Community Column: IBM Guerrilla Marketing: Just Image or a Real Commitment?
May 04, 2001, 15:30 (63 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Bradley M. Kuhn)
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By now, many residents of San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and
Boston have seen IBM's guerrilla marketing campaign, dubbed "Peace,
Love and Linux"---marked by the graphics of hearts, peace signs,
and Tux the Penguin spray-painted on the concrete around the
cities. I still see the one near the Free Software Foundation main
offices in Boston each morning; it has still yet to fade after two
Just recently, an intern here at the FSF office arrived with a
coffee cup with the same symbols on it. She said they were being
handed out on the streets of Boston. Then, she asked me an
interesting question: "Is what IBM is doing good for the Free
As I answered her question, I quickly realized that this
marketing campaign exemplifies just what we at the FSF and the GNU
project were concerned about when calling the system "Linux". You
see, our case for calling the system "GNU/Linux" is not just about
asking for an equal share of the credit. In fact, it's primarily
about what GNU stands for, and by contrast, what "Linux" often
The GNU project, since its inception in 1984, has always stood
for freedom for users and programmers. Sometimes, the term "Linux"
stands for that freedom, and many people do work on free software
under the "Linux" banner. But, that is not always the case.
Thus, my first reaction upon seeing the graffiti was to wish
that it included something symbolic of the GNU project; I wished
they had included a gnu. This would have been fair, since the
system that IBM markets is actually GNU/Linux: the GNU system using
Linux as a kernel. if the graphics included a gnu alongside the
penguin, that would have been a more accurate depiction of the Free
Software Movement. (Surely IBM wasn't just referring to the kernel
But, considering this led me back to our intern's seemingly
simple question, "Is what IBM is doing good for the Free Software
Movement?". In this light, the duality of the what "Linux" stands
for became more clear. IBM is awash in this duality. In the end,
the answer that I gave was: "Sometimes IBM does good by us, and
sometimes they don't. In other words, sometimes they support the
philosophy of GNU, but sometimes work against it."
IBM has indeed made useful contributions to the free software
community. For example, they have contributed many changes to GCC,
GNU binutils, and other lower-level programs. Of course, I thank
IBM for this support of free software.
However, even while IBM works hard to contribute, they also work
to market, promote and develop proprietary software applications
for GNU/Linux systems. For example, the IBM Small Business Suite,
recently announced on slashdot.org (and elsewhere), remains
proprietary software, and is thus out of the reach of the free
So, I have to wonder if IBM seriously shares the values that our
community holds dear, as their marketing campaign suggests. It's
hard to tell---on some fronts they have made a commitment to share
and cooperate with the free software community, and on other fronts
they work actively against us.
IBM's public relations department is savvy. They know that the
free software community has strong values, and guerilla marketing
that seemingly defies traditional authority while playing to those
values is likely designed to strike a cord with the Free Software
Movement. And, the marketing can even be backed up with some solid
evidence of IBM's contributions to our community.
But, like any marketing campaign, I plan to look beyond the
fading spray paint and empty black-and-white coffee cups, and ask a
deeper question: "What are you doing for us next, IBM?"
On that front, I urge the free software community to petition
IBM to release their GNU/Linux-based products as free software. For
example, IBM just recently bought Informix, the maker of a large
database system, which competes with Oracle. We must try to
convince IBM to release Informix's database products as free
software, lest proprietary software database systems become a de
facto standard on free GNU/Linux systems.
Meanwhile, if you work for a company that wants to license
proprietary software for GNU/Linux from IBM (or some other software
company), and you fail to change their minds, you can instead
encourage the company to simultaneously make an equal contribution
to the development of a free software equivalent. For example, if
your company licenses Oracle or Informix, encourage them to also
contribute to the development of mySQL and PostgreSQL. Or, if your
company licenses IBM's Small Business Suite, encourage them to also
contribute to GNU Enterprise and Evolution (the GNOME groupware
These little steps and encouragements to the right people can
help make free software alternatives possible. I hope that you
won't be fooled by IBM's guerilla marketing. IBM does some things
to help the community, and we should genuinely thank them for such
contributions, but we must also encourage them to take more steps
toward full support of software freedom.
Copyright (C) 2001, Bradley M. Kuhn
- Sun Offers to Help IBM Clean Up Sidewalks(May 01, 2001)
- AP: IBM in hot water over Linux 'graffiti'
(Apr 25, 2001)
- CNN.com: IBM's [Linux] graffiti ads runs afoul of city officials(Apr 19, 2001)
- IT-Director: Peace, Love, Linux and IBM(Mar 29, 2001)
- LinuxJournal: Big Blue's Love Letter to Linux
(Mar 08, 2001)
- LinuxPlanet: The StartX Files: Peace, Love, and Linux? My Foot!
(Mar 06, 2001)
- IBM's First Linux Ad of Its New Campaign: 'Peace, Love, and Linux'(Mar 06, 2001)
- IBM Rolls Out Linux Advertising Campaign(Mar 05, 2001)
- CNET News.com/Bloomberg: Big Blue spreads Linux love with new ads(Mar 02, 2001)