How Do You Market Open-Source Applications That Are Free?

There have been a bevy of low-cost PCs hitting the market. began selling $199 PCs pre-loaded with the Linux-based Freespire operating system on Thursday. The Everex Cloudbook, which uses a 1.2-GHz Via C7 processor, is priced at $399 and scheduled to hit Wal-Mart store shelves next week.

But those in the biz of developing open-source software and products say marketing efforts could help to inform consumers that there's a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Windows.

"One day we'd like to see ads for four Linux desktops and three Linux laptops when you walk into at a Best Buy store," says Larry Kettler, president/CEO of Linspire, which designs and supports Linux-based operating systems for PCs selling at Wal-Mart, and other retailers. "That's our goal."

Kettler says Linspire has run promotions with computer stores MicroCenter and Fry's Electronics in the past, but there are no plans to market the $199 Mirus PC now selling through Pre-installed with a Linspire OS version called Freespire 2.0, the Mirus PC comes with an Intel Celeron 420 1.6-GHz processor, 1-GB memory, 80-GB hard drive, as well as multimedia support for MP3, Windows Media, Real Networks, Java, Flash, ATI, nVidia, and WiFi.



Interestingly, there are "severe obstacles" in marketing Linux products, says Robin Rowe, an expert in Linux and open-source technologies. "You can't carve up a marketing budget out of free; what percentage do you want?" he says, referring to the fact most open-source applications are free to users. "Another issue is getting approval to use the trademark from Linus Torvalds," which first developed the open-source software on which programmers around the world build.

Marketers know what it takes to sell PCs, says Matthew Wilkins, principal analyst at research firm iSuppli, pointing to efforts by Microsoft and Intel. "It takes a lot of investment on behalf of the companies looking to sell the boxes," Wilkins says.

"In this area the Linux movement sits at a disadvantage. There isn't one big company behind the open-source movement prepared to put millions into marketing and educating consumers. The typical consumer who buys PCs pre-installed with Linux tends to have more knowledge about computers."

Businesses also have an appetite for Linux-based machines. Novel--along with Sun Microsystems, which announced this week the purchase of the Swedish software company MySQL for $1 billion--have major commitments to support open-source platforms, but rather than target consumers, they aim at enterprise customers with applications and servers.

Sun says MySQL's product line will further support the open-source Web application platform known as LAMP, the acronym for the Linux OS, Apache, Web server, MySQL database and PHP/Perl programming languages. Sun will pay $800 million in cash and $200 million in options. The deal is expected to close by June 30.

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