March 2, 2002

Commentary: What Linux needs most (it's not more features)

Author: JT Smith

- By Elwin Green -

I've had an epiphany. Let me tell you how it happened. My wife brings home an issue of Newsweek (the January 28 issue, to be exact), and I'm browsing through it, and it flips open to a big ad, a two-page spread with a nice, clean look that attracts the eye. In this case, my eyes are drawn to a banner headline, which reads: "A special message to Windows users: Welcome." And I see a series of paragraphs with boldface headings that say, "Myth 1," and "Fact," then "Myth 2" and "Fact," and so on. My heart skips a beat because my very first, hopeful thought is, "An ad for Linux?!?"

Nah. It's an ad for the Mac. Or rather, the iMac. And as it turns out, it's not just two pages; it's 12 full pages of seductively well-designed text and graphics. And when I realize that it's not an ad for Linux, I feel somewhat sad, because in that same moment I realize that it couldn't be an ad for Linux; that I will probably never see such a thing, because Linux does not have a marketing department.

Which led to the epiphany: Linux needs a marketing department.

Since buying my first distro nearly two years ago, I have consistently been both amused and amazed by talk about Linux achieving "world domination," or "winning the desktop." I don't know what world those who say such things inhabit, but in the world I see, it'll never happen; in part because Linux does not have a marketing department.

This is where some might reply, "So what? Word of mouth is the best advertising anyway."

Perhaps. But I'm not talking about advertising. I'm also not talking about sales. I'm talking about marketing, which is different from advertising and is more than sales. It is the entire educative process by which a seller engages prospects in hopes of making a sale.

The key word there is "educative." The lack of a marketing department means there's no group of people whose job, whose paid profession, is to educate the world about Linux.

And this is the "so what" -- that single Newsweek ad will probably educate more people about the iMac than five years of word-of-mouth would. Why? Because word-of-mouth typically expresses enthusiasm or exasperation, but it rarely educates.

That is the realm of marketing. And in the absence of marketing, the growth of Linux is stifled by ignorance and fear.

By ignorance, I don't mean cluelessness about using the command line. I mean ignorance of the very existence of Linux. True story: I'm at a party, and a friend of mine starts telling me about a stock he's holding that has lost value. He expects it to regain ground, so he thinks I might do well to buy it at its beaten-down price. The company is called Red Hat Linux. When he says that, I start talking enthusiastically about the OS - but I don't get far before my friend's face goes blank, and I realize he doesn't even know what Linux is. He just owns some Red Hat stock.

Many people still do not know what Linux is. People who don't know what it is certainly won't go to the trouble of displacing Windows to make room for it on their PCs.

And then, for those who have heard of Linux, there's the fear. Or perhaps I should say, the fears. What if it doesn't work? Where do I go for help? Isn't Linux hard to use? Etc.

People who have never heard of Linux, or who fear Linux, will never try Linux.

So maybe, just maybe, what Linux needs most, right now, is a group of people whose job it is to tell the world about Linux, and to tell the world why they needn't be afraid of it.

In other words, a marketing department.

Have you noticed that I keep referring to "the world?" I'm not talking about individual Linux users "advocating" with their co-workers, bosses or spouses. I'm talking about a group of people with expertise and a budget, educating (and, I may as well say it, seducing) everyone in the world who picks up a copy of Newsweek, with a well-designed ad extolling the virtues of Linux, even as it debunks the myths.

And doing the same thing with everyone in the world who picks up a copy of Time Magazine. Or who watches an episode of "Frasier" or "Friends."

Yes, I've seen IBM's ads -- a couple of them, anyway. There's the basketball spot, in which a team with players like "Server" and "Mainframe" is improved by a new player named "Linux," whom the owners acquired for next to nothing because "he just loves to play the game." Then there's "The Heist," the mini-drama in which the mysterious disappearance of an entire floor of computers turns out to be the work, not of a criminal, but of an in-house geek who has replaced them all with a single Linux-based server.

The IBM ads are cute. But the basketball one is an inside joke; to get it, you have to know more about Linux than the average person does. It doesn't educate -- and one of the questions a marketing department would deal with is, "How well can a 60-second commercial educate people about Linux?" (My guess would be, "not very.") And "The Heist" is an ad for IBM's server, not for Linux itself. There are no ads for Linux, because there's no marketing department to produce them. It's not IBM's job to market Linux.

It's not anybody's job. And that's the problem. Solutions, anyone?

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