May 3, 2008

Desktop Linux strategies for marketplace success

Author: Carlton Hobbs

What strategy is needed to really spread desktop Linux to average home users? Here are some ideas that just might work.

Journalist Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols argues that

Linux businesses, for the most part, don't do marketing. I think they're extremely foolish not to spend any money on it, but there it is.... Like the Linux companies, many of them were sure that they didn't need to market themselves. Like Linux companies, they thought word of mouth was enough.... Well guess what: it's not. Without marketing, no one from the outside looking in can tell one Linux from another. They just see a confusing mish-mash of names, and unless they're already really motivated, they're going to start turning off from Linux at the very start.

I argue almost the opposite. A large part of mainstream media marketing, advertising, and branding is a means to get name recognition at a very superficial level. Its main targets are people who make superficial buying decisions, and for the right products, this works. Why buy name brand Tylenol vs. generic acetaminophen, name brand cereal, or a thousand other identical products that come off the same assembly line but use different packaging at different prices? From the perspective of the thrifty, the main answers are ignorance and brand recognition.

Of course, not all marketing is to compete with effectively identical products. Consider the American beer industry as a major marketing powerhouse with a few similarities to the Windows vs. Linux market. The major American breweries formulated modern beers after Prohibition to appeal to people who didn't like the taste of beer, and as a side effect the major brewers accepted, these beers taste bad to beer connoisseurs. The post-Prohibition era, even to this day, retains elements of a cartelized liquor distribution industry designed to make it difficult and expensive to compete with the major breweries, such that there have been no new domestic majors in decades. The rebirth of real beer in America was through microbreweries that have small to non-existent marketing budgets. They rely on beer connoisseurs who communicate through beer fan reviews, word of mouth, willingness to experiment, and seeking out the minority of stores that actually carry microbrew and local beers. Beer commercials for microbrews about sports and sexy women would not get many beer drinkers to seek out good beer that isn't already easy to find. Such commercials are just for "all beer is beer" drinkers who are susceptible to brand association marketing and herd opinion.

This doesn't mean that high-cost marketing is innately wrong or bad. It means that if you can increase the marginal sales of your high-profit-per-sale product to people who make quick decisions based on brand recognition, then your marketing expenses were a good investment, but otherwise not. Unfortunately for Linux companies, desktop Linux is a very low profit per "sale" product that is not an impulse choice off a shelf of interchangeable consumer goods. As Red Hat learned years ago, the shrink-wrapped box on a store shelf will not change the current OS market.

So if word of mouth and near-zero-budget advertising are our main prospects, then perhaps what is needed is a better person-to-person strategy. Fortunately, there is definite room for improvement here. One major barrier to entry is lack of Linux preinstallation, and the occasional need for more expertise with compatibility issues. Desktop Linux must partly resolve these challenges through its internal advantage of strong community by strategic and expansionary networking, and by using the big opportunity of failure to address the massive number of PCs that people keep collecting dust, thinking they will upgrade sometime, someday.

Desktop Linux must focus on local communities for recruiting the next wave of users and evangelists. Ubuntu has the right idea with its LoCo initiative. However, to get really local and networked, a distro-centric local community is not the most efficient. If local Ubuntu, Debian, Slackware, etc. users never meet, they will forfeit great networking opportunities. There needs to be local GNU/Linux/FOSS communities with broad ranges of software experience, occupations, contacts, and distro preferences. Fortunately, many already exist, and there is at least one list where people can find groups near them. Linux promoters must recognize face-to-face personal interaction as a primary means for strategic growth of desktop Linux.

Local free software organizations need to be able to offer free Linux installation and encourage people to reuse or donate computers that would run poorly with current Windows systems. Certain groups are naturally good targets to recruit and possibly join as recruiters themselves. Decentralist political groups, neighborhood associations, Parent Teacher Associations, and other educational organizations are also intelligent low budget groups. College groups, homeschool groups, agriculture co-ops, churches, and religious groups are all great places to find people who have spare computers to reinvigorate or donate, or would be willing to have a computer set to dual boot. In general, groups that depend on donations or have small budgets are looking for ways to minimize unnecessary costs. Some of their members would likely be radicalized when they learn what little is required to show others how to switch to Linux.

Local free software organizations need a quick and easy tool to communicate what the GNU/Linux OS can do. Perhaps the best method would also serve as a means of introduction. An organization could create business cards that provide a brief description of the local Linux group, its Web address, and purpose. The card should be visually impressive and colorful. They can let people know that the card itself was designed with only free software, whether it be, gLabels, Inkscape, Scribus, or some combination that anyone could easily get through Linux.

Is there a model for such success without advertising budgets? Ask yourself how you heard about and started using Google. Was it through advertising? Google became a giant because the barrier to trying a new search engine was so low and the value quickly obvious. It was used by almost everyone before anyone saw a Google advertisement. If Linux advocates can do the same, then Windows will be in trouble. I don't see how this can happen without active local free software groups that seek out growth, and success would likely be in proportion to the efficiency of local groups. If some are more successful than others, then the more successful local methods could be adopted elsewhere.

All the experience and networked knowledge of local free software cooperatives might be enough that small businesses would hire the local groups to upgrade their computer systems to Linux for real money. Local groups could even have contracts with particular distros that provide paid business support to receive some of the profit. Local cooperatives would not likely make much money, but maybe enough on occasion to purchase a few rounds of quality microbrews to celebrate a few more people unshackled from Goliath-soft. Very few people will get rich with Linux, but a lot of people could be meaningfully less poor with it, and free-as-in-freedom might actually buy the enjoyment of a few free-as-in-beers.


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