The Linux Position

For most of my adult life, I have been two things: a journalist and a marketing expert. And frankly I did the latter mostly to sublimate the former. This made me a very different kind of marketing expert: one who brought a writer's skepticism to the marketer's job. At every meeting I always seemed to be asking the same two questions: 1) what is this? and 2) what's the story?

But most companies — especially those the technology world — are not interested in simple answers to simple questions. They make "solutions" rather than products, and "management inference engines" rather than spreadsheets. Worse, they want their stories to consist entirely of happy beginnings.

"Reporters write stories," I would say. "And stories don't start with 'happily ever after.' They start with a character with a problem. The solution comes at the end, and you never want to get there or the writer will find some other story to tell."

I didn't get very far with this. What got me somewhere was working on the character issue. I called this "positioning." I wasn't alone.

Hotbot finds me 233,780 pages on the Web with the word "positioning" in them. When I weed out GPS and other non-marketing meanings, I get 26,940 pages, almost entirely by marketing consultancies selling "strategic distribution analysis," "rollout plan reviews," "campaign launch programs," "performance impact studies," "collateral market options" "market penetration analyses," "outsourced staff deployments" and other BS, all served up in the euphemistically delusional language of NATO briefings.

No wonder Linux is a hit. It's a character with a story not one of those 27,000 agencies — including yours truly's — could have thought up. Who would seriously talk about "world domination" and "software that doesn't suck" in the face of Microsoft, whose software runs on every computer you see and whose market value exceeds the GNP of the Southern Hemisphere? "You see there was this Finnish guy and something about a penguin..." I don't think so.

So what we have with Linux is more than the world's first big time open source operating system. We have the world's first marketing success that owes nothing to marketing. This warrants further study.

So I just did for Linux what I used to do for my clients. I took a look at how the customers for its messages — the analysts, reporters and editors of the world — where describing its character and telling its story. I got on Altavista and looked up every page with the phrase "Linux is..." and found over 27,000 of them. Searching through links to the first fifty, I came up with these, which I sort into four ways of depicting Linux's character:

Descriptive (you've got to start somewhere)

Superlative (stuff to like)

Competitive (necessary for the war and sports stories that write themselves)

Flawed (always a good character trait)

Believe me, you can't buy PR this good. Especially since the default story that's is about a fight between this Finnish dude and a Schwarzenegger character that isn't an act. Here's a look at six different "versus" constructions:

A big part of positioning is unconscious — yet revealed by who you list first. Is it Yankees vs. Dodgers or Dodgers vs. Yankees? We tend to list favorites first. So if I had to call a play-by-play on the games here, I'd say Microsoft appears to be the favorite in the company game, while Linux is the favorite in the OS game (which, fortunately, is the one that really matters).

Even when editors don't use the versus construction, they still apply a rule I obtained recently from a Wall Street Journal reporter: "These days you can't write about Microsoft without bringing up Linux." It's pro forma. Even if they know nothing about Linux, they still cast its character.

And what about Microsoft, really? How this corporate Terminator really look at Linux? "This much is clear to them, right to the top of the company," one cross-platform developer told me this morning. "They can't win the server war. There's no way they can lock it down like they did with the desktop. Linux is now the server of choice. They know they have to cope with that, and they're really not sure how to do it."

But let's hope they start figuring out how. Microsoft is a problem we don't want to lose.