June 2009

The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”


Currently, proprietary businesses dominate the operating systems market. In 2008, Microsoft Windows controlled 87.9% of the market with Mac OS X following up with 9.73%, leaving only 2.37% of the market to open source alternatives. However, in the past year alone, Linux market share has grown from .80% to 1.02% (a 27.5% increase) and other open source operating systems have grown from .22% to .58% (a 163% increase). These figures translate into millions of open source operating system users. The question is how to continue these upward trends and break the stranglehold that proprietary operating systems have on the markets. This article discusses the role that open source advocacy plays in increasing open source usage.

Chipping Away at Market Share

One of the main goals of open source advocacy is to break down the barriers that proprietary businesses have placed in the market. Cracks are already forming in these market foundations. Programs like Firefox have demonstrated to the world that open source does not mean low quality. Over the course of the past 5 years, Firefox has chipped away at the Windows browser stronghold, with Internet Explorer's dominance holding 47% of the browser market in April of 2009, up from 7.2% in its former form Mozilla (a 563% increase), while Internet Explorer declined from 84.9% to 42.1% (a 50.4% decline). Firefox did so through simplicity of design, solid programming and clever marketing. Coupled with a strong user-base and community driven support, it adapted to the needs of computer users in a way that proprietary software failed to do.

Firefox is the greatest example of open source success to date, and there are other projects who have made headway against proprietary applications. GIMP, is an open source alternative to Adobe's Photoshop. The GIMP graphic editor has a strong user base, flexible plugins, and community based documentation and tutorials. OpenOffice, sponsored in part by Sun Microsystems, has made some serious headway against its pricey proprietary counterpart, Microsoft Office. Ubuntu, a community developed, Linux-based operating system, has shown that open source operating systems are accessible to the average user. Ubuntu has helped to push the Linux market share to 1.06%, a record high. Use of the Windows operating system has declined to below 88% for the first time. The opportunity for other open source operating systems, such as the BSD family of operating systems, exists. The iron is hot and it is time to strike.

Proprietary operating systems like Windows and OS X still have a solid hold on the market. Misteps such as Microsoft's release of Vista without complete driver support for commonly used non-legacy hardware has shown common users more of the technical side of computers. It has become less foreign of a concept to them, and they are starting to understand that there are alternatives. Ubuntu's success is a shining example that open source alternatives exist. However, with open source, there are market barriers to be overcome.

Recognizing barriers for proprietary software and capitalizing on them, while acknowledging the challenges for open source, provides a 2-fold way of meeting the demand of the user base and overcoming the obstacles to success.

Overcoming Barriers

One barrier is name recognition. Ubuntu and a few other Linux distros, such as RedHat and SUSE, have broken this barrier. Many other open source operating systems have not. We present BSD as an example of a mature, open source operating system that can readily meet the technical needs of a desktop user but which has not yet achieved recognition of market share. For example, the following questions don't have ready answers to the general computing public: "What is BSD? Who uses BSD? Why should the average user even care about BSD?"

In order to reach a broader audience, guerrilla marketing, social networking, blogger support, message boards, and print media should all be considered in getting the BSD name out there. Spreading the message and linking to a centralized repository of information helps to educate and influence executives, information technology management, and the average user. Community involvement is the common thread in open source success stories, and the BSD community is already strong and connected. Being friendlier, warmer and more accommodating to the newest users help with:

  • user retention

  • increased BSD proselytizing

  • creating a larger user base to generate greater word of mouth advertising

A second barrier is helping non-technical users transition by enabling them to install, configure and use BSD without overwhelming them with details that aren't relevant to their needs. This can be accomplished through easy to understand documentation and a friendly community based support system for people who are new to both BSD and open source in general. Many seasoned users could use the reminder that everyone was new at one point and that they are effectively ambassadors of BSD. Keeping this in mind when encountering novice users helps them feel more welcome which, in turn, increases the user base and benefits the community at large. Off-hand comments in mediums such as IRC channels and user forums can make new users afraid to ask questions, which is a detriment to the community as a whole. Helping with simple troubleshooting issues for new users should be considered a service to the entire BSD community, rather than an annoyance or hindrance. Social networking should not be something that worries users, it should be something that comes as a second nature. The more intimidating it is to adopt a new operating system, the less likely it is to be done. In this regard, Linux distributions such as Ubuntu have catered to the needs of the novice user. This has resulted in an increased adoption rate.

A third barrier is application and driver support. Hardware companies have a proprietary interest in protecting their intellectual property. Due to the permissiveness of the BSD license, BSD is in a good position to create relationships with companies that enable them to maintain confidentiality and protect their business advantages. However, companies release drivers when user base numbers dictate a need. Increased hardware support helps increase user base numbers. This is a self-feeding cycle that needs to be encouraged. User based initiatives such as the SponsorBSD Project (http//:www.sponsorBSD.org) gives people the opportunity to network and connect sponsors with developers in a centralized location. This site is still in development and needs coders, designers, test sponsors and developers to make it a user-friendly and effective site.

Organizing the efforts of the BSD community will help bring resources together and break down market barriers more effectively. These activities take the time, effort and dedication of mostly volunteer workers. This organization effort will eventually pay dividends to the whole community. Currently, users have to dig around postings and articles on various forums, blogs and websites, causing a greater workload on the user. Users have a difficult time knowing where to put advertisements for development and to find user resources. Creating developer wish lists and development teams will foster a greater sense of teamwork and community.


Challenges should be considered as opportunities to better the BSD and other open source communities. The BSD community needs to accept and even welcome fair and constructive criticism. BSD advocates need to work more to meet the challenges that the community faces in making the BSD operating systems successful in attaining a significantly greater share of the marketplace. If the BSD community can follow in the footsteps of other open source success models as well as take steps to address its specific market barriers, there is no reason to believe that the foundations of proprietary operating systems dominance cannot erode away further in the future. Eventually, these monolithic entities will just be one of many options from which computer users decide best serves their needs.

Recommended Resources

BSD Magazine

Daemon Forums

FreeBSD Foundation

NetBSD Foundation

PC-BSD Project


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