It's been an exciting year for Linux so far, thanks at least in part to the release of Ubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal," which is shaping up to be the first desktop Linux release targeted squarely at newcomers to the free and open source operating system.
That's a great and powerful thing for Linux in general -- regardless of the resistance Unity has encountered from some longtime users -- and it amazes me to see how far Canonical has come with its mainstream focus. If Linux is to enjoy more success in "the masses," then this step had to be taken.
Now that we seem to be getting this close, however, it's making me think more than ever about what Linux still needs, and one of the biggest things I see is marketing.
That Linux has come this far without the benefit of a massive promotional budget such as what Microsoft and Apple products enjoy is a testament to the excellent quality of its product. If it's to go further, however -- beyond its stellar success with Android -- it's going to need more.
Having been though an MBA program all those many years ago, I can't help but think back to one of the first lessons in Marketing 101: The four Ps of the marketing mix.
There's no denying that Linux in general is a great product, what with all the many security, reliability and pricing advantages it holds over its competitors. Usability (which I'd define mostly as "familiarity") may be an issue for newcomers in some distributions, so it's essential that other Linux distributions focus on such beginning users and make it not just easy but desirable for them to make the switch from Windows, in particular.
The existence of multiple distributions, indeed, is one of Linux's "killer features," because they can all target different types of users. Most important of all at this point, however, is that newcomer, Windows-trained segment, which is the key to gaining widespread traction for the operating system.
That's why I think it's so smart of Canonical to avoid the "Microsoft Trained Brain" issue altogether by tapping into the mobile paradigm instead. Natty Narwhal's Unity desktop may feel different from Windows, but it's still familiar because of its smartphone-like approach, so suddenly any perceived learning curve feels a lot smaller.
Ah, price. That's probably the biggest place where Linux stands out from its competitors because, of course, it's generally free.
Some will point to price as one of the most compelling reasons to use Linux, while others -- particularly those well-indoctrinated by the proprietary giants -- will quickly caution that "you get what you pay for."
While the growing ranks of business users tend to agree that Linux's total cost of ownership is lower, in fact, that's generally not the main reason they use Linux. TCO was actually the No. 2 reason corporate respondents to a recent survey cited as motivating their use of Linux; in top position, rather, was technical superiority, followed by security at No. 3.
I think Linux's free price does deserve some careful thought, however. Though it goes counter to much of the philosophy behind free software, for instance, I think a convincing argument could be made that perceptions of Linux's value would increase if it were not free. "Linux isn't expensive enough!" in other words, as LinuxInsider columnist Elbert Hannah put it. (Full disclosure: I write for LinuxInsider as well.)
Free software that isn't free in price? We've already seen it in the realm of supported offerings from the likes of Red Hat. Maybe, just maybe, there's a lesson here for the other distributions.
All too many people do believe that you get what you pay for. Maybe if they have to pay for Linux they'll better appreciate what they get. Along the way, Linux distributions would get a better metric for how many people use them, finally countering once and for all the wildly unrealistic yet ever-cited "1 percent" statistic.
The distribution of Linux is a big issue, I believe, because unless it comes preloaded on a computer purchased at retail, most consumers aren't going to consider it or even be aware of it.
Ubuntu and other distributions are increasingly available preloaded, to be sure, but typically they're not easy to find through mass-market retail outlets. Further, on those rare occasions when they do come on some mass-market hardware, there's typically little done to make their presence known.
Preloading deals need to be a top priority, then, particularly for beginner distributions like Ubuntu, and when such deals are made, they need to be flaunted through external markers such as a "Linux Inside" badge.
And how about getting distribution CDs into retail outlets like Best Buy, even for free? It may be a challenge at those tied particularly closely to Microsoft's apron strings, but it should still be a goal. Consumers need to see Linux everywhere.
Last but by no means least, promotion is another area that could benefit Linux tremendously. For awareness and for image, one good ad could do wonders to boost Linux's desirability.
Through the Linux Foundation's video contests, there are actually numerous potential candidates out there already; what needs to happen next is that they actually get shown on TV.
And how about print ads, online ads, billboards? Linux and its distributions need to become familiar, sexy and desired, and there may be no better way than advertising to achieve that.
I'd also strongly advise some much better public relations. Part of the reason we in the press cover Ubuntu so much, relative to the other distributions, is that it has a team of PR people who get us the key news and information. This has actually become a pet peeve of mine: It's hard to cover a new release if you don't hear about it in timely fashion and get easy access to all the details.
Of course, it should be noted that Linux isn't just one product -- it's many, many distributions. That could make marketing tougher, because it's like creating an ad for toothpaste, say -- when in fact there are myriad individual brands within that category.
One way to recognize that fact would be to create something like an industry council that spans Linux distributions; they all contribute funds, and collective ads or other efforts are paid for jointly.
Alternatively -- or in conjunction -- the more beginner-focused distributions, such as Ubuntu, could create their own efforts to promote their own brand names among potential mainstream users.
Either way, there's no doubt some kind of marketing is needed by Linux and its many winning distributions, and that all 4Ps need to be involved. How do you think it should be done?