Marketing GNOME

John Williams, a marketing lecturer and member of the GNOME marketing team, looks at the prospects for the marketing of our favorite desktop environment. Much of this article is a summary of the recent developments on and the gnome-marketing list.


Recently, Jeff Waugh proposed a goal for GNOME: 10% market share by 2010. This has become the slogan “10×10”; you may have seen this lately. This proposal seems to have met with approval by the GNOME community, judging by the reception to his speech at GUADEC and the traffic on the gnome-marketing list, the #gnome-hackers IRC channel, the wiki and the blog aggregation site. In this article, I summarize some recent discussions and developments that have occurred in these forums, and offer my thoughts on how to proceed.

How can we achieve the 10×10 goal?

Free and Open Source Software development is by its nature anarchic, but not necessarily uncoordinated. It is not clear (at least not always clear) exactly who the people who comprise “GNOME” are. However in what follows, I will assume that there exists a group of people who can implement the marketing function of GNOME.

Let me start by making something plain: marketing is not about convincing people to buy (or use) your product or service. That is selling. Marketing is about matching the output of your organization to the demands of the (chosen) market. Put another way, marketing is about finding out what people want, and then giving it to them.

This does not fit the usual picture of the GNOME hacker as someone who “scratches an itch”. However it can fit the picture of someone who wants to give back to the community and liberate people from non-free software.

The immediate implications of the “give people what they want” view is that if we are talking about marketing GNOME, we must first answer three fundamental questions:

  1. Who are the members of the organization that are going to do the marketing? (In for-profit marketing this would be a company, a corporation or a sole trader, for example. As noted above, I will assume that we have some kind of answer to this question.)
  2. Who are the members of the market that the organization is trying to serve? (Sometimes called the “target market” or
    simply “the market”.)
  3. What do they want? (That the organization has the capability and willingness to give them.)

As an aside, more and more marketers are realizing that people very rarely want products, rather, they want services (although a product may be involved in providing that service). There is a saying in marketing: “No one wants a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

In the rest of this article I will describe some ways that we can go about getting answers for these questions.

Who Are the People in the Market of GNOME?

Before you start saying “corporations are not people”, remember that before a corporation buys a product, or enters into a partnership with another organization, a person must approve that decision. All economic decisions are made by people (even if it’s a programmer who wrote the code for an automated purchase system!).

There seems to be a realization that there are at least four main groups of people in the market that GNOME can serve:

  1. Private users
  2. Organizations
  3. F/OSS Distributors
  4. Independent Software Vendors (ISVs)

It should be clear that the needs of these groups of people (“market segments”) are probably quite different. For example, the number one need of private users may be an easy to use and powerful GUI. Whereas the prime need of ISVs may be high quality and complete API documentation.

These are guesses. Who really knows the answers to these questions? When I say “really knows” I mean is their knowledge based on empirical research, or hearsay and opinion? Finding these answers, I believe, is one of the major challenges facing the GNOME marketing team, and one that cannot be delayed.

You may be tempted to call these groups “market segments”. This would only be true if, in fact, these groups:

  1. Have differing needs that we could satisfy
  2. Need different marketing strategies (not tactics) in order to serve them effectively

In other words, a group of people must respond differently to a given marketing mix (product, place, price, promotion) for them to be considered a distinct market segment. We need to survey people from these groups in order to determine whether they do, in fact, have differing needs.

What Do People in the Market of GNOME Want?

I don’t know. Does anyone know? I am aware that information has been gathered, but where is it published? And does it go beyond the quick-and-dirty convenience sample approach that typifies so many web-based polls?

We need to get some answers to these question before we can talk seriously about marketing GNOME. Fortunately, there is a well-established procedure for getting these answers: ask people.

Once you’ve got the answers that your market gave you, you must then think about whether they make sense to your organization. If you asked car owners what they wanted in a car, they would say they want a car that goes forever, never needs maintenance (or fuel), goes really fast, has great brakes, …

But can you deliver that?

