Friday, July 23, 2010

Are products more important than philosophies?

[Continuing from previous post]..

Open source and free software community has been growing and preaching its philosophy for over decades. This preaching has also been supported by solid product lines that are freely available, better in performance and are more addictive than any other proprietary software around. Yet the ground realities of the software world are still largely favorable for proprietary model. Comparing market shares, or user base would be futile since open source hardly follows any market mechanism. It is very difficult to keep track of number of open source users. Hence the only method to understand the popularity and usage patterns is to call hundreds of common software users and ask them what software do they have on their home computers.

I have been a part of a marketing campaign and fortunate enough to be present in the actual execution at various places, which gave an opportunity of understanding thousands of common computer users. With no exception, all of the people involved had some version of windows installed on their machines. That is not to say that there isn't anyone who uses anything other than windows. In fact, I myself have not used windows in past 6 years and am very well aware of the circles where Linux-based systems are used as a principle and Mac OS is of course there among niche markets. But for a common man, a personal computer means windows, he doesn't care what operating system means, he only knows there is something called windows on his machine and there is some version of it which is latest. Coming back to open source in general, there are indeed a few open source softwares that have made successful penetration. The most important software on a home computer in today's world, when a computer is almost useless without internet, is the web browser. And the only open source software that people mentioned widely was, Mozilla Firefox. The major reason for its success was that it was freely downloadable, worked on windows, and performed better than the default browser IE. Many people in fact defended Firefox against IE on performance and features front. But I cannot imagine these people saying that they used it because its offering them some kind of a freedom. I have to admit that it was very unlikely that they knew that it falls under something called 'open source', same is the story with vlc, dc etc. They use it, because it works for them.

These observations may have a few variations depending upon various demographics and geographies, but overall I don't think it would be very objectionable if I try to generalize them.

Thus we see that, on one hand, few important products such as linux-based open source operating systems (fedora, ubuntu, debian etc.) are being successful on philosophical terms, they aren't yet successful as products themselves in terms of usage by common people, while there are products like firefox, that are successful in terms of common usage but not contributing much for the philosophical front.

I won't say one success is more important than other, but probably there is something to be learned from both of these cases. Every open source enthusiast would like to see success on both the fronts. The question is how to market the philosophy and the products simultaneously?