Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On brands, marketing and technical details

I have a few thoughts based on the yet another round of debate where marketing clashes with free software advocation and technical details. Nothing new in the debate itself, but I'm adding a couple of insights.

Marketing is not highly respected by many technical people, and neither by the people wanting more advocating than the messing up with facts and feelings that the marketing does. I'm all for advocating free software, but it's currently not something you can use for marketing to win big markets. If we advance to a world where free software is as wanted as the green values today are, it can be used in marketing as well similar to all the ecological (according to the market department at least) products today, but alas the benefits of free software are not yet as universally known. Since it doesn't say much that touches the masses, advocating has a negative marketing effect since it takes space away from the potentially "hitting" marketing moves, in those cases where you target the big masses in the first place. "Open" this and that has some marketing power in it nowadays, but it's a mess of different meanings that probably doesn't advance libre software freedoms as such. Wikipedia has probably been the biggest contributor to advancing general knowledge of software and culture libre. Disclaimer: I'm not a proper marketing person, some more professional might have better insights in this area. If I'd be a proper marketing person, I'd decorate this blog post with fancy pictures so that more people would actually read it.

Some of the marketing can be done without sacrificing any of the advocation. The fabulous Fedora campaigns, graphics, slogans and materials are a great example of those and do an important job, even though Fedora isn't reaching the big masses with it (and Fedora isn't targeted for OEMs to ship to millions either). But they do hopefully reach a lot of level people on the grassroots level. I hope as a Debian Developer that more people valuing the freedoms of free software would help also Debian as a project to reach more of its advocation potential and developers from the more proprietary world. But I'm happy that at least some free software projects have nowadays true graphical and marketing talent. Even though not as widely known, freedoms of the software users including for example privacy aspects are a potential good marketing tool toward a portion of the developer pool.

Let's not forget that Android conquered the mobile market without using the brand power of Linux. The 30+ million people who know Linux a bit deeper than just "I've heard it" already run a Linux distribution like Ubuntu, but we need hotter brands than a project name of a kernel to reach the bigger masses. Call it Ubuntu, Fedora, or something, but no matter do what it needs to ship it to millions. AFAIK mostly Ubuntu and SUSE are shipping currently via desktop/notebook OEMs, and more Ubuntu than SUSE. Others aren't concentrating on the market, which is a very difficult one. Ubuntu is doing a lot more mass population advocating for free software than Android has ever done. Note for example the time any user tries to play a video for the first time in a non-free format - Ubuntu will tell the user about the problems related to those formats and asking a permission to install a free software player for those (or buy licensed codecs), and the Ubuntu Help texts describe a lot of details about restricted formats, DRM et cetera. Not to mention what happens if the person actually wanders into the community, discovering Debian, other free software projects, free software licenses and so on. Meanwhile Android users never notice anything being wrong while watching H.264 videos or watching DRM Flash videos. Granted, like Boot2Gecko debate shows, it may be a partially similar situation on shipping desktop Linux variants as well, in order to actually ship them via partners.

Anyway, the best example of brands is MeeGo. Even the LWN editor does not get into dissecting the meaning of MeeGo on Nokia N9, because "there has been no real agreement on that in the past", but just uses the brand name as is. That is  the power of brands. Technical people debate that it's not really MeeGo, it's maemo GNU/Linux with a special permission from Linux Foundation to use the MeeGo brand name, and then counter-argument with that the MeeGo is an API and maemo matches the MeeGo 1.2 API which is actually just Qt 4.7 API. And actually, as proven by the LWN example, it's not even "technical people". For most of technical people Nokia N9 is MeeGo as well. Only the people who have actually worked on it plus the couple of other people migrated from maemo and MeeGo.com communities to Mer project understand the legacy, history and the complete difference between the Maemo Harmattan platform and what MeeGo.com was. Yet at the same time like all GNU/FreeDesktop.org/Linux distributions, they are 95% same code, just all the infrastructure and packaging and polishing and history is different.

For 99.9% of people who know what MeeGo is, MeeGo is the cool Nokia smartphone, one of its kind and not sold in some of the major western markets, and/or the colorful sweet characters of meego.com shown at one time on a couple of netbooks. That is the brand, and the technical details do not matter even to the technical people unless they actually get into working on the projects directly.

To most people, the Linux brand is a mess of a lot of things, while other brands have the possibility at least to have a more differentiating and unique appearance.

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