Let's stop playing the numbers game: free software has changed the game.

Tony Mobily's recent FSM post A future without Microsoft and the resulting comments have caused me to consider the way we use numbers to argue for free software in the marketplace. I'm not convinced that it's the best strategy because those waters are particularly muddy when it comes to comparing free and proprietary software.

I suppose it's not always a good idea to criticise your editor but then again I think I know my editor and he can take it. In truth Tony didn't go too deep into the numbers game so I think he survived unscathed. Anyway as Lando Calrissian said, here goes nothing.

Play our game not their game

Regular readers of this column may know I am an advocate of making an argument on the merits of your product and not the faults of the opposition. In the same way I think playing the numbers game with Microsoft is a foolish thing to do: that is their game and they are good at it. Despite what they say they are Microsoft are--at heart--bean counters: their bottom line is--well--the bottom line. What they care about is how many units they have sold. They are experts at manipulating statistics to show what they want you to see. For them it's all about the numbers and they are not alone. Proprietary software companies across the globe seem to follow daintily in the footsteps of the Redmond giant (sometimes if they get too close they get squashed but that's a different story). Their mantra is "business is war" and in war the one with the most people standing at the end, wins. In software the one with the highest numbers wins. It's rare to see free software projects actually aiming to destroy their competitors--it happens but not as much as in the proprietary world.

The free software community is not that kind of animal and nor should it be. Whilst individual businesses may employ free software, the software itself is not really about winning, it's about doing the best job it can whilst maintaining the freedom of its users. Numbers of users and installs are only relevant if those numbers mean something. What they mean to proprietary companies and what they mean to a free software project are poles apart. In the first instance it's about revenue, in the second it's about how many people you have supporting each other. Both are independently factors in the success if the product but the nature of that success differs vastly between the two models. Software sales figures are about revenue from what you did. The game has changed, it's now about revenue from what you do, not what you did.

A new game

Free software didn't change the game so much as revert it to its origins -- before it got corrupted. It then built upon the original game and -- if you like -- forked a new branch away from the proprietary control-freak one. The game is one where numbers no longer count for much. Saying there are 20 gazillion users has always said little about your product. A proprietary product sold to a customer does not mean it is still being used or any good. Equally and free software product downloaded does not mean it is still being used or any good. A proprietary sale does mean a single user/instance but a free software download does not. You just compare those two sets of numbers and as a lot of users find out: popularity in either camp does not mean suitability to your particular need. If we are ever going to break the "nobody got fired for installing X product" mentality then we need to stop harping on about numbers because they mean so little in reality.

End-users, IT managers, CTOs, CIOs and any other person with information or technology in their job title need to wake up and smell the coffee. They need to see that they've been sold duff advice. Buying the "biggest seller" does not necessarily mean increased support and certainly does not automatically mean greater suitability. It means you are investing in somebody else's business, not yours. Once you leave the sales and marketing game the picture becomes a little clearer. You can focus on what the software does, how it integrates, what kind of support you get, how does it perform. And when I say focus on those things, I mean you get to find out for real as opposed to a sales person promising what their developers can't deliver on.

Free software is rarely sold and if so it's even rarer to find it's the licence that is being purchased. Proprietary software is almost always sold, free and bundled version s appear to contradict this but -- as most of us know -- you pay for it in other ways. Comparing two products which propagate in entirely different models is next to useless. You always have to try and put one into the other's terms and it usually doesn't fit. I've said this before in a different context but it's like comparing apples and air, and it's as big a waste of time if you ask me.


The problem with my argument above is that the other lot keep comparing in the terms of their numbers game and those are terms the end-users is familiar with. So how do we combat that? For a start we can argue on our terms, within the new game. We can also demonstrate the effectiveness, not the popularity of our products. Finally we can do all we can to highlight the fact that the game has changed and that the numbers game is going to be one that smart people no longer play.


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