Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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The publicity benefit of being commercial

There are many areas of software where free-of-charge products exist that are fully comparable, often even superior, to the commercial products.

Unfortunately, when it comes to publicity (even outside of advertising and publicity stunts) the commercial products seem to have a major advantage. A typical example is a PC magazine making a product comparison—and only listing the commercial products. Another is a regular newspaper reporting on the release of a popular commercial software, but not on a free-of-charge software; or the report mentioning a few commercial competitors, while leaving the free-of-charge ones out.

To speculate on the reasons:

  1. Journalists are to a large part ignorant (there is plenty of evidence of this) and poor at background research (ditto), which means that they are governed by press releases, names they see in advertising, and similar, when making their choices.

    This is particularly dangerous when a journalist wants to report on the most commonly known products, rather than the leading products: Partly, this is a disservice to the reader; partly, the risk of misjudging what products are most known is significant. Notably, many of the best tools are open source products with their main user basis in the Unix/Linux area (but, importantly, still being available under Windows), while most journalists will use Windows and may misjudge the popularity of many tools outside the top 1–3. (The most popular tool under Windows is almost always the most popular over all; but after that the Windows popularity rapidly becomes misleading.)

  2. Journalists are governed by outside forces, including donations, manipulations that they fail to detect, and a wish to keep advertisers happy. (Consider e.g. this story about a fired journaliste or the infamous Jeff Gerstmann casee.)

  3. Commercial products are given a higher credibility based on their being commercial, and other products are not taken seriously. (As many people experienced with open source and free software can testify, commercial products are very often inferior, rather than superior—even before factoring in licensing fees, over-expensive maintenance contracts, and other costs of commercial products.)

  4. Newsworthiness is (legitimately, but naively) based on the number of users. Complications to consider include that the number of users of commercial products are often over-estimated, while the same number for free-of-charge products is often under-estimated; that often many rare and casual users are compared with few intensive users (making the numbers misleading); and that this can create vicious circles of popularity and use of commercial products.

  5. Sometimes tools like the editors Vim and Emacs are considered “too advanced” for the readers (a highly disputable and, ultimately, destructive position), leaving the article to discuss inferior products like EditPlus. This is tantamount to limiting a review of cars to models with less than 200 horse powers for fear that the readers would be unable to handle the car—that judgment should be left to the reader.


    I have also repeatedly had colleagues with a background exclusively with Windows proclaim the excellence of EditPlus based on the “killer feature” query/replace with regular expressions—something which obviously does not sit well with Linux users, who consider regular expressions a basic feature that every editor must have, before it can even be called an editor. (And which Unix editors have had since before I was born...)

    This to further illustrate the dangers of a too Windows centric view.

  6. Many open source products make heavy use of plugins and similar mechanisms to supply a feature scope that exceeds that of corresponding, more monolithic and hard to extend, commercial products. Unfortunately, a too casual look can give the impression that they bring less features, which could lead to exclusion from tests (or to misleading, if technically correct, information in feature listings when they are tested).