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Why are there so many Linux Distributions (Distros)?

Posted by markharrison on July 5, 2010

This post started life as a comment to a question on lockergnome.

Given that Lockergnome’s audience is different from mine, I thought I’d better summarise a few points for a non-technical audience. The IT crowd will, I hope, forgive a hint of simplification in the interests of making this quick.

Microsoft Windows (in all its versions) is an example of an Operating System. It provides a common platform so that programmers can write programs – Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, or whatever. Windows is controlled by Microsoft who pay the programmers, and charge a licence fee to anyone who wants to run Windows. (Microsoft, by the way, also control Word and Excel on the same basis, and Internet Explorer, though they don’t charge a separate licence fee for that.)

Linux is a competitor to Windows, in that it is also an Operating System. However, that vast majority of Linux installations are run with a different model to the “charge a licence fee” model. In that, people are allowed to run Linux, and, unlike with Windows, given the “source code” that allows them to change the underlying bits of it. However, if they do so then they have to give anyone who uses those changes the source code so that those third people can make further changes (and explicitly give them the legal rights to do so, subject to the same “if you change and pass it on, you have to pass on the rights and responsibilities” clause.)

Because of this, Linux has established itself as the dominant operating system in many environments, and the majority of web servers run it in some flavour or another. Most (but not all) programs that run on Linux are licenced in the same way – no fee, but open source code with the obligation to share the rights and responsibilities if you change it.

At this point we re-join the original question….

We’ve got to be careful to understand what a Distro is.

To slightly simplify, a Distro is simply a version of Linux with a different set of installation pre-sets, and a different choice of software installed over the base system. The same occurs in the Windows world – while the underlying Windows XP / Vista / 7 is shipped, different PC manufacturers (OEMs) will pre-install a different set of software. In the Windows world, these pre-installed software choices are normally down to commercial pressures – which ISP will offer the most to have their logo as a “click here to set up XXX” on the desktop, which anti-virus software will offer the PC manufacturer the biggest kickback to have a 30-day trial of THEIR anti-virus pre-installed.

In the Linux world, the pressures are different. While SOME distros are based on commercial pressures, others are based on a wide variety of different models. Generally what happens is that a distro exists, and then some group of people want it to evolve a certain way… while another group want it to evolve in a different way. In the Windows world, there are hierarchical mechanisms, mostly within Microsoft, to decide which set of choices will dominate – in the Linux world, however, in most cases, the minority group of geeks can take the base they like, let’s call it MarksLinux 1.0, and see what happens – they can decide to make “DavesLinux 1.1” if it turns out that “MarksLinux1.1” doesn’t evolve in the way they’d hope. To a certain extent, comparing Linux to Windows is, if you’ll pardon the pun, comparing apples with oranges.

In some respects, the Linux world more closely resembles the ENTIRE I.T. ECONOMY, in that there isn’t one central control, but a whole bunch of different people / organisations releasing competing products. On that basis, asking “Why are there so many Distros” is like asking “Why are there so many operating systems?”

There are many Linux distros for the same reason that there is a choice between Microsoft, Apple, Linux and BSD… for the same reason that there is a choice between Lenovo, Dell, Compaq, and Packard Bell… for the same reason that there was a choice between Microsoft Office, Smart*Suite, WordPerfect Office, StarOffice,… and the last example is instructive because it demonstrates that many will fall by the wayside.

If the 20th Century taught us anything, it’s that markets generally provide a better solution than central planning. (For all that the last few years have shown the limitations of markets, it’s not at the stage that market-fundamentalists have to build walls and erect gun towers to shoot those who try to flee the market economy, in a way that centrally-planned economies had to.)

The beauty of the OpenSource model is that it allows multiple products to be brought out, and compete with each other, in a way that allows far more efficient leverage of the best bits of the losers, and a next generation of everything that incorporates the best of the best (where best means “best for the particular niche that the provider is targetting) rather than meaning “the best for anything.” Or, put another way, it’s a lot easier to build Ubuntu by looking at Debian than it would be for a startup with a few million to build a new Hybrid by looking at a Prius.

Posted in Open Source | 1 Comment »

Top Gadgets 2008

Posted by markharrison on December 30, 2008

It’s odd, but despite becoming Europe’s number 1 real estate blog, the post that attracted the most comment off-line have been the occasional “technology in the real world” ones.

