There's no doubt that the open source model of developing software is superior to ones where code is kept in secret rooms and people get fired if any of it gets leaked to the public. The open source model provides a way for everyone, not just developers within a company, to participate in the design of the software. Average, ordinary, users have every bit as much say in a well run open source project as the project leader does and, sometimes, perhaps even more. This model of community based software development has given us some amazing products: OpenOffice, Linux, Android, and countless others who might never have seen the light of day had it not been for a vibrant community.
It is perhaps because of the sheer brilliance of this community, and the great products they are able to produce, that it is equally sad and frustrating to see how badly they suck at marketing. From the names of the product themselves to the guerrilla marketing tactics used to get the word out, almost everything screams 'armature, toy project' which, in most cases, couldn't be further from the truth.
We in the open source community love to talk about how Microsoft and other companies like them have 'won' the market through dirty tricks. Some of that might be true, but not all of it. Microsoft won the market through absolutely brilliant, mostly well thought out, targeted marketing. For every bit of technological ineptness Microsoft has shown in product design, they have made up for it by three times in their marketing. Apple is another good example of great marketing at work. There's nothing particularly innovative or absolutely mind blowing about almost any Apple product. But you'd think there was based on the drooling fans that line entire city blocks to buy their latest products.
What both Apple and Microsoft have figured out and what I don't think the open source community has is that having a good product is only part of the equation. In some cases, it's not even that important. What is important is how your consumers perceive you. Microsoft is perceived as a company that is serious about business. They can be counted on to provide every possible IT system most offices could ever need. They have marketed themselves as a trusted advisor for businesses and businesses have responded to that in a huge way. Consumers, as an outgrowth of their offices, schools, and other points of contact, have bought into the marketing too in the 'if it's good enough for X big company, it's good enough for me, the little guy' mindset.
Apple's marketed itself as the hip, innovative, scrappy company that can be turned to for entertainment. If you want serious fun, you want Apple. Their products, we're told, are innovative, cutting edge, and sexy. They even have a cult like leader in Steve Jobs who's willing and ready to lead the masses to the Mecca that is everything 'i'.
Where do you see that in the open source community? Nowhere. You have a bunch of believers largely telling other believers how great open source is and exchanging high-fives over their latests cool code hack. We talk among ourselves about how great Linux is but where are the cool commercials? Where are the splashy magazine ads? Where are the snazzy conferences with people who don't smell like they haven't taken a bath in six weeks? Where is the coolness of it all?
The fact of the matter is, of everything that can be done by the community, public relations and marketing generally isn't one of them. Not on the levels that Microsoft and Apple do. Usability studies, psychological analysis of consumer buying trends, focus groups, all that goes into creating an incredible marketing campaign cost money. It's almost impossible to get people to pony up $10 towards supporting a piece of software they use every single day. Do you really think you're going to raise the $2-$3 million dollars a kick ass PR campaign is going to costs from the community?
As I write this on the morning of October 28 – 3 days before the end of the month, a very well known and widely used Linux project; one that is almost essential to the proper functioning of the desktop, is proudly proclaiming on their website that they are 'running on $269 from the community so far this month!'. That's right, they didn't even hit three hundred bucks for the month. Far, far, short of the millions they'd need for a serious PR push if that would be their goal.
Thankfully, while I believe real money is going to be the only key that will really push open source software into the collective mindset, I also believe there are a few things that the community can do in their marketing efforts to help their pet projects along:
- Stop talking geek to users. Users don't care about the technology behind your product. They care if it can do something cool or it it came give them a bit of street cred amongst their friends, and, maybe, if it helps them do something at work. Proudly touting that your product is 'built on the latest Qt release using Python 3” doesn't mean anything.
- Stop talking standards as you battle Microsoft. Sure, Microsoft Office might break every standard known to man and you product might be 100% compatible with the established international standards set forth by some standardization body nobody but geeks have heard of. Cool deal. It's meaningless to Joe Consumer when his boss and colleagues who use Microsoft Office can't read the report that's due today and he spent all night laboring over in OpenOffice. Standards matter when the products the majority of users use in their day to day lives conform to them. Otherwise, nobody cares.
- Stop talking in silly 'it's free as in beer' terms and telling people 'you even have the freedom to change the SOURCE CODE! You can't do that with Windows!' Want to know why you can't do that with Windows? Because most people don't want to...or even know how. I'm a professional software developer and do you know how many times I've dug into the source code of a product and changed anything in the last ten years? Twice. If a product doesn't do something I need it to, it's usually easier for me to go out and find another one that does. I'm an altruistic guy but I also need to work on, you know, stuff that puts food on my table. I don't have time to spend two weeks integrating a BASIC feature that should already be there into a product. I need my software to work now. Quit telling me I can change the source code. It doesn't matter to most people.
- Start focusing on the cool stuff – not the geek cool stuff but the real people cool stuff. Linux being open source and free isn't cool. Showing somebody something like Compiz running with full blown effects is. OpenOffice running on the desktop isn't cool. But showing how Bob saved the day by producing his companies latest brochure in a few days without spending a penny is. Users are real people. Geeks are ideologues. Speak normal and show them what's cool.
- Break things until you win. Like we've already talked about, Microsoft breaks standards and conventions in almost every single product they have. Still, they have the market share so they can pretty much do anything they want. To compete with them, we're going to have to play their game, beat them, then move users to a better place. Quit focusing on what Microsoft is doing wrong and do it wrong yourself while you tout price, reliability, and availability. Bring the users over then move in the right direction. Being 'wonderful' when nobody really cares or uses your products isn't really a victory.
- Get some better product names. This is my last and maybe one of the most important points in this entire post. What the hell is with open source developers and product names? Am I to believe that the absolute best name a massive collection of people who are passionate about their office suite could come up with is OpenOffice.org? That's not a product name, that's a website. LibreOffice? Do most users know what the hell 'Libre' even means? Naming is one of the keys to setting the tone for your product. I'm an open source developer and even I think the names are stupid. Stop sucking at it.
With all that said, it might seem like I see the open source landscape as almost hopeless. I don't. I believe there is a massive glut of people waiting anxiously for something better than what they have to come along and who don't realize that it already has. I think the community is doing a tremendous disservice to a huge section of the consumer market by sticking to some of the conventions they do when winning the market should be everything that it's about. It should be our laser focus.
We constantly complain about companies like Microsoft and Apple holding their users hostage. I believe we are accomplices to that because we haven't clearly and aggressively led users to their freedom. We've sat around and bitched to each other and whined about how Microsoft's unfair practices have kept us down. It's a classing 'fight the power' move and it's not working. We have the power to free users from their bondage, we have the power to lead them to the promise land of technology, and I believe we're wasting it on stupid crap that doesn't mean anything to most people.
So here's my challenge to the open source community: stop thinking like geeks and think like users. It might give you a whole new view of the tech you're creating.