November 5, 2003

How can free software compete with commercial developers?

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

The amazing thing about the free vs. proprietary software race is that free software is in it at all. With all the resources larger proprietary software companies have at their command, you'd think their products would be unfailingly easy to use, virtually bug-free, and priced so low that no one would mind paying for them. But this is not the case. Why isn't it? You'd think a software company full of carefully-selected programmers, project leaders, market researchers, quality control personnel, professional documentation writers, and a technical support staff would have no trouble beating any open source project -- with both hands tied behind its corporate back -- even if it gave the open source project a 3 km lead in a 5 km race.

But think back to Netscape's (later AOL's and Sun's) and Microsoft's Web server products. Both have been beaten handily by Apache in both usefulness and in the marketplace. This makes no sense. How could these companies possibly manage to put out products inferior to something built by a loose group of programmers without any formal structure behind them?

Find a need a fill it

This is the classic business success dictum. You try to figure out what people (or companies) need and give it to them at a price that makes the purchase irresistible. In the case of software, you may be competing with "free," but if you're selling software for money all you really need to do to be less costly than free is offer more security, more features, better usability or a strong enough combination of these qualities to justify your customers' letting go of some cash.

There are some software users who will only use free (in the "freedom" sense) software, but they are a tiny minority. Most tend to be more pragmatic, especially when making business software decisions. If there's a free product that'll do what they need done, fine. They'll grab it. If there's a product available that's just as good as the free one in a functional sense, but will save 1000 hours of employee time per year in return for an annual licensing fee equivalent to the cost of 500 work hours, the commercial software is a better deal than the "free" software.

In theory, a software company that puts some time and energy into asking its customers, "Just exactly would you like this software to do for you?" ought to be able to produce truly user-pleasing work. But this doesn't seem to happen any more often with paid software than with free software.

Scratching those itches

Apache wasn't written by teenage hobbyists but by professionals at Web-using companies who wanted the best possible Web-serving program for their own use. Their market research was along the lines of looking at themselves in a mirror and asking, "Self, what do I want in a Web server?"

Linux has grown along the same lines. In both cases, there are a lot of mirrors doing duty as market research tools.

But programmers don't necessarily need the same kinds of programs (or the same GUIs) as non-programmers, so it wasn't until rather recently -- I peg it as 1998 -- that a significant number of free software developers started scratching itches other than their own. I often imagine Paul Programmer coming home to Mrs. Programmer, who kisses him and says, "Darling, wouldn't it be nice if you made a typing tutor program for the kids that ran on Linux so I wouldn't have to keep rebooting the old Windows computer for them?"

Paul codes. Paul releases code. Paul's kids and the kids of other interested programmers test that code, ask for new features -- possibly loud noises -- and Voila! Less than a year later you have a piece of user-tested free software without the intervention of marketing people or a corporate structure.

Is it possible that Paul Programmer is more in touch with his users than even the most marketing-oriented commercial software company?

What do computer users really want?

If Microsoft, for instance, could answer this question, no one could possibly compete against them even if they'd always behaved nicely in a business sense instead of bringing the (rather tepid) wrath of the U.S. government down on their heads.

Many proprietary software companies do a fine job of finding out what their customers want (which is not always the same as "need") and giving it to them. In gross terms, you could say that proprietary software developers, in general, are better at this than free software developers because proprietary software (including operating systems) overwhelmingly dominates the market, with a few specialized programs like Apache as rare exceptions. But software utility and quality may not be the main reason proprietary software dominates the market.

One thing I think most computer users want, that free software does not give them, is highly-promoted brand names. Look at clothing. You are surrounded by people wearing "as seen on TV" logos. Dress up and go to an event populated by the fashion-conscious, and if you're wearing an interesting tie someone is sure to ask who designed it. Look at the amount of money spent on clothes advertising that "establishes branding." Let's face it: Almost all clothing for sale in the U.S. (and increasingly in the rest of the world) is made by generic factories -- some say "sweatshops" -- in low-cost countries that might make Old Navy sweatsuits on Monday and Tommy Hilfiger slacks on Tuesday. Laptop computers, too, are made by generic assemblers but are sold primarily as branded items. You don't see TV commercials saying, "Hey, dude, you're getting a no-name Taiwanese computer built by the lowest bidder!" You see commercials pushing Dell, even though chances are that the Dell-branded laptop in the ad was made by a no-name factory in Taiwan.