I realise that it’s been two years since I wrote a Top Gadgets post – so while we had Top Gadgets 2006, there was no similar thing last year. Later on in this post, I’m going to go back and see which of the 2006 list I’m still using…

However, firstly, my top gadgets 2008.

I only really have 5 to make it onto the list this year (since some of the most useful things are still from the 2006 list.)

1: The Mac Mini. You know how irritating those Mac users get, forever banging on about how much better their computers are compared to Windows PCs. Well, I spent about ten years arguing with them that, while I was willing to believe this was true, their PCs cost so much more than ones with the Microsoft O/S that the point was moot. Then Nik Butler made the simple observation that I didn’t base my car choice on specs and price, but on a whole bunch of intangibles, and that I should consider the Mac Mini as a sort of Jaguar. I tried a Mac Mini, and I’m hooked. We’re now a 2-Mac family, since Mary has a Mini also. In the words of Tom Peters, it’s about design! (It’s also about productivity, and, less tangibly, how I feel when using it.)

2: The Drobo. I wrote a long review of the Drobo back in September. Basically, it’s an external enclosure that takes up to 4 hard drives, and applies a RAID-like algorithm to them, so that even if one drive completely fails, your data is safe. High-end servers have done this (expensively) for years, but this takes cheap, standard, SATA drives, and just works.

3: The ASUS EEE Pc. At the opposite end of the computing spectrum to Apple lies ASUS. The EEE Pc is a small laptop, with a tiny screen, and a fiddly keyboard… that is nonetheless the size of a hardback novel, runs on battery for “sufficiently longer than I need that I really can’t tell you how long it lasts”, and has built in wifi. It also creates far less of a psychological barrier than a big laptop when I’m in a meeting, and I can use it on a plane or a departure lounge. OK, it runs Xandros Linux, but it comes with Firefox (qv), and OpenOffice, so does pretty much 90% of what I need. As a result, I don’t really have a “real laptop” any more.

4: The DVD Duplicator. Bought from the ever-reliable APR Media, this beast has saved me a whole bunch of time, since I can just stick in a DVD or CD in the top tray, up to 5 blanks in the lower trays, and press the “duplicate” button. It meant that, this Christmas, we were able to get the playgroup nativity DVDs out to all parents who pre-ordered before Christmas… wheras last year we had to write them from my laptop, and they didn’t come out until the new year. (The playgroup is a charity of which I’m a trustee, and the Christmas nativity DVDs are a big fundraiser for us.) Plus, work-wise, it’s made a huge difference to our ability to run off 50-60 CDs for corporate orders.

5: A normal, non-smart Nokia handset that is just wonderfully designed and optimised for talking to people. I do not have a smartphone. I do not want a smartphone… for the same reason that I don’t have voicemail. My clients know that I’m busy, that when I’m working for them, I’m focussed on their needs, not on checking my email in case other clients want my time… but that cuts both ways. If it’s important enough to interrupt me, phone me! If it’s for general info, and can wait a few days, email me! The last thing I want, however, is for clients to believe that I’m just sitting around waiting for their crucial message to come in – hence, no smartphone, no voicemail.

Now, what happened to the 2006 list:

1: The iPod. Hardly use it any more – I tend to read on the train, and use the car stereo.

2: The Dell laptop is still in use, but the battery has long since failed, and the replacement cost of batteries is, well, ludicrous. Hence, it’s now in use as if it were a desktop PC.

3: The Domia Lite system. Still working well, still in everyday use. However, I ought to point out that the system is now known as “Bye Bye Standy”, and the energy-saving features are what are promoted.

4: The “Skype headset”. Honestly, I’ve lost it. From time to time, I wish I could find it, not least because my brother has a Skype-enabled mobile. I, however, use it for IM rather than voice!

5: Software choices… Firefox, now on version 3 is still what I’m using (even on the Mac) – I used Flock for a while, which was great, but not optimised for what I do. I’m also running NeoOffice, a Mac version of OpenOffice. (I’m told that OpenOffice 3 for the Mac is probably better, and still free, but what I have works, and I’m loathe to change it.)

6: The aircon unit now has a friend, so we have aircon upstairs and down. Truth be told, we only ran it for a couple of weeks in 2008, but who knows what 2009 will bring.

7: Another year with paper diaries 🙂

8: Really Useful Company 35 litre crates. These have moved out to the garage. We had someone build some shelving that takes about 20 of them. Works very, very, well.

9: The Satnav. How did I live without one? We now have his and hers.

