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MakeTheMove.Net: Campaigning For Linux

Never underestimate the power of a clever ad campaign.  Love them or hate them, the white-studio Apple ads have made the Mac that much more visible and enticing an option to PC users.  Now a cadre of Canberra Linux Users group folks have crafted a simple Web site to compel Windows and closed-source software uses to switch to Linux/FOSS: Make The Move.  It's a great idea, but as much as I hate to admit it, I think the delivery

Never underestimate the power of a clever ad campaign.  Love them or hate them, the white-studio Apple ads have made the Mac that much more visible and enticing an option to PC users.  Now a cadre of Canberra Linux Users group folks have crafted a simple Web site to compel Windows and closed-source software uses to switch to Linux/FOSS: Make The Move.  It's a great idea, but as much as I hate to admit it, I think the delivery needs work.

Let's say I'm a perfect candidate for switching to FOSS: a guy with a PC that has broken down one too many times for his own good.  I've heard about this Linux thing, but I'm not a PC expert and don't want to become one.  I just want to not have to deal with this nonsense every time I try to do something with my computer.  So I go to the MTM website, and out of curiosity I click on the first section, and I read this:


FOSS stands for 'Free and Open Source Software'. It is a movement started in 1983 by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation (FSF). 'Free' in this context refers to 'freedom' (as in free speech), not price (although FOSS also tends to be). As the FSF says "Free software is a matter of liberty not price" and this is an important distinction to make. Many pieces of software out there claim to be 'free', and I'm sure you have heard of terms like 'freeware' and 'shareware'. These types of software tend to be free (as in price) but not free (as in freedom).

Er... I thought Linux was going to help me run my computer better.  I guess I was wrong; it sounds even more complicated than I thought.  So I close the window and go back to trying to figure out why I can't open this attachment someone sent me, because I've got work to do.  I never get to the fourth page of the site, wherein I am told that Linux and FOSS don't have the spyware and virus hassles that Windows does.

You see the problem?  As noble and well-intentioned and informative as that opening page is, it doesn't tell the reader the most important thing right up front: Why should I, Joe User, make the move?  That's something we should get right up front.

I wrote to Chris Smart, the chief instigator of the site, and told him as gently as I could that I felt the pitch needed work.  I made it clear I wasn't trying to denigrate any of his hard work, just that the message seemed to be missing its primary audience.  He wrote back and took my criticism well: "You're the first person to suggest this [i.e., moving the most user-centric aspects of the pitch up to the fore], but it does make sense.  I guess I wanted to tackle the issue of 'how can all this be free?' before trying to sell the reasons why people should move to free software. But I guess doing it your way people can go to the other pages if they want to know more. I'm (supposed to be) working on a new version, so I'll think about it when the time comes."

Now, I can understand why he would want to tackle that issue first.  But -- and yes, this is sad but true -- most computer users are simply not going to care about it.  Most users are awesomely (and, who knows, probably rightfully) uninterested in the welter of technical, ethical, social or legal issues involving software.  They may come to care later on down the line about free-as-in-speech vs. free-as-in-beer, if they're inclined to do so, but for the most part, they don't.  Moreover, this is not some giant, evil obstacle that has to be demolished.  It's just the way things are.

As a contrasting example, look at Firefox's "Take Back The Web" campaign, or even just the unambiguous claims about Firefox on the Firefox site.  Stay secure on the Web!  (Who doesn't want that?)   Personalize your browser!  (That sounds fun!)  Enjoy a better Web experience!  (Sweet!)  All the reasons are right there, up front -- there's no theory to decipher, no history lesson.

From what I can tell, the best way to make open source appealing to users as they are now is to talk to them from the position of their immediate needs, and leave the bigger issues as an optional exercise for those inclined to learn about them.  To wit: "What if I told you that you didn't need to live with viruses, spyware, or spending tons of money to do the simplest things on your PC?"  Now that sounds like something you'd want to hear more about no matter who you are, doesn't it?

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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
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Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter