firefox. I'm probably sure something like it can be set up for Linux -- your favorite distro or Linux in general -- but so far, we're going nowhere fast with that approach.

Yes, our marketing sucks. That's one of the conclusions of our work. The recent trend in large OSS projects that focuses on marketing is relatively new, and hasn't made any public impact yet. And this kind of model simply cannot work for smaller projects, or unfocused efforts. Decentralization -- one of our biggest strengths -- simply doesn't help.

In reality, the single most powerful and leverageable resource we have is time. We should be out there, pushing Linux to people; heck, even adopting friends' and family members' computers. I'm currently adopting my best friend's computer. He double-boots Windows 98 and Ubuntu. He always gives me the crap that Linux suxxx; if I had Windows XP installed, this or that program would work, and I wouldn't have this or that problem; but, you know what, everytime I visit (two times a week) he's running Linux, not Windows. He even got hooked on Amarok and hates the fact that he can't run Amarok on Windows. That means the drug caught on. But someone had to get him hooked on the dope. That was me.

You can clearly see I'm not blabbing about "do as I say, not as I do". I work exclusively on Linux and Open Source. It's in my best financial interests to push my platform like a street corner dope dealer. By doing that, I'm trying to secure my financial and computing future. Your inaction is preventing me from galvanizing my (and your own) dreams.

So, do your part, damnit!. How much does it cost you to burn ten copies of Ubuntu or Fedora live CDs, and hand them out to your friends, family and co-workers? It surely beats helping them out with illegal copies of proprietary software. This may end up benefiting yourself -- as I said before, we're going nowhere fast, with slow or zero adoption rates. If you truly care about Linux, Open Source and want to preserve an open future for everyone, you should be spreading Linux like mad.

One million Linux users... five Linux installations for each one of them. Lofty, yet modest, goal. We can put a huge dent in Windows' numbers. What are you waiting for?

Update: apparently someone else shares some of my points of view.