10:  The cars. Both of the 2006 cars have gone – the Morgan 4-seater was, alas, written off when someone drove into the back of it in September 2007. The Bentley just got too expensive to justify – it was costing over a grand a month to keep running, so we now have a Volvo Estate that runs on LPG (49.9p/litre.)

Posted in ASUS, Drobo, EEE PC, Just for fun, Open Source, Technology | 4 Comments »

Bridging the Digital Divide in Kingston –

Posted by markharrison on November 2, 2007

Once in a while, I come across an organisation that I just want to help promote/publicise.

Well, this morning, I learnt about

To quote from Guarav Patel, who told me about it (on a Ubuntu list.) (Apologies to those who are reading this blog entry ON the Ubuntu Planet syndication site, and already know all about this – but 99% of my readers aren’t from that community):

I’m a member of a team of an organisation where I volunteer every
Wednesday to offer free wireless Internet in an estate in Kingston,

A problem we had was that many people in this estate had very little
money and very little computing knowledge.

Long story short, we had to supply the computers. We had another
charity organisation offer a around 80 old Dell Optiplex (I think the
model number is GX1). We pre-install these computers with Ubuntu 6.06
and give everything away for a low low price of £0.

If you want to know more about what we’re doing, there’s some information on the website at

Here’s the kind of thing you’ll find on their website:

We are distributing free PCs on a “first come, first served” basis, although we will be happy to give priority to those currently without any PC already at home, or people who can demonstrate a particular need (e.g. limited mobility, school-aged children, etc).

Way to go people, keep up the fantastic work!

Posted in Companies I Like, Open Source, Wikinomics | Leave a Comment »

Remote working…

Posted by markharrison on October 12, 2007

There’s a lovely blog post on dot neil about remote working, in which he gently pokes fun at the way that magazines try to depict “teleworkers.”

It did make me think about how much things have moved on even in the last year, though.

I don’t go anywhere without my mobile phone any more – OK, that’s probably true for everyone these days (even my mum has one now!) However, I’m also increasingly reluctant to go places without my laptop…

… and the reason that THAT has changed is that I’ve started using T-Mobile’s data service, and broadly it works. OK, there are some limitations – on the package I have I can’t access secure sites, and it’s slow… but heh, as I said… broadly it works.

For example, at Mog007, I was able to make a number of blog posts, including photos (via Flickr). I admit I had to scale down the photos quite a lot rather than posting them at the normal resolution, but even MS Paint can manage that 🙂

Which brings me onto the second bit of technology that’s helped – my current laptop has a built in card-reader… that means that rather than faffing about with cables and trying to hook up the laptop to the camera that way, I could just flip the card out of the camera, and stick it into the side of the laptop. Again, it all “just worked.”

Which brings me onto, I guess, a point about Operating Systems.

My laptop runs Windows XP Media Centre 2005… I needed that operating system, because last year I ran a bunch of training courses for a client on a particular product that had an MCE plugin. Alas, the new version of that product needs the Vista version of Media Centre, so the current laptop is no good for that… and the laptop is gradually getting slower as more and more bloatware seems to make its way onto the machine. So, I have five choices:

  • Get a Vista laptop. The ONLY reason I can think of for doing this is so I could run that particular training course… but if truth be told, I’d rather just borrow a desktop with Vista from the client in question (the course involves lots of other kit anyway, so it wouldn’t be an issue.)
  •  Carry on. The slowness is liveable with, and certainly the few seconds a day I’d gain wouldn’t repay the time it would take to ORDER a new laptop, let alone set one up 🙂 My friends with Vista, though, tell me that a new laptop with that runs just as slowly.
  • Get a Mac laptop. Erm, except that would cost about £1,000 MORE than the next option… however, if my iPod, or the Mac Mini that just runs a rolling display in the coffee bar at Architectural Plants are anything to judge my, Apple make lovely, easy-to-use kit.
  • Get a Dell laptop with Ubuntu pre-installed. It’s the cheap as chips option, and I’m looking with interest to see how quickly Dell start shipping with Ubuntu 7.10 which is due for final release this week.
  • Just install Ubuntu 7.10 on this laptop (probably as a dual-boot).

Here’s the point though, for 99% of what I do ANY of those solutions would be fine. For all that Macs, Linux and Windows have their advocates, as far as I can make out, 99% of the exciting development work is taking place in on-line applications. We deliberately released the CD-ROM from my property mentoring programme to run on any of them… and even have the files in either MS or format so those who don’t want to pay another £300 for an office suite can use them… and as far as I can make out most other people are doing the same. (There are still, alas, a few people who only seem to test in Internet Explorer… but I’ve stopped going to their sites because they scream “amateur night”.)

