One of the first things you learn in marketing class is that you should focus on benefits rather than features. Instead of telling the public that your brand of milk is vitamin-enriched, you say that it promotes health. Instead of giving the detail about how your car's engine was redesigned, you explain how the car now has increased fuel efficiency.
In general, potential users are not interested in the technical features so much as what your product can do for them.
In the same way, Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, faults the community for always talking about free source code instead of the value that users receive. He makes an analogy to recycling, noting that activists did not make it a public concern by talking about how smelters work and the temperatures needed to melt old plastic. Rather, activists promoted recycling as an ethical act, a civic duty that might help avoid environmental disaster.
Brown suggests that, in talking with the general public, FOSS needs to use a similar strategy. Talking about code will appeal only to developers. When talking to anyone else, advocates need to talk about having control of their computing, or consumer choice, or extending the working life of hardware to keep it out of landfills.
These messages are both easier to understand and more relevant to the average person, yet most of the time they are mentioned in passing at best. Not being developers themselves, most computer users see no personal benefit in accessible source code, so they fail to be impressed with this feature.
So far, FOSS has failed to make a distinction between the political freedom it advocates and its usually free cost. The best it has managed is "free as in speech, not as in beer" -- a superficially amusing catchphrase to those in the know, but one that conveys almost nothing to everyone else.
Yet this distinction is crucial. Not only is free cost far from the epitome of what FOSS is about, but it means that any other software available for the download, such as Adobe Flash Player, is just as good as FOSS. It also opens FOSS to the accusation that, if it is free, it cannot be high-quality. But, despite the importance of making this distinction, no one has made any serious effort to express it plainly.
Within the community, FOSS is not just a license. It is a view of the world, a collaborative method for running projects, a declaration of the proper relation between users and their hardware and even a vocation. It is an activist worldview, one that hopes for a genuine social transformation.
All these could be powerful elements in a successful FOSS brand. Yet almost none is mentioned. So far as a FOSS brand exists, it is simply one business strategy among many possible ones.
This approach has helped FOSS to become more accepted in the short term. But in the long run, it is probably self-defeating. If the FOSS brand is based purely on pragmatism, sooner or later, the businesses who have adopted it may abandon it for another strategy that promises greater returns.
I suggest that FOSS as a whole is playing for larger stakes, and needs to look beyond the immediate advantages of viewing it as a business strategy. At the very least, FOSS should be branded as a means of transforming business, not just as an easily-discarded expedience.
All the distractions and faulty efforts at branding have obscured the fact that FOSS actually has a potential brand that marketers can usually only dream about. At its heart, FOSS is about making computers accessible, and ensuring that users -- not software or hardware vendors -- control their hardware.
This is a message that cuts across political lines, and fits easily into our views about consumer advocacy. Emphasized consistently, it would explain, simply and powerfully, why FOSS is so appealing that thousands of people devote their lives to advancing it. Yet it is the one message that is almost never heard. Instead of this effective brand, FOSS gets an obscured and confusing one, and, too often, not even that.
I don't pretend to know how to overcome these mistakes. They did not arise overnight, and opposition and long habit make them difficult to oppose. The most I can say is that overcoming them -- as well as any mistakes I might have missed -- requires clear thinking, stubbornness, and considerable diplomacy.
All that is clear is that as FOSS grows, its community needs to look beyond its aversion to marketing and take steps to establish and safeguard its own image. Since marketing is almost synonymous with misrepresentation, the idea is distasteful, but it still needs to be done.
And, really, does branding need to be dishonest, when FOSS legitimately has so much to offer? It is not a misrepresentation to present yourself in the best possible light when writing a resume, as long as you do not lie by omission or commission. So why should a community balk at doing the same? Especially when the alternative is to leave the image of FOSS to chance or manipulation by others.