Why talking about “alternative” is shooting yourself (and others) in the foot

I’ve seen it happen time and again. Companies and individuals go out of their way to write great open source software, then, when the moment comes to let the world know about it, they (and/or their early adopters and proponents) present it as “an alternative to [proprietary solution] Foo”.

That’s bad when Foo is an established player:

But it borders on self-flogging nonsense when Foo is not even in the stores: Linux MPX Multi-touch Table May Become Alternative Microsoft Surface.

When you frame things like that, you’re giving positive (and free) advertising to the opposing party. At least for me and for those I asked, the following accurately portrays what the phrase “alternative to Foo” brings to mind:

Whether you’re the author of “Bar” or a passionate user advocating it, is that really the picture you want to suggest? (This, by the way, is why there’s no place for things like alternative to MSN/AIM/YahooIM/whatever on sameplace.cc, despite much well-meant advice to the contrary.)

“Oh, that’s all good and well, but how am I supposed to advocate Firefox to someone who doesn’t even know what a browser is? How, if not contrasting it to something they know, such as Internet Explorer?”

If you’re advocating a product, and genuinely believe that it’s better (if not, why are you advocating it in the first place?), that is the idea you want to get across.

“Oh, you’re still using this to browse the ‘net? Haven’t you upgraded to Firefox yet?”

2 thoughts on “Why talking about “alternative” is shooting yourself (and others) in the foot

  1. David Keech

    “Oh, you’re still using this to browse the ‘net? Haven’t you upgraded to Firefox yet?”

    Clearly this sentence only makes sense in the context of watching someone actually using Internet Explorer. In which case you are implicitly offering Firefox as an alternative to Internet Explorer. Try bringing Firefox up in a conversation away from a computer without either you or your conversation partner mentioning IE. I think you’ll find that it’s practically impossible.

    On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to have done Firefox any harm. It has enjoyed steady growth for the last five years or so and doesn’t look like slowing down; if anything, its growth is actually speeding up.

    It’s also dishonest. The Gimp is an alternative for Photoshop. Open Office is an alternative for MS Office. Linux is an alternative for Unix (and later Windows and Mac OS). They were conceived as free/better (yes, I know free is better but I meant “with more features/stability”) alternatives to the established product and to pretend otherwise is to ignore the reason they were created.

    The picture you provide is an accurate picture of the state of things. You shouldn’t be trying to sell Firefox on the basis of “Everybody else is using it” because that is not true. Rather, you should say “Firefox is better and you should use it even if no one else does”. In the analogy of your picture, I dislike yellow products and someone tells me there are purple, grey and green products around. The popularity of the products doesn’t matter, only the colour.

  2. bard Post author

    Clearly this sentence only makes sense in the context of watching someone actually using Internet Explorer. In which case you are implicitly offering Firefox as an alternative to Internet Explorer. Try bringing Firefox up in a conversation away from a computer without either you or your conversation partner mentioning IE. I think you’ll find that it’s practically impossible.

    I assumed there was no need to spell the obvious. I was wrong…

    It’s also dishonest. The Gimp is an alternative for Photoshop. Open Office is an alternative for MS Office. Linux is an alternative for Unix (and later Windows and Mac OS). They were conceived as free/better (yes, I know free is better but I meant “with more features/stability”) alternatives to the established product and to pretend otherwise is to ignore the reason they were created.

    Gimp is also built on GTK. Linux was also initially meant for x86 architecture only. We don’t mention those facts when advocating either. There are many facts we ignore when advocating a product because they’re irrelevant to the communication. To most users, why Firefox was created is as relevant as what language XPCOM components are written in.

    The picture you provide is an accurate picture of the state of things. You shouldn’t be trying to sell Firefox on the basis of “Everybody else is using it” because that is not true.

    I’m not. Instead, I’m moving what other people think and do out the picture.

    Rather, you should say “Firefox is better and you should use it even if no one else does”.

    Ouch. That brings other people back into the picture and suddenly your listener no longer trusts his own perceptions about the product. I suggest a review of some basic principles.

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