Free Isn't Enough

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 25, 2008

This post by Dan Kusnetzky highlights one of the things that open source and free software projects have to contend with (not to mention the companies that promote them): Free isn't enough to carry the day.

A key challenge faced by any open source project is getting mindshare. It’s a truism that if decision makers don’t know about a product, they won’t consider it. If they don’t consider it, they’ll select other approaches. There are too many people shouting out their own Xen messages. Comprehension appears to be lost in all of the noise. Qumranet and, now, Red Hat are tooting the KVM horn. If we look at VMware or Microsoft, there is only one company, a company with deep pockets, talking about their own technology.

Better funded (from a marketing perspective) competitors, such as VMware and Microsoft, seem to get the headlines. This can be directly associated with mindshare.

I, for example, get messages and calls from the folks at VMware and Microsoft on some topic or another every week. Citrix and Virtual Iron speak with me about once every couple of months. Red Hat, Sun and SUSE speak with me about once every couple of quarters. Oracle speaks with me once in a blue moon. If that level of communication is similar to that received by other analysts, journalists and consultants, the Xen message doesn’t stay on the radar screen for long before it is drowned out by everything else happening in the industry.

Even though it might be nice to think that journalists (and bloggers, and dual-duty freelancers who wear both hats interchangeably...) are out there doing tons of research to bring the right information to IT readers -- guess what? Most writers are struggling to hit deadlines, make up for incessant staff cuts as publications trim budgets, and generally ride the tide of news in their various beats.

Reporters only have so many hours in the day, which is why the PR thing is so successful. A writer can spend cycles trolling around to find trends and things that aren't being reported on (and the good ones do, when they can) or they can cover the stories that are right in front of them. There's also the small matter of groupthink -- everybody covers the same stories, because each publication wants to be sure to cover the "important" stories. Again, this leaves little room to be outside the box.

The upshot of this is this: If open source projects and companies want to succeed, ultimately, they have to play the same game as the "big guys," which means going toe-to-toe with PR and marketing. Whether it's paid PR pros taking the lead, or contributors wearing the PR hat, someone has to speak for the FOSS projects or they'll be ignored. Free isn't enough.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier works for Novell as the openSUSE Community Manager.