Old marketing tactic of FUD is backfiring

Why Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt can be beneficial to the open source community

Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, or FUD, is an old sword with a new blade in today's competitive IT world. If you cannot beat 'em, create controversy. But the old tactic is starting to lose its effectiveness.

One current example of FUD is the latest flare-up in the long trend of tension between the open source community and Microsoft. Microsoft has stated that various players within the open source community are infringing its patents, and some open source firms have denied it. FUD seems to be as much a part of IT competitition as ever--or is it?

"Hmmm... as the old saying goes, 'there is nothing new under the sun,' says Dave Roberts, VP of Strategy and Marketing at Vyatta, which competes with the established Cisco in routers, selling an open source product line that, the company says, delivers twice the performance of older proprietary routers at half the price. "FUD has been around as long as marketing has, which is to say forever," Roberts says. "Insofar as that's the case, I don't really see anything new in FUD. While technology advances and topics change, FUD has and will continue to be used as a part of the marketer's toolbox."

However, some see some new tint in the color of FUD as it unfolds on the landscape that open source serves. "The target and content of FUD, especially around open source, are changing," says Dirk Morris, CTO and Founder of network threat management company Untangle. "Sophisticated customers aren't listening to the old open source FUD, like it's insecure or of poor quality, so they've tried new techniques like attacking the licensing issues or the threat of action from Microsoft or SCO on patent infringement."

While established vendors are the typical sources of FUD, some are starting to question it. William Hurley is the Chief Architect of Open Source Strategy at BMC Software, a proprietary management software firm which now faces competition from open source upstarts. He sees the FUD wars as putting the open source companies into the position of David, versus Goliath, and feels that open source start-ups are all too often viewed as a threat. Instead of attacking the newcomers with FUD attacks, the older proprietary firms should really be seeing them as an opportunity to partner. He believes that the open source start-ups are caught up in the same FUD practice that they loathe, by spinning the press in retort and playing the role of David. It becomes an unconstructive cycle.

While FUD may seem to be detrimental to a company when attacked, in some cases it may actually be beneficial.

For one, it serves to separate the wheat from the chaff early on. It allows customers who are susceptible to false precepts to be driven away. A software company may then dedicate effort such as customer support and service to build viable, long-term relationships with "good" clients -- the kind everyone values.

"When confronted by a customer who has had the manufacturer use FUD, we are more likely to win the sale," says Bob Kanof of the MemoryStore.com, who sells factory original, tier one memory upgrades. "Customers don't like to be misled or lied to outright." FUD actually can help win the customer to the side of the attacked.

"Being the target of FUD can be excellent validation," says Dirk Morris of Untangle. "Sometimes FUD in the open can be a rallying point for those under attack, as was the case with some FUD being used against Google's recent open source mobile computing platform." Customers and prospects can often see beyond the FUD.

"A wise consumer can always see through FUD technique and the sales person using the technique gets invalidated," says Joseph Bachana, President of DPCI, a firm specializing in online content. In another sense, if there is any truth or half-truth to the FUD, it brings it to the forefront and serves as a check and balance so a company can actually correct itself before any negativism spreads.

However, open source seems to be influencing the balance of power in the FUD game by some things it offers to prospects that proprietary products don't always offer. Open source is less expensive and quicker to implement, so the attractive ROI tends to dissipate any negative sentiment from FUD.

"The risk is lower to implement an open-source solution," adds Bachana. "In our market, you can spend millions on a content management platform, which can be written off against an ROI. If you can achieve an 'interim' solution with a LAMP-based platform for significantly less money, then the financial risk is dramatically lower. Further, the LAMP-based solutions often can be deployed more quickly, so the customer can see ROI results earlier. If the customer elects to go with a licensed solution in the future for whatever reason, they can easily justify the initial expenditures on open source."

Open source affords customers some freedom to test reality before they go full scale with it. "Open source is accessible and people can test reality without having to blindly believe one side or the other," says Dave Roberts of Vyatta. "Download the code and try things out for yourself. FUD used against open source is quickly countered by the cold, hard reality of a real-world test."

Roberts points out that when you are quickly able to form your own opinion, there is little reason to rely on the biased opinion of somebody else with a stake, one way or another. "This does cut both ways," he says. "Open source FUD tends to fall away as people test things for themselves, but accurate criticism tends to stick until it is corrected."

"I sometimes tell friends that getting some schools to even consider open source software is like converting a Redskins fan into a Cowboys fan or getting a conservative to vote for Hillary Clinton," says Matt Burkhardt, President of Impari Systems, an open source technology solution provider for K12 schools. "They usually can't verbalize why they won't change, but they know it's a bad idea. So if FUD worked for the Bush Administration for the war in Iraq, I'm sure it works for proprietary vendors."

Microsoft was asked to comment for this article, but chose not to participate.

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