One of the most powerful aspects of free software is that its entire approach and mindset is orthogonal to proprietary software. It's not just better, it's profoundly different. That's one of the most important reasons that *everything* Microsoft has thrown against free software has not just failed, but failed dismally. The company can fight and win against more or less any conventional rival, since it has spent years honing its attack methods. But the latter are simply inappropriate when trying to compete against projects that are profoundly non-commercial: the community cannot be bought off or out; nor can it be undercut by selling goods at a loss against it. In fact, it is striking that along with undeniable strengths, the increasing commercialisation of open source has also brought with it vulnerabilities - notably legal ones - as some of free software's angularity has been smoothed down to make it more "acceptable" to enterprises.
Against that background, I have mixed feelings about the following idea:
If you've been alive and aware of mass media over the last twelve months, you've probably seen television commercials from Apple and Microsoft touting their operating system. From Apple's ubiquitous "I'm a Mac" to Jerry Seinfeld to Microsoft's "I'm a PC" retort, operating system commercials have been flooding the airways. Except one OS has been notably absent – Linux.
While the Linux Foundation would love to spend millions promoting Linux on TV, it's simply not our style (or in our budget). Even more importantly, Linux isn't a top-down, commercially controlled operating system. It's a grassroots product of mass collaboration. That's why we're sponsoring a community contest to create a Linux video that showcases just what Linux means to those who use it, and hopefully inspires many to try it.
The winner will receive a free trip to Tokyo, Japan to participate in the Linux Foundation Japan Linux Symposium in October 2009. The winning video will also be unveiled at the Linux Foundation's Collaboration Summit in San Francisco on April 8, 2009.
On the one hand, this is a laudable attempt to fight fire with fire, and give some much-needed publicity to the joys of using GNU/Linux on the desktop. It also draws nicely on one of free software's greatest strengths: its users. On the other hand, I believe that it is making a fundamental mistake by choosing to play by the rules laid down by the two biggest proprietary computing companies - Microsoft and Apple. In doing so, it throws away all its natural advantages - notably its differentness - and attempts to compete on its enemies' terms:
In 60 seconds or less, showcase your take on "I'm Linux." This should be why you love it and should inspire others to use it. The video can be an extensive production, a plain testimonial or as simple as a screen capture with a voice over. Be creative, be authentic and have fun.
Now, it might be possible to come up with something simply amazing, something that both adopts and subverts the chosen format. I certainly hope so. Because the danger is that without the huge marketing budgets available to Microsoft and Apple, the free software world will instead come up with a poor imitation of the proprietary software companies' efforts that will only go to confirm most people's suspicions about this currently marginal option for the desktop.