How to Sell Open Source

Risky Approaches

When advocating and marketing open source software, it's very tempting to make bold claims and sweeping generalizations. How many times have you heard the statement "Open source is more secure than proprietary software" (or some variant on that), for example? You know there's some truth in that statement; history has demonstrated again and again that proprietary software is often riddled with security holes that are exploited by not-so-nice people for years before they become public.

However, you have to be careful. You can say "open source is more secure," and then something like Heartbleed [3] happens (Figure 3). If you're out of the loop, Heartbleed is a whopping security vulnerability in the OpenSSL crypto library, which is used pretty much everywhere. The bug was disclosed in 2014, and vast numbers of websites were affected. It was so bad that the OpenBSD folks forked the library to do a massive cleanup, in the form of LibreSSL.

Figure 3: Be careful when marketing FOSS using "it's more secure" arguments! Things like Heartbleed can still happen.

Most importantly, though, those of us who'd trotted out the mantra "open source is more secure" ended up with egg on our faces. Yes, we still believed that statement, on the whole, but Heartbleed provided nay-sayers with a big chunk of ammunition: Open source is also insecure, open source has had vulnerabilities sitting in the code for years, and so forth.

Therefore, it's important to state that open source itself doesn't just magically make things secure; rather, it's the development process. You could even argue that OpenSSL was barely open source to begin with – yes, the code was there, but hardly anyone was working on it, and those who poked around inside tended to run away screaming. The oft-quoted line "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" didn't really apply here.

With this example in mind, you shouldn't say "open source is more secure"; instead, clarify it somewhat: "Open source development processes generally lead to more secure software." It's not as snappy, and it leads to more questions, but it's more honest. I think the same phrasing should be applied in terms of reliability as well – Linux adherents know that GNU/Linux is pretty rock solid, but they need to remember that other users may be affected by corner case bugs. As tempting as it is to poke fun at Microsoft for "blue screens of death," Linux is not competing against Windows ME any more. Windows has plenty of problems, and I'm glad Linux can avoid them, but for many users, it's pretty reliable.

Money, Money, Money

Another area where caution is required is price. Yes, GNU/Linux is free – as in beer – to obtain, but many other factors come into play when determining how much it really costs. For instance, if you need to replace a piece of hardware for something that's Linux compatible, that bumps up the price. If you want to deploy Linux (or other open source software, such as LibreOffice) in a large company or government body, end users might need training – which also affects the end price.

For this reason, many IT purchasing people talk about total cost of ownership (TCO). How much will it actually cost to use program X, given the required hardware changes/upgrades, staff retraining, and support costs? In the short term, this doesn't always look so great for Linux and FOSS – if a large company is already using a proprietary system, perhaps getting large discounts for bulk purchases, then a switch to a FOSS solution could initially be very costly.

So you need to bear this in mind when marketing FOSS. Don't just say "Linux is free," because pretty much every large deployment will require support of some kind, whether from the likes of Red Hat, SUSE, or Canonical or from in-house IT staff. A better approach is to say: "Over the long run, Linux/FOSS can reduce the total cost of ownership, with no need for license fees, along with improved reliability and security." Again, you may have to qualify the "reliability" and "security" parts somewhat, but it's the right way to sell FOSS.

Also on the subject of support: A good marketing strategy is to highlight that, with FOSS, you often have many more choices for support. As an example, if a company has thousands of PCs running Microsoft Office and a serious bug is affecting many users, what can the company do? Call Microsoft, maybe spend some more money, and hope that it gets fixed in the next release? If that doesn't work, they're up a certain creek without the slightest hint of a paddle.

Contrast this with a company that deploys LibreOffice: If a bug is affecting workers, the company can choose from many certified developers [4] and hire one to (one hopes!) fix it. Sure, it still costs money, but the company is not reliant on a single vendor and can shop around for solutions (including local ones). It's the free market at work – so much for FOSS being anti-capitalist, as some people used to say!

What Can You Do?

Many FOSS projects are in desperate need of marketing. Maybe their website is subpar, with no proper information on what the app actually does (alarmingly, a common occurrence). Maybe the project is making great progress but is not communicating this effectively with the outside world. Perhaps the project could reach out to new users and potential contributors via social media, Reddit, or Hacker News, but nobody involved has the skills or know-how.

Of course, most FOSS projects don't have the budget to hire a full-time paid marketing person, but if you're interested in this field, dive in and offer to help. As with all things in FOSS, you don't need to be an expert in the field – any help is appreciated. Plenty of books are out there that provide an introduction to marketing, and you can take those basic skills and techniques and apply them to the open source projects you use and want to support.

You can also look at the materials and processes used by large and established FOSS projects. For instance, the Mozilla community has a marketing guide [5] and other materials, including web and print materials [6] (Figure 4). Fedora, meanwhile, has a marketing team that's based around a mailing list [7]; in LibreOffice, there's a small community working on presentations, press releases, and other materials (Figure 5), and it organizes through calls once a month [8].

Figure 4: Mozilla's marketing community even has its own mascot.
Figure 5: Look at existing FOSS projects for inspiration – for example, the leaflets produced by LibreOffice's marketing team.

Of course, in the process, you'll build experience that you could potentially use in a paid marketing job some day, and if you end up rich with your own private island, don't forget about the humble Linux Magazine writers who set you off on your new career path.

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