Why open source marketing is so bad

Marketing a device or operating system is an exercise with a lot of moving parts to it. There are lots of publics you need to relate to -- the press, the developers, the retailers, the buyers. All of them are taking a risk. All must be convinced it's a risk worth taking, that it's not really a risk at all.

With the tech press queuing up at its equivalent of Super Bowl Sunday -- an Apple launch -- it's a good time to ask again why open source marketing is so bad.

Open source offers great value, it has tons of developers, it has dedicated followers, even political support. But its marketing, and thus its mind share, still lag behind.

In this Ubuntu is Exhibit A. You can sell a server operating system like Red Hat through speeds and feeds, facts and features. This is not true in the mass market.

Ubuntu's continued failures at cracking the mass market -- Canonical's failures on Ubuntu's behalf -- make one worry if open source has a chance.

Over at TechRepublic, Jack Wallen says they're at it again. Ubuntu Version 10.4 is going to have something like iTunes in it, he writes. "When this boxed operating system is placed on the same shelf (selling at $19.99 or $29.99) as Apple OSX and Windows 7, people are going to give Ubuntu a look and many people will purchase Ubuntu."

Sorry, but I'm getting that Wile E. Coyote feeling again. One reason is the price -- you don't know what it is? Another reason is further down in Wallen's piece, where he talks at length about depending on "the community" for marketing.

This has fail written all over it. Marketing is not just a creative, inherently proprietary process. It requires money and a coherent strategy to work. By its very nature it's top-down, not bottom-up.

Open source fails this test because, as I've written here many times, there is a price lower than free. The best price includes cash to push the product through the channel -- identifying prospects, delivering them the message, supporting the retailer with collateral, and front-line support.

All these things take a coherent strategy. Everything you do must sing the same song in the same key. People want to know that if they're putting their hard-earned money and time into something new, that there's not a bunch of cats being herded just behind the curtain.

Steve Jobs mastered this art over three decades ago, while I was still in college. I compared him to Springsteen in another blog post because, like The Boss, he's still working, it's still the same act, yet it's better than ever.

Marketing a device or operating system is an exercise with a lot of moving parts to it. There are lots of publics you need to relate to -- the press, the developers, the retailers, the buyers. All of them are taking a risk. All must be convinced it's a risk worth taking, that it's not really a risk at all.

This requires centralized budgeting, it requires a big, scaled investment up-front. You have to build an army, a bandwagon, everyone moving forward as one. When it works, no matter the industry, it's a beautiful thing.

It's something open source has yet to master.

I wonder if Google can do it?