The limits of open source engineering
Hang with engineers for a while and griping about marketing is inevitable. The 3 Margarita lunches, the plush globetrotting, the hotties in Marcom and worst of all, they don’t understand the product.
Next bench marketing
Many engineers are quite good at marketing – to other engineers. HP got started with products by engineers, for engineers. Much of Silicon Valley is built on engineers building stuff for other engineers.
Engineers understand each other. They know how their minds work. Their problem-solving skills work in harmony. They know the problems and how to talk about them.
From a marketing perspective it is just about perfect.
Linux on the desktop
Where it falls apart is when a technologist is marketing to a non-technologist. Linux server vs Linux desktop.
Linux is huge in the server market. The developers and sysadmins who work on Linux have good communication. Red Hat engineers see the customer problems through RHEL support.
On the desktop, not so much. There is no Steve Jobs flogging designers and developers to make everything as simple as possible – but no simpler! – with good esthetics.
Consumer Linux so far
Linspire and Ubuntu have reportedly done a fair job in creating non-Linux guru versions of Linux that come with the codec, Wi-Fi, and application support that most users expect. How about taking people *beyond* what they expect?
Is there a Linux iLife equivalent? Or adding a suite of creativity apps for content creation, such as FreeMind (mind mapping), GIMP and Celtx (video production)? Your Linux guys will say “so what, it is easy to add those apps if you want them.” The marketing guy says “creating the perception of value is even more important.”
The prevailing thought seems to be Windows and Office based on a naive assumption that since everyone else runs Windows, that is what Linux desktops should look like. How about being *better* than Windows/Office?
What could be better?
Why not rip off the Mac instead? Most of the Windows auxiliary applications like Notepad are pretty lame. Surely Linux has superior versions. Then you could go from “looks like Windows” to “better than Windows” as a tagline.
The StorageMojo take
Linux on the desktop means Linux marketing that is target customer driven. Developers and/or Linus aren’t the people to drive this. It will take someone with money. Red Hat? Ubuntu?
It will also mean some changes in Linux governance, such as a “Real Linux Desktop” UI certification to start developing a more compatible look and feel across apps. I imagine getting Linux developers to buy into such a thing would be like herding cats. But if the Linux community wants a desktop presence they need to set their sights higher than Windows.
Comments welcome, as always. I was influenced by Walt Mossberg’s Linux review of a few weeks back, as well as my own use of OSS apps on my Mac. I’m thinking I’ll get an Eee early next year, which will really get me into Linux, ready or not.
Well, I work for an ‘enterprise software’ company. From what I’ve seen, the so-called customer driven marketing usually ends-up with ‘product’ that is a mess (from technical point of view). Make me wonder if there is a huge chasm between marketing people and engineers…..
I agree with a lot you said. It seems to me that geeks simply don’t get this desktop usability business. How make desktop applications more consistent, i mean similiar menu, same shortcut keys for cut-n-paste and such.I still can’t get used to ctrl-shift-C in terminal and ctrl-C in firefox on my Ubuntu…. I read about the road map for next Ubuntu, it’s no where on the radar screen. Linux distro has to learn a lot about Mac if they’re serious about pushing penguim to the desktops.
It isn’t easy to get product requirements right by listening to customers. Data center folks are typically operating at about the 5 foot level. When they have a problem it tends to be a very “here and now” specific problem.
The hard part is deciding if the customer’s problem IS the problem, or the symptom of a deeper problem. For example, volume management is a problem. Now we can make the volume management interface better, automate common procedures, design better menus and the like. But the real problem is that we are managing volumes instead of pools of blocks.
Marketing vision only goes so far. Marketers don’t know what the smartest engineers know. What marketing *can* do is help figure out how attractive an engineering innovation is to customers. They can also dress it up and make it as attractive as possible.
The worst situations are when product management starts trying to engineer the product and engineering starts trying to market it. Chaos for sure.
The bottom line for desktop Linux is that with some modest exceptions all the marketing is done by engineers. As a result the product isn’t competitive with Windows and OS X for the huge majority of users.
