Microsoft is now spending $300 million to counter Apple's "I'm a Mac" ads. Does Linux need its own ad campaign?

It has been fascinating to see Microsoft roll out its (can you believe it!!) $300 million ad campaign, the one that counters the now famous and effective “I’m a Mac” ads. With those ads, the Apple folks have done a great job of defining a narrative for Microsoft and, in the parlance of advertising, affecting their brand image. The top dog at Microsoft for managing the brand image of Windows said “[Apple has] made a caricature out of the PC.” Given the stakes in the marketplace, Microsoft had little choice but to invest a ton of resources and get their own message out into the public realm.

You see the same dynamic in the political realm, too. It takes a ton of money just to get the most basic message distributed to the public – thus far the presidential candidates have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and they will likely top a billion dollars by the end of the campaign. The third-party candidates may certainly have interesting messages, but without the money, they’re dead in the water.

Given all of this tossing of hundreds of millions of dollars by Microsoft and Apple, what does this mean for the fate of our dear Linux operating system? Can we grow and gain market share without multiple $300 million ad campaigns? It’s an interesting question.

While individual companies such as IBM, HP, Red Had and Novell have all done their share of marketing and advertising to promote their Linux-powered wares, most of it has been targeted at the corporate user. These efforts have done much to polish Linux’s image as a stable, powerful and reliable option for the enterprise.

Unfortunately none of these companies is in a position to drive adoption on the desktop. It just isn’t their main focus. Meanwhile, the Mandrivas, Canonical-Ubuntus and Linspires of the world – the companies who are more desktop focused – simply don’t have $300 million to throw around, even as a group. In addition, the Linux Foundation doesn’t currently see big ad campaigns as part of its mission. Linux is simply too decentralized and doesn’t have the same profit motive behind it.

It has been interesting to see attempts to combat this decentralization, however. Perhaps the most interesting one I've seen was when a group of Linux enthusiasts attempted to get a Linux penguin onto a race car at the Indy 500. They solicited donations and did OK but fell short of the goal. While fun and interesting, the failure adequately illustrates Linux’s weakness when it comes to promotional opportunities.

But is it a weakness? Perhaps with every Linux provider doing their own thing with a focus on guerilla tactics is sufficient to keep it growing and clawing desktop market share away from Windows. Look how far we’ve come in such a short time, and we are growing, though slowly. We simply have to be patient and accept the fact that Linux won’t rival Windows on the desktop (i.e. in market share) for a very long time.

Plus, we also have the advantage of a more sympathetic press. Admittedly, mainstream journalists often don’t know what to do with Linux due to ignorance and are often too quick to categorize it as for geeks only. Nevertheless, Linux’s ethos characterized by sharing, volunteerism and merit will always draw warm feelings from journalists. We just need them to be more informed so that they can write about us more effectively. That task is probably more important than a big ad campaign.

Finally, people are simply curious about Linux, and we need to focus on satisfying that curiosity through an informed press corps.

So, now that I’ve done my brain dump, I feel better and I am more sure of something.

“I’m Linux. And I don’t need your stinkin’ $300 million ad campaigns.”