Newsflash people, the desktop war is over… and the result was that everyone one (except, maybe, lazy web developers who haven’t noticed what their customers use.) Compared to even 2 years ago, all three of the options really just work for everything I need anymore.

Posted in Open Source, Productivity | 2 Comments »

My Loudmouthman / UStreamTV interview about Open Source software in business

Posted by markharrison on July 25, 2007

I was interviewed this morning by Nik Butler (aka Loudmouthman) for his channel on UStreamTV.

In case you’ve not heard of UStream, it’s similar to YouTube, but intended for live broadcasts… which it then records and makes available for replay later as well.

Not likely to be of interest to property investors, but may be of interest to those interested in Open Source Software.

You can watch the interview here.

Posted in Open Source | Leave a Comment »

Why I’m not a member of the FSF!

Posted by markharrison on July 10, 2007

There is much discussion on the Internet about a licence called the GPLv3, produced by the FSF.

This is the successor to a licence called the GPLv2 – the GPLv2 is wildly important, not least because the core (the so-called kernel) of Linux uses it, so it gets used to do everything from run Google’s server farm, to power the TiVo under your telly.

The GPLv3 has taken a long while to write, and introduces what the writers call “additional freedoms.”

I’m over-simplifying here, but the core of the GPLv2 is that if I release a program under the GPL2, and you take a copy, then you can use it and modify it. (Compared to, for example, the licence for Microsoft Word, which gives you the right to use only, but not modify the code.) As a quid pro quo for getting these additional rights, you agree that if you modify it, and then release those modifications, you have to pass on the same rights and obligations to anyone else who takes a licence. (You can charge, but you can’t take away their right to modify further.)

The GPLv3 introduces a slightly different set of rights and obligations. For example, the makes of TiVo use “digital signatures” to mean that, while you can take their Linux (GPLv2) code, and modify it as you wish, you can’t re-upload it back to your TiVo. This legal under the GPLv2, and a number of people, including Linus Torvalds (the original author of Linux) have said that, publically, that they are happy with this. The GPLv3 makes this explicitly a no-no, so TiVo could not start using GPLv3 code on their products.

As a programmer facing a given project, I believe I should have the freedom to choose between:

  • Writing from scratch and licencing in a “closed” manner
  • Writing from scratch and licencing under GPLv2
  • Writing from scratch and licencing under GPLv3
  • Writing from scratch and licencing under any other licence I choose
  • Taking an existing closed product, and agreeing to a proprietary co-development licence
  • Taking an existing GPLv2 product, and develop it, and accepting the constraints placed upon me by so doing
  • Taking an existing GPLv3 product, and develop it, and accepting the constraints placed upon me by so doing
  • Taking an existing product under another type of licence, and accepting the constraints placed upon me by so doing

Where I disagree with the authors of the GPLv3 (the FSF), is in two places:

  • I can’t accept the characterisation of the GPLv3 as an update to the GPLv2. As far as I can tell, it’s a completely different thing, that gives a different set of rights and obligations.
  • I can’t accept any characterisation of the GPLv3 as the “ethical” choice.

Saying “If you choose to take this, then you have to accept both the rights and the responsibilities, but it’s your choice whether you take it in the first place” strikes me as ethical and moral.

Oh, and Linus has said, publically and forcefully, that he wants to keep the Linux Kernel on GPL2 – that’s his choice…

Posted in Open Source | Leave a Comment »

Outlook Express, you’re fired!

Posted by markharrison on July 6, 2007

A few months ago, I had some major systems problems (compounded by my own stupidity, it must be admitted), and had to declare email bankrupcy.

At the time, Nik Butler suggest that I try a piece of software called Thunderbird instead of Microsoft Outlook Express.

I’d been using Outlook Express for about five years, and Outlook for many years before that – it would appear that many people don’t realise how different they are.

  • Outlook is a “personal organisation” product. It includes mailing, contact management, task scheduling, and calendaring functionality. When used in conjunction with an Exchange server, it  provides contact list management and sophisticated group scheduling. (While you can do some “meeting request” stuff in Outlook without everyone being in the same Exchange organisation, it gets far more powerful if you all are.)
  • Outlook Express is an “email client”. It sends and receives emails. It has some contact management, but nothing like as much as Outlooks.
  • Both of them attach to a variety of non-proprietary email servers using industry-standard protocols such as POP3 and IMAP.

