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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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Bradley M. Kuhn

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 weeks.

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 Software Movement?"

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 stands for.

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 named Linux.)

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 software community.

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 application).

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

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