LJ Archive

The Linux Position

Doc Searls

Issue #63, July 1999

Most companies—especially those in the technology world—are not interested in simple answers to simple questions.

For most of my adult life I have been two things: a journalist and a marketing expert. Frankly, I did the latter mostly to sublimate the former. This made me a very different kind of marketing expert—one who brought a writer's skepticism to the marketer's job. At every meeting, I always seemed to be asking the same two questions: what is this and what's the story?

Most companies—especially those in the technology world—are not interested in simple answers to simple questions. They make “solutions” rather than products and “management inference engines” rather than spreadsheets. They also want their stories to consist entirely of happy beginnings.

“Reporters write stories,” I would say, “and stories don't start with happily ever after. They start with a character with a problem. The solution comes at the end, and you never want to get there or the writer will find some other story to tell.”

I didn't get very far with this approach. What got me somewhere was working on the character issue. I called this “positioning” and I wasn't alone.

Hotbot finds 233,780 pages on the Web with the word “positioning” in them. When I weed out GPS and other non-marketing meanings, I get 26,940 pages, almost entirely by marketing consultancies selling “strategic distribution analysis”, “rollout plan reviews”, “campaign launch programs”, “performance impact studies”, “collateral market options”, “market penetration analyses”, “outsourced staff deployments” and other such nonsense, all served up in euphemistically delusional language.

No wonder Linux is a hit. It is a character with a story none of those 27,000 agencies—including mine—could have thought up. Who would seriously talk about “world domination” and “software that doesn't suck” in the face of Microsoft, whose software runs on every computer you see and whose market value exceeds the GNP of the Southern Hemisphere? “You see, there was this Finnish guy, and something about a penguin...” I don't think so.

Thus, what we have with Linux is more than the world's first big-time open-source operating system. We have the world's first marketing success that owes nothing to marketing. This warrants further study.

I just did for Linux what I used to do for my clients. I took a look at how the customers for Linux's message—the analysts, reporters and editors of the world—are describing its character and telling its story. I got on AltaVista (http://www.altavista.com/) and looked up every page with the phrase “Linux is...” and found over 27,000. Searching through links to the first fifty, I came up with these answers, which I sort into four ways of depicting Linux's character:

Descriptive (you've got to start somewhere)

  • an open-source UNIX clone

  • a freely available UNIX clone

  • a UNIX clone

  • a complete, copylefted UN*X clone

  • a freely distributable, independent UNIX-like operating system

  • a UNIX-type 32-bit operating system

  • an operating system developed under the GNU General Public License

  • an open-source operating system anyone can download from the Internet and compile

  • a freeware version of UNIX

  • a true 32-bit, multi-tasking, multi-threading operating system

  • a full-featured UNIX-type operating system

  • a powerful, flexible, 32-bit OS

  • a 32-bit multi-user, multi-tasking clone of UNIX

  • a full-fledged UNIX-like operating system

  • a UNIX-type 32-bit operating system

  • an embedded operating system

  • the open-source operating system

Superlative (stuff to like)

  • free

  • stable

  • awesome

  • a full, rich, dependable workhorse

  • the best Windows file server

  • a bedroom hacker's dream

  • the OS to run

  • the only real OS

  • a bandwagon

  • the future's universal operating system

  • a significant OS in corporate IS departments

  • the #1 OS in Germany

  • the #1 UNIX on x86

  • the heir to UNIX

  • the largest collaborative programming effort ever

  • the new king of the hill

  • the most dynamic, interesting and exciting development on the operating system scene today

  • not just for geeks anymore

  • a lesson in hard work and well-earned rewards

  • the first major evolution in operating systems since MS-DOS

Competitive (necessary for the war and sports stories that write themselves)

  • the fastest-growing OS outside of NT

  • a worthy contender

  • a juggernaut

  • a movement

  • the definitive answer to the small business needs for Internet connectivity, a web server and e-mail services

Flawed (always a good character trait)

  • complicated

  • a good teacher of science-oriented college students, but a rotten teacher for just about everyone else

  • overkill for most home applications

  • simply too hard to use for the average user

  • entrenched in a grass-roots development model

Believe me, you can't buy PR this good. Especially since the default story is about a fight between this Finnish dude and a Schwarzenegger character and it isn't an act. Here's a look at six different “versus” constructions:

  • Linux vs. Microsoft: 57

  • Microsoft vs. Linux: 110

  • Linux vs. NT: 512

  • Linux vs. (Windows, Cisco, BeOS...) 1968

  • Microsoft vs. (DOJ, Justice, Netware...) 2721

A big part of positioning is unconscious, yet revealed by who you list first. Is it Yankees vs. Dodgers or Dodgers vs. Yankees? We tend to list favorites first. So if I had to call a play-by-play on the games here, I'd say Microsoft appears to be the favorite in the company game, while Linux is the favorite in the OS game (which, fortunately, is the one that truly matters).

Even when editors don't use the “versus” construction, they still apply a rule I obtained recently from a Wall Street Journal reporter: “These days you can't write about Microsoft without bringing up Linux.” It's pro forma. Even if they know nothing about Linux, they still cast its character.

And what about Microsoft, really? Does this corporate Terminator truly consider Linux to be a competitor? “This much is clear to them, right to the top of the company.” One cross-platform developer told me this morning, “They can't win the server war. There's no way they can lock it down like they did with the desktop. Linux is now the server of choice. They know they have to cope with that, and they're really not sure how to do it.”

Let's hope they start figuring out how. Microsoft is a problem we don't want to lose.

LJ Archive