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Is 'Linux' a Word Better Left Unspoken?

By Katherine Noyes
Apr 18, 2013 5:00 AM PT

It's no secret that brand image is a crucial consideration in most any consumer product's success, and Linux is surely no exception.

Is 'Linux' a Word Better Left Unspoken?

That's been a hot topic of conversation before, but recently it's popped up again with a fresh new twist.

"The Linux Inside Stigma" was the title of the post on Linux Advocates that started the ball rolling this time, and rolled it has, to Slashdot and beyond.

'It Will Scare Buyers Away'

Linux Girl

"It's remarkable how Google doesn't mention the word Linux anywhere in their marketing of the Google Chromebook," began author Dietrich Schmitz in the post from earlier this month.

His answer? "Google didn't mention Linux because they know it will scare buyers away," Schmitz asserted. "That's unfortunate, but true. And we need to come to terms with that fact and work towards improving the 'Linux Inside' brand image."

That, of course, is easier said than done. In the meantime, the topic has ruffled the feathers of more than a few Linux fans.

'Pure FUD'

"The Linux Inside Stigma is pure FUD," began blogger Robert Pogson, for example.

"The thesis does not stand on its own feet," Pogson explained. "If consumers by and large do not know much about GNU/Linux and fear the unknown, it is because there are very few salesmen pushing GNU/Linux. If consumers by and large do not know that the inner workings of Android/Linux are Linux, it's simply because they are not technology geeks needing to lift the hood.

"Assuming consumers fear Linux for some reason is stupid," he added. "Ask a consumer and they will tell you they don't know much about it most likely because it is not constantly advertised and it's not on retail shelves. These are not problems for FLOSS, GNU/Linux or Linux. The people who need to know the software that's running do know, and they are shipping units plugged with */Linux every day."

'A Little Thought and Reading'

Samsung, for example, "reveals that Linux is inside with their technical specifications of smartphones including User-Agent strings," Pogson pointed out. "They are not doing a very good job of hiding Linux."

Samsung is also "not shy to advertise that their printers work with GNU/Linux," he added. "They even supply the text of the GPL and explain things for their TVs that run GNU/Linux. Why would they have any different view with other smart thingies? Does anyone believe Samsung does not know their customers?"

In short, "a little thought and reading easily counters the FUD," Pogson concluded.

'No Big Deal'

Others weren't so sure.

"Nothing new and no big deal," countered consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack, for example. "Outside of the server space, the most popular Linux uses don't have any real mention of the fact that they are running Linux."

In fact, "not including my computers and cell phone, I have three devices here running Linux (Wifi router, two-drive NAS, media center), and none of them mention Linux outside of the fine print," Mack added.

'Without Freaking Them Out'

Indeed, "unfortunately, over time Linux has become 'the hobbyist's OS,'" suggested Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone.

"The myth is that you have to know code or want to tinker with command lines to make Linux work," Stone explained. "It's been that way since Linux was born, and no one will let the facts get in the way of a good tale."

Of course, "there are always those that benefit from keeping that myth alive, and they'll spread it like fact as long as people will let them," he added. "Also unfortunately, those people have bigger advertising budgets than Linux does, and they spend millions upon millions of dollars telling everybody how cool their products are."

Fortunately, however, "despite these attempts to keep Linux down, it's being adopted anyway," Stone concluded. "Linux is literally everywhere. Now, we just need to find a way to let people know without freaking them out."

'Indecent Pressure'

Part of the problem is "ignorance of the fact that GNU/Linux is not for 'administrators and hackers only,' as it was 20 years ago!" offered Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C.

"The bigger part of the fault is the propaganda and indecent pressure Microsoft applies over hardware vendors," he charged.

ChromeOS' popularity is "not because they don't frighten the user by not mentioning 'Linux,' but because Google and Android are already well-known," Gonzalo Velasco C. explained. "It's like the 'I don't know what this watch has inside, but it gives me the hour and it's a Rolex, so I am going to buy it' issue."

In the same way, "it's a matter of the machine makers and vendors to be included in the equation for the 'Linux' brand [to] become a huge success both at home and in the corporate world," he concluded. "And M$ knows that."

'That Would Be Confusing'

Google+ blogger Brett Legree had a similar take.

"Why do some companies or distros not mention the word Linux? Personally, I think it is branding," Legree told Linux Girl -- "for product differentiation, to encourage recognition by users and reduce confusion."

Apple, for instance, "runs iOS and OS X on the XNU kernel, but nobody calls them 'iOS/XNU' or 'OS X/XNU' -- that would be confusing," he explained. "Similarly, Windows 8 and Windows RT and everything below that back to Windows 2000 run on the NT kernel, but Microsoft does not call them 'Windows 8/NT' and 'Windows RT/NT.'"

Next, "imagine for a moment what a new person might think with respect to Linux, when confronted with 200+ 'Linux' operating systems," Legree suggested. "One might logically assume that a program downloaded or purchased for 'Ubuntu Linux' would work on 'Chrome Linux' or 'Fedora Linux' or whatever, when it might not."

By leaving "Linux" out of the official name, on the other hand, "Canonical can write their own 'Ubuntu apps' and Google can write their own 'Chrome OS apps' and nobody -- hopefully -- will think that they are interchangeable."

'Devs Don't Talk to Each Other'

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet saw it differently.

"ChromeOS and Android are NOT LINUX," hairyfeet told Linux Girl. "I mean, do you call a router Linux? The entire reason there IS a stigma is because Linux devs are notorious for being like a herd of cats and breaking stuff out of boredom."

For example, "look at how they just threw out GNOME 2 and KDE 3, which had FINALLY become feature rich and stable," hairyfeet offered. "We are just NOW recovering, although frankly still not as feature complete, so no wonder Google just took the ball and went home with it.

"It's been said they spend a billion a year on it, why? Because if they didn't do it themselves they'd find out like Canonical has that Linux devs don't talk to each other, and 'works for me!' seems to be the ONLY thing they care about," he said. "When you are talking about trying to make an OS for tens of millions of people 'works for me!' does NOT cut the mustard!"

'Best Not Mentioning It'

Last but not least, Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor, said it's time to move past this debate.

"When you mention Linux to someone, they think of something which is still operated from the command line," Lim agreed. "Linux has unfortunately become synonymous with not being user friendly, or difficult to use."

Lim doesn't, however, agree with Schmitz that Linux's brand image should be improved.

"Linux-based operating system developers are probably best not mentioning it," Lim explained. "Many already do not."

The Linux name has "some marketing value, mainly to attract existing users to try something else," Lim conceded, but "it scares pretty much everybody else away."

Now, "it is really time to move on from this," he concluded. "As important as the Linux kernel is, each operating system should be allowed to get away from the 'Linux Inside' stigma. It is really their strongest advocates that keep dragging them back in."

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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