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Open Source Marketing: What it Ain’t

I recently Googled “Open Source Marketing” to see what it would turn up and found that the recent movement by Mozilla to get contributors to help sponsor a Firefox ad in the New York Times was getting some odd coverage. Specifically, one Steve Rubel recently published an online article called “Open Source Marketing is the Future – Pass It On” that seemed to overestimate this event and cast it as the future of marketing. Others have linked to Mr. Rubel’s article as though its content provided some insight to what open source marketing is. It demands some analysis.

Jumping to the conclusion that all marketing is heading this way is about as a gross an assumption as one can make. While it is groundbreaking that people would be willing to contribute money freely in order to help propagate the otherwise free Mozilla Firefox browser, this event was not actually for Firefox. You may not see this approach work but a couple more times.

The basis of this movement is people’s deep set ire with Microsoft. Were Microsoft not such an overwhelming victor in the browser wars of the late 90’s, and such a dominatingly successful company (financially), and–let’s just say it–were they not such bastards about in trouncing their competitors, and after so doing, allowing their product quality to slowly deteriorate, funding the Firefox ad would not have happened. (Firefox itself might not have happened!) What the Firefox community marketing movement really shows is that Microsoft has inspired so much spite that the public will actually pay to promote an alternate browser to Internet Explorer.

[I’ll also take a moment here to point out that Microsoft argued in the media and in court that the Netscape lawsuits were restricting their rights to freely innovate and provide value to consumers. In shameless irony, Microsoft is now floating implied patent infringement threats against users of OpenOffice, as covered by the intrepid Mary Jo Foley of Microsoft Watch.]

This community marketing efforts is likely a temporary phenomenon. Open source software (OSS) has a building momentum that is starting to turn the table on dominant market vendors. Microsoft will remain a giant for decades, but OSS will bring in alternatives. Eventually the OSS movement will have a correcting effect on Microsoft’s way of business and they will cease being perceived as so villainous. (Yes, that’s hard to envision, but give it time.)

Ultimately, Mr. Rubel’s article makes the mistake of confusing the open source software movement with being the “not the Microsoft evil empire” software movement. As a thought experiment, imagine Linux in a world without Microsoft. Would it be relevant? Would it continue to exist? My guess is that it would on both accounts, but it would be very different.

Sung a little differently: nothing helps a group hang together like a viscerally-hated common enemy. In absence of such an enemy, will the funding for things like the New York Times Firefox advertisement still be there?

That begs the question: How will OSS products be marketed once they are no longer the anti-Microsoft (or anti-whatever) option and have become more standard fare? I should think that communities will play a role, but not in such Hollywood big screen ways as the NYT-Firefox event anecdotally suggests.

On a related note, I found the remarks of Todd Sattersten interesting. He makes the point that the NYT-Firefox event was really a community funding drive rather than open source marketing, and then goes into what some attributes of “open source marketing” would be. Mr. Sattersten’s approach to the subject would make the subject of my blog more appropriately called “Marketing Open Source” rather than “Open Source Marketing.”


3 Responses

  1. Great analysis. Just had a discussion with a friend yesterday on this topic. He eloquently explained the NYT ad tactic as an “in-your-face” tactic more directed at Microsoft, what’s known as competitive PR (and secondarily as a tactic to announce to the world that Firefox is a force to be reckoned with and the browser wars are back). It’s a bit gimmicky and as you noted it won’t necessarily work again or for other products/services.

    A tried-and-true strategic PR and grassroots evangelism campaign to establish credibilty THEN followed by advertising campaign to maintain a leadership position is just too boring to rally the troops and raise funds -never mind if it’s effective or not.

    Evelyn Rodriguez, http://evelynrodriguez.typepad.com

  2. R.T.

    First let me say I enjoy reading your blog. I have a comment and a couple questions for you.

    – You say “The basis of this movement is people’s deep set ire with Microsoft.” I would disagree. Firefox and open source for that matter is about creating something better. Sure Firefox compares itself to IE, I see this as more of a measuring stick to know if Firefox is truly a better product. Steve Rubel talks about people working together because of a common passion and goal. That goal is not to spite Microsoft but to create something better. Ask your friends Nat and Miguel if they created GNOME to spite Microsoft or if they are united in a common goal to create something better. And because its open source it allows anyone who wants to take part in the project. I would say you are missing the bigger issue if you think this is all about “getting back” at Microsoft.

    – It seems that the marketing for NLD has been very traditional marketing. If open source marketing is different from traditional marketing, can you tell us if you are thinking about new marketing methods for NLD, and if so can you share those with us?

    – I would also be interested in your view of the new round of Microsoft attacks on NetWare. This seems to me to be very much an attack on Linux. If Microsoft can kill Novell by killing the NetWare revenue before the Linux revenue can make up the difference it seems they will have won a major battle against Linux.



  3. Joe:
    Thanks for your comments. I’ll answer one of your points here in this response. The others sound like good items for a blog entry.

    Joe: You say “The basis of this movement is people’s deep set ire with Microsoft.” I would disagree. Firefox and open source for that matter is about creating something better.Ted: Perhaps I was not explicit enough as to what “movement” I was referring. I was speaking specifically of the community-funded New York Times advertising campaign, not the product. I maintain that if Microsoft were not so hated, people would not have rallied so much cash for the launch. But let’s see on this: when we see a level of comparative community funding for the launch of an open source product that is not against an entrenched proprietary from a highly resented vendor, then I’ll be a believer.

    Thanks again for your feedback, Joe.


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