Friday, January 4, 2008

Marketing Linux in the Free Society

I think it is wrong to promote Linux only by its features. To be sold, any product needs to have a unique set of "selling points". Even if Linux has the unique features U, V, Z , no other OS has, this is not a strong selling point for it, because:

  • new users are not accustomed to these new features, they do not use them, so they do not actually exist for them; instead they will remark that it does not has features X, Y, with which they are very accustomed from their previous OS
  • at any moment a proprietary OS can copy some of these ideas (no patents, right?), and then it won't be so unique.
We need something to differentiate us from the rest of the software products crowd.
The major selling point about Linux, about which too few people talk about, is that Linux is a philosophy, a lifestyle, a platform on which everybody can develop. Our marketing message should invite people to participate to Free Society. Imagine that your Linux message reaches a housewife halfway across the globe. The moment your ad finishes she should know that using Linux helps her to improve her cooking receipts: she can submit her receipts to a cooking receipts wiki, and then she should expect feedback from other readers. Show them how using Linux for sharing their work makes them more efficient.
Inspire yourself from what others write about Linux. Tim O'Reilly published the best description for Linux ( "any system designed around communications protocols is designed for participation". Imagine a logo containing that: "Linux, designed for participation"! Priceless!

Let me give you another perspective:
We need more contributors to the Free Software community, right?
Well, my take is, we aren't getting any spectacular numbers of new contributors from the software industry. Surely the number of contributors increases steadily, just not as fast as in 1987 - 1997 years. We need to broaden our view and look for different contributors: graphic artists, office writers, psychologists, accountants. We need to get creative about what contributions we ask! 

Let's take office writers and see how can they improve on our software: How many times did you have something to write down and did not know where to start? How would it be to have a template to start from? Proprietary software vendors do ship a lot of templates with their office products. Why are we lagging behind? Can't we make a public web service that integrates easily into our free office suites? Publishing such a template could be as easily as “Save as”, and office writers that would submit their templates would get the benefit of improving the their initial template.
Did you notice I wrote about psychologists? You may ask what do we need them for? Well, I'm sure you heard about psychologists in usability studies of proprietary software. How many such studies have you heard of about free software? Very few is my answer. It is worthy to note that usability is the biggest complaint to our products. And it's not like they did not offer their help, it's that we never asked them.

What happens if a student accountant does her/his homework using free software and then publishes her work? Isn't that the greatest proof that your accountancy programs do work? What happens, if in turn, another accountancy student improves on the exercise? It's the same concept that arose with free/open source software, only that it is applied to other domains.

If we do want a free society to live in, we also need free content, not only free software. But right now most of the contributions to free society are in software development, which is not necessarily on top of the list of most interesting activities everybody can do. It's like inviting people to a karaoke party, but requiring them to sing and read in Latin. Or giving craftsman's tools to an office worker.

In short, we need to let users contribute what they want, not only what we ask them to. It must be easy for them to submit their work, not only our very much needed bug reports. Start enabling non-software developers do their work in Free Society! Put the right tools in the right hands! Take "Free Society" concepts out of our dreams and put it in our lives!

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