Increasingly, with outsourcing and offshoring, software is going in the same direction as clothing: You buy a brand name without expecting the company whose brand you selected to employ all the programmers who worked on "their" product. We are starting to see customer service as an outsourced function. Outside ad agencies make the ads. In some cases outside consultants even name the products (and even the companies). In theory, a corporate brand owner will make sure all products and services sold under its name meet certain quality specifications, but that is becoming less certain as the chains of outsourcers and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors grow longer and more geographically dispersed.

In the end, it looks like what the majority of software consumers really want is recognizable brand names that are heavily promoted on TV, in prestigious magazines, by major retailers, and -- possibly most important -- come pre-installed on name-brand computers.

Many years ago I had a silly thought: That Gucci should sell motor oil. At the time, the "Gucci" name was popping up on all kinds of products unrelated to Gucci's original leather goods business, and it seemed no sillier to use that well-known brand to sell motor oil at a premium price than to use it to sell anything else.

We all know we can buy excellent sports shoes for a fraction of the price of the ones that have a star's name on them, but the branded ones continue to be the big draw, even if the no-name ones are made in the same factory, by the same people, out of the same materials.

IBM, Sun, HP, and other well-known names in the IT business all backing Linux and free software are finally giving it "brand recognition" outside of a small circle of friends. This is good. It gives us a foundation on which we can build.

Perhaps our next move should be celebrity endorsements, but we have another question to answer first.

Is free software really as good as proprietary software?

Many innocent pixels and sheets of paper have devoted their lives to attempts to answer this question, and there is still no easy "yes" or "no" answer for it.

Some proprietary software is better than any current free software equivalent. Some free software is better than any proprietary equivalent.

Often, just defining "better" is hard. For instance, some define Microsoft Office as "better" than OpenOffice because it is better at opening files created with Microsoft Office. But OpenOffice can display almost all files made with Microsoft Office, while Microsoft Office can't open any files created in OpenOffice's native file format even though it's a totally open standard, namely zipped XML. To me, this makes OpenOffice "better" than Microsoft Office (even though many Microsoft fans and employees would probably disagree).

In the server room, many of the best-regarded programs in use today are free software, and much of the software on which the Internet's basic structure depends is free. On the desktop side, we have only hit the point where there is a truly credible inventory of non-geeky "user level" free software within the last year or two. But the speed of user-level free software development has been astounding. There was hardly any such thing five years ago, while some proprietary software publishers have been selling and updating the same titles for 10 or 20 years.

I am going to admit that I tend to like a free-in-the-financial-sense program over one that costs $100 or $500 almost every time, even if the free one is a little rough around the edges or takes a little extra learning to use. There are people out there who don't want to drive any car "less than" a fully-equipped, late-model Acura or BMW, while I am perfectly satisfied with a 1994 Jeep Cherokee that doesn't even have power windows. Some feel life slights them if they don't have a Mercedes; others would rather have a Hyundai and a little more money in the bank. To those of us who watch our budgets closely, a Hyundai and Linux are "better" than a Mercedes and Windows even if they aren't as high on the status register. We are the people who value practicality and value over glitz. We don't buy the $200 sports shoes with the star's signature on them. And we are in the minority, not only as computer users but as part of the population as a whole.

Right now many free software programs are not only "nearly as good and a lot cheaper" than proprietary competition, but are starting to become better in many ways, including stability and offered features.

While this example may be a poor comparison since both are cost-free at this time, I will say I consider Mozilla and its email utility far superior to Microsoft Explorer and Outlook Express because they are more secure, more stable, and offer more of the features I need. I would be more likely to pay for Mozilla than for Explorer. And I suspect many others would too -- at least among that tiny slice of browser users who have heard about Mozilla.

Marketing, Marketing, Marketing

I have long maintained that all you really need to make a piece of software is a few smart developers. Take any successful software company, strip away all the management, marketing, and administrative people, and that's what you really have. We see so many bugs, so often, in commercial software that most quality control departments don't seem very meaningful. We see documentation so bad that there is an entire publishing industry devoted to selling books telling you how to use popular software packages that already come with user manuals. Commercial software tech support? I've had plenty of disappointments in that area, and so have you.

If, at heart, both proprietary and free software projects depend on a core of smart developers -- and usually just a few of them at the heart of the thing -- then the big lack free software has is marketing. I am not now going to shave my head and jump up and down, yelling "Marketing! Marketing! Marketing!" But it would make sense to do so, considering that the CEO of a software marketing company -- Microsoft -- once famously jumped up and down, yelling, "Developers! Developers! Developers!"

