April 18, 2002

Commentary: What is Linux? One approach to marketing it

- By Jesse Smith -

What is Linux? It is a question that comes up a lot, it seems, when
I'm around. People ask me, from time to time, what I do. I tell them a bit about
programming in general and mention Linux. This brings about the question:
"What is Linux?"
Though many of us in the world of programming might find it hard to
believe, there are a lot more people out there who don't know what Linux is
than who do. Those few who have heard a bit about it are often mistaken about
what it really is. In fact, about 90 percent of the people I talk to have
either never heard of Linux, or just know that it is an operating system ... or
something computer related.

The conversation usually proceeds like this:

Them: "What is Linux?"

Me: "Linux is an operating system that is developed by a group of
programmers from all around the world."

You'll note that I say "programmers," not "hackers." A lot of people
think hackers are evil, lonely people who write viruses, break into bank files and destroy
home computers. I usually broach this subject at a different time.

Them: "What's an operating system?"

Me: "Hmm ... okay, Windows is an operating system. It's basically what lets
you save and copy files, surf the Web and write documents. Linux is similar to
Windows in that it lets you do all those things."

At this time, I have had people (who were using MS Windows as we spoke)
ask, "What is Windows?" However, that usually does not happen.

So, after explaining Linux and some of its benefits, such as security,
virus protection and crash-resistance ("what does crashing mean?"),
I often ask if the person would like to try Linux. Ten times out of 11, the
answer is, "No thanks." The whole business of changing operating systems, even
if it is done for them, sounds too scary to most people.

Now, if it seems as if I am speaking down to the common PC user, please understand, that is not my intention. I know nothing of cars or microwaves, so I can understand a person knowing little about his computer, or even being wary of it. That makes perfect sense. Instead, I am trying to get across a point to my fellow Linux lovers: For Linux to get anywhere in this Windows/Mac world, we have to promote Linux in certain manner.

I recently read an article on Linux.com regarding the marketing of Linux. You cannot sell Linux using love or hate and What Linux needs most (it's not more features). I thought the author made a number of good points, which I will not repeat here. However, the main thrust was important. We need to present Linux in a way most people will understand, not just Linux users. That would be
preaching to the converted.

As I said before, many people have not even heard of Linux. So
we need to tell them what Linux is. We need to get the name and the
idea out there. We have to keep in mind that many people don't know
what an operating system is or what it does. Most people don't separate
PCs from MS Windows. To many, those are the one and same thing. To promote Linux,
we need to explain these things to people in a way they can understand.

Once people understand "what" Linux is, they need to know "why"
they should bother. Many don't realize that Windows costs money because it
came pre-installed on their computers. This takes away from the argument that Linux is cheap or even
free because, to many, Windows is "free."

Now that I have presented a problem, I would like to offer a solution. Recently, I saw the automotive industry compared to
the software industry. It was said that if cars evolved as fast as computers,
a Ford would go across North America on a drop of fuel, go a million
kilometers an hour and drive itself. True, but you don't see a Ford broken
down on the side of the road every other mile, do you?

I think we should keep this comparison. Present Linux like it is a
new kind of car. Look at the way cars are advertised and use that model. What
sort of things do you hear in car ads? Fast, reliable, safe, tested, cheap.
This sounds familiar, right?

If I buy a car, I don't want to be hit with a pile of technical terms.
I want something that works. I want it kept simple. I don't need to know what
plant the car came from or why BMW is considered good and Mazda is evil. I want
to hear that it is safe, reliable, cheap and fast.

I think that most people feel the same way when purchasing a new software
product. They probably want to hear the same terms. So let's get the word out
there and keep it simple. Leave out who made it, the whole history. Now, when
people ask me "What is Linux?" I try to be more general.

"Linux is an inexpensive program that makes your computer more
stable, protects it from viruses and helps it run faster."

There, now I've given a (very) general description of Linux without
all the hassle of explaining what an operating system is, or what Windows
is or even what a hacker is or isn't. Imagine people's reactions if they
saw a simple ad banner on Yahoo.com or Excite.com that had my new
description of Linux. They just might take interest.

To illustrate my point, I actually printed off some posters with
the following text and placed them around my town:

Wouldn't it be great if your computer ...

... Stopped freezing up?

... Didn't get viruses?

... Did its own maintenance?

... Came with free upgrades?

... Came with on-line support?

Now it can.

Get what you want.

Get Phat Linux.

This, along with my contact information, caused some people (who were
all nearly computer illiterate) to seek me out and ask me to install Linux
on their machines. They were perfectly content to have me remove Windows and
install Linux on my recommendation. You'll note the lack of technical terms on
my ad. Also there's a lack of "love Linux" and "hate Microsoft" that is often brought up in Linux advocacy.
The ad was nice, neat and (most importantly) simple.

Just think, a few posters caused some people to switch. They'll tell
others, and the word about Linux will get around a bit. I think that if this sort of marketing/advertising
was done a little more, Linux could expand onto the desktop more rapidly.

Jesse Smith is an advocate for Phat Linux.

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