Even if the answers seem reasonable, the next test is: if we gave them what they say they want, would they take it? For example: we may get results of a user survey that tells us that thing that the majority of people say is their biggest wish is bug-free software. And if they can’t get that, they are willing to settle for timely bug-fixes.

Imagine that the GNOME community could deliver that. Would that convince users to adopt GNOME? Maybe, but maybe not. There may be other factors (in fact, many of them) that will still be a barrier to the adoption of GNOME. Not the least of these barriers is the perceived learning curve.

The point is that asking people about their wants is just the start of the marketing research process. The next step is finding out what makes people choose our offering over that of our competitors. Very often in marketing research we find that these factors have very little to do with the market’s conception of an ideal product or service.

Once you have a product that people want, the next thing is to make it easy for them to get it. This is, essentially, what branding is about.


The essence of branding is creating a unique concept in the mind of your audience. This is achieved by consistent communications. All the messages that an audience receives about a brand should be consistent in the sense of being mutually reinforcing and not contradictory.

GNOME is currently suffering from fragmented and contradictory branding messages. The easiest way to see this is by examining the “GNOME websites”; where I leave the definition of that set to you. Whichever sites you include, I am sure that you will agree that they do not seem to form a coherent image of what GNOME is about.

Even more confusing is the distinction between what is “official” GNOME software, and what is not. If an application links against GTK and one or more GNOME libraries, there is probably a case to call it a “GNOME Application”. But in what sense is it “part of” GNOME? This is important for many reasons, not least of which is protecting the brand image of GNOME.

Now we come to the most important part of this article. What do we (GNOME developers? GNOME users? Both?) want GNOME to mean to people? What is the image that should come to mind when they think of GNOME, or see the foot logo?

At GUADEC 2005 Dave Neary gave a talk about GNOME in which he stressed the fact that GNOME is simple and “just works”. This is a fine ideal, but it is not true. There, I’ve said it. We are zeroing in on this goal, but we are not there yet. Applications and infrastructure modules have reproducible user-visible bugs. It is still too difficult to perform some common tasks. What will be the effect on the brand image of GNOME if we make claims that are simply not true for most end-users?

I use Windows XP and Fedora Core on a daily basis (in about a 20%/80% ratio) and I can say that GNOME (on Fedora Core) is no worse than Windows, but it is not really any better.

Recommendations and Ideas

It is easy to criticize and harder to make constructive suggestions. The following are my attempt to redress the balance of the tone of this article so far. At this point I must emphasize that many of these ideas have previously been discussed on GNOME mailing lists, IRC channels and wikis.

  1. GNOME needs a one-stop corporate Internet presence. Anyone who stumbles across a web site or chat-room should be able to recognize whether it is an “official” GNOME site or not. Reporters need to know who to contact.
  2. GNOME needs to clearly delineate what software is “part of” GNOME, as opposed to software that works with GNOME. Specifically, compiled binaries need to be available for the major distributions—- from the GNOME site. Asking users to compile from source is enough to discourage interest for many people.
  3. GNOME software development needs to focus on bug-fixing and usability in preference to new user-level features. (New features that add infrastructure to ease development are probably needed.) We must make the “just works” slogan real.
  4. GNOME needs to include a user-feedback agent and protocol. We need to make it easy for users to give feedback in addition to bug reports. (And bug-buddy needs some love.) This is about being customer focused.
  5. Such a feedback system should include a “phone-home” feature such that every Internet connected machine running GNOME can be counted. This is the most reliable way to begin to assess market share. The implementation of this idea raises ethical issues however.

I don’t see any real technical or logistical problems with
implementing the above suggestions. The barriers will be social. People will say that foo “is not in the spirit of” bar. This is a very real concern. But that’s what marketing is about: a sublimation and subjugation of the organization’s desire to produce, in favor of the demands of the market. If you can’t accept that, you’re in the selling game, not marketing. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. But you should realize that explicitly.


The barriers that stand in the way of the “10×10” goal are social and political rather than technical. By concentrating on branding and ongoing market research GNOME stands an increased chance of overcoming these barriers.

Discuss this story with other readers on the GNOME forums.


Posted on July 15, 2005, in July 2005. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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