The free and open source software community is as aware of the need for promotion as Steve Ballmer is of the need for developer support. Over the years, hundreds of comments have been posted at NewsForge along the lines of, "We ought to get together and have, like, you know, some big marketing push for Linux and other free software, with, like, lots of prime time TV ads."

"And who will pay for the ads?" asked The Little Red Hen

IBM is running ads for Linux on general-interest news Web sites including as well as in magazines and on TV. These ads, as you might expect, boost IBM as much as they directly boost Linux. Perhaps Novell will start advertising Linux now that it's buying SuSE; between that acquisition and its earlier Ximian purchase, Novell's future is now tied more heavily to Linux than is the more diversified IBM.

But Novell, like IBM, can be expected to boost Linux as part of its own product line, not as something unto itself. We need to see community action that boosts not just commercial Linux distributions but the concept of Linux itself, not to mention the many free and open source programs commonly associated with Linux that are not Linux but also worthy of our attention. And the way to publicize these projects without budget is through PR tactics, not advertising.

Advertising is paid exposure. Anyone with money can buy ads on TV, in newspapers or magazines, and on commercial Web sites. PR is the art of generating news stories. While there are many professional PR people in the IT industry, this is an area where amateurs can do a lot of good, especially if a lot of them work at it. No one person needs to put in a lot of time. A lot of brief (but original) letters to editors are more effective than a few long, professionally-prepared ones, anyway. And there's lots we can all do beyond letter-writing.

For one thing, have you noticed that almost every TV station has a "news tip" phone number it runs on its news broadcast and usually has on its Web site, too? These numbers are there so people like you can call in and alert the station's news producers to interesting stories -- like a group of people who invite you to bring your computer to a meeting where they will install new software on it for free that will make it impervious to all major viruses. That's a nice, heart-warming piece for a slow news day or to break up the string of depressing crime and political reporting that makes up the bulk of TV news. Present it to the station in a pleasant, upbeat manner, and accept the fact that you may be rejected a dozen times or more before you get a story on the air, and chances are you can get some TV attention for your LUG's next installfest.

And someone else ought to be ready to answer the phone, because a phone number on the screen during that story is a powerful contact multiplier; many more TV watchers will pick up a phone than will bother to send email. Many of the calls will be from people who are less computer-hip than most current Linux users, but this is part of the game. At least phone-answering at this level takes no great technical skill. It's something people (like me) who aren't proficient sysadmins or programmers can do for "the cause."

Local business publications are also good places to go with local Linux and open source news. If you're saving or earning money using Linux or open source in your small business -- even a home-based, part-time business -- this is a worthy business story. Go ahead and pitch it to local business publications, and don't forget the business editor of your local newspaper, who also is hungry for stories.

One thing it's hard to remember is that what's old to you may be new to others. To you and me, Mozilla and OpenOffice are everyday tools we don't think about but just use. But to a reporter who's never used anything but Windows (and probably has all the defaults on his or her machine) the idea of a Web browser and email program that offer pop-up blocking, spam filtering, and resistance to email viruses and worms -- for free -- is fresh information, possibly worth sharing with his or her audience.

These are just a few ideas. You're a creative person and can no doubt come up with many more ways to promote Linux and your favorite open source software.

And I wasn't joking earlier when I mentioned celebrity endorsements. In the world of commercial IT, IBM and HP are celebs, and their endorsements are meaningful. It may now be time to get non-technical, non-business celebrities to endorse Linux and open source. If you know anyone with a high name recognition factor, you might want to talk to them about helping you with a little free software evangelism. It never hurts to ask!

Open source is a community

Forget "Enterprise Linux" for a minute. The heart of the open source and free software movement is the community that develops, debugs, tests, and promotes it. That's you and me. We are the ones who join Linux Users Groups and help others learn about this new method of producing and distributing software.

We are the ones who need to take responsibility for nurturing and promoting not just Linux and high-profile open source projects, but also the smaller projects that make our lives easier. For example, NewsForge editors and writers communicate heavily via IRC; it is a vital business tool for us. But not many people outside of tech circles have even heard of IRC, let alone used it. Again, this is just an example. You can no doubt think of many more useful free and open source tools that deserve more and wider recognition -- and I'm sure you can think of ways to give it to them if you put your mind to it.

It doesn't take long to write or call a media outlet. And volunteering at an installfest or helping organize (and promote) one doesn't take a huge amount of time out of your life.

The point is, there are many things each of us can do to promote Linux without corporate support or an ad budget. And the more of us that do them, the better off we all are, because more free and open source users means more feature requests, more bug reports, and more potential developers and documentation writers and, in the long run, a larger and more responsive free and open source community.


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