Servers are the battle ground.
They don’t need no stinking fancy GUI/WM or User Experience (UX) friendly applications like the desktop.
Red Hat has all the right pieces to be a major Linux player in the server market. They even bought a Web Framework (JBoss). This puts them light years ahead of most of the players. I wonder what the problem is? Ahead of their time? No name recognition in the desktop?
OpenSolaris kernels surrounded by GNU/Linux tools have a lot to offer. I don’t see Sun giving them the support they need to achieve critical mass. Sun has survival problems and I don’t believe they see “Open anything” helping them in the short run.
Sun did a wonderful thing with Star Office. Open Office is a wonderful Open port of it. Thanks, Sun!
At a recent show I talked with the FreeBSD booth several times. Each time I got more interesting information. Keep in mind that several years ago I predicted the extinction of the Chevrolet Suburban and FreeBSD in the same breath. FreeBSD is still around and growing.
ZFS is native in FreeBSD 7.0. FreeBSD is Unix. I am a Unix bigot.
I wanted Mac OSX, in particular the Aqua layer, for Unix. Didn’t happen until someone convinced Steve Jobs that was the way to make his dream, Lisa, live. Or maybe it was the other way around?
The rumor has been that OSX is built on FreeBSD. Apple says only selected parts. The heart of OSX is the Mach kernel according to Apple’s official statements that I have read. Who knows? Who cares?
Apparently FreeBSD enthusiasts.
If Steve Jobs permitted even a minimal Open Source port of Aqua then FreeBSD could sweep both the Open Systems server market and the desktop.
The recent changes required to move from the PowerPC to Intel moved Apple very close to having this.
The desktop would provide FreeBSD fans the revenue stream to finance the server market expansion. Free only goes so far in the server market. Takes “Big Bucks” to gain market share.
There was kind of a twinkle in the eyes of the FreeBSD guys. The twinkle that says you may be more correct than you imagine but the possible legal retribution keeps us silent.
Just “Food for Thought”…
I think you have summed up the problem perfectly Robin. The Linux desktop would need a dictator with good taste AND deep pockets to make it viable. A potential problem is that in producing the desktop that people want to use you could alienate other open source developers in the long run (leaving you with support issues).
Part of the problem is that anything decent and well marketed quickly attracts basic users. Basic users are fantastic and will talk to friends and encourage others to use your product. You can’t really win anything large without the basics (niches are about the best you can hope for otherwise). The snag is that the basics can’t help you with the engineering and they are numerous and very noisy. Thus if you attract basics in numbers you can’t handle your open source product will see a wave of support requests but have no one to actually work on them. Eventually an important basic will come along, see the problems and damn your development for good (people can only put up with so much for so long).
Another problem is that there is a very vocal set of people who just want Windows but free. They do not care for any difference and will complain upon finding one punishing developers for not having the Microsoft attitude and caring about users. Some of these people should be buying Windows but choose to rip it off and are not willing to put up with an inferior alternative.
One massive problem are patents. These are simply going to stop a large part of the open source experience being smooth and easy. All you have to do is look at Mac users who are saying “Well your experience pales compared to ours. We can do everything you can do but with less effort”. Apple has serious IP, can (and will) license those patents for what it needs to do and has spent a larage amount of time making a usable core which means their users DON’T have to take time. The idea of spending time forcing OSX on to non Mac hardware is unusual as you are just trading time for money.
Finally people hate change but backwards compatibility is expensive and boring. Unfortunately there is a very high cost to adding new features to existing products without breaking things. If important things on your open source desktop are actually closed you will find your hands eventually tied. This is because open source systems make radical changes that support new functionality and will change most of their existing stuff to support the new stuff. The bad news is that this doesn’t gel with binary drivers (that expect unchanging interfaces) or a system that continually receives new additions (and security updates) throughout its 8 year life. Each clean break sacrifices more users…
– Someone who cares about the BSD subsystem in OSX.