As a “home user”, I was happy with Outlook Express. As a “small business” user, I’ve been happy with a Linux-based (free) mail server, and each of our staff using Outlook Express. Once in a while I’d miss the functionality that the combination of Outlook with an Exchange server brought, but never enough to pay for it. (And I don’t believe in using pirated software.)
Anyway,  I’d been using Firefox for a long while, and had got used to how much better it was than Internet Explorer 6 (Internet Explorer 7 was then released, which caught up in a lot of areas, but didn’t particularly move the game forward, and it’s Firefox I’ve ended up using as my default browser.)

Thunderbird is a sister product to Firefox. Indeed, earlier versions of Firefox were actually called “Firebird”, until it was discovered that there were trademark issues, because there was other software with that name.

I was recommended Thunderbird, because I was told that it connected to my server (which uses IMAP) more reliably than Outlook Express. What I’ve actually found is that it is not only more reliable, but much, much faster when downloading and reading messages from the server.

I’ve also found that it has two other pieces of functionality that work much better than Outlook Express’ equivalents.

Firstly, the  anti-spam (or “Junk” as Thunderbird calls it) filters really work very well. About 75% of all the messages I get in automatically appear with a “flame logo” next to them, meaning that Thunderbird thinks they are junk. I then run a single menu item (on the Tools menu) to delete everything marked as Junk. Thunderbird doesn’t correctly mark up every piece of rubbish, but I’ve not had a problem with false positives, meaning that it does flag up stuff I actually wanted as spam.

Secondly,  the Rules (or “Messages Filters” as Thunderbird call them) seem to be rather better than Outlook Expresses. For example, I subcribe to several mailing lists such as Ubuntu-UK. It was easy to set up a Thundbird rule that means that messages coming in from that mailing list automatically get filed in a particular folder…. no more clogging up the inbox, and I can catch up with what’s happening on that list in one hit once or twice a day.

Apart from the fact that it came bundled with Windows, I’ve not found any area where Outlook Express worked better for me than Thunderbird now does. If you have broadband, I’d definitely recommend you download it and give it a go.

In fact, looking at the applications I have running at the moment, I run almost entirely on FLOSS (Free, Libre, Open Source Software) these days, even on my Windows machines. The key applications I use are Firefox, Thunderbird, and OpenOffice – replacements for Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, and Microsoft Office that work better, cost less, and have some extra features I need included rather than “extra cost” (like PDF creation in OpenOffice.)

The vision of ten years ago – that having large numbers of programmers work as volunteers on large development projects will create better applications than having smaller numbers of paid programmers – has turned up some cracking applications.

I still like the MS applications, and know they work very well, but my requirements are more than catered for in the free world. If OpenOffice does 250% of what I need, and is free, why would I pay £300 for Microsoft Office, even if it does do 260% of what I need…. “Doing everything I need, and then some” is more than enough 🙂

Posted in Open Source, Productivity | 5 Comments »

Congratulations to Nik Butler – real local politics?

Posted by markharrison on May 12, 2007

I called my friend Nik Butler last night – to congratulate him on his election to his local parish council.

Our own council results last week showed a massive 65% majority for the “can’t be bothered to turn up and vote” party, which I understand isn’t unusual. I regularly read that people of my generation have little interest in politics.

So as well as congratulating Nik, I asked him what on earth possessed him to stand. He ran through what had happened – the Parish council asked for people from the local community to come forward and get involved – the deal is that you don’t stand on behalf of a particular party for Parish councils, but as an individual representative of the local community.

So he phoned them up, asked some questions, went along to an open meeting for people who’d expressed an interest, and decided to go for it. He then called up people he knew in the area, and lots of them voted for him.

Now, those of you who know Nik will realise that he’s an OpenSource evangelist of no small ability – but what I found really interesting on the phone last night was that he didn’t say that he wanted to push that in local government. Instead, he said that he wanted to find out more about the use of IT in local government, and look at whether OpenSource could help in that environment.

Almost makes me wish I lived the other side of the A264 so I could vote for him myself!

(Oh  – and he also introduced me to Twitter, but more about that another day).

Posted in Open Source | 2 Comments »

Mini Book Review – Wikinomics (Tapscott and Williams)

Posted by markharrison on May 1, 2007

If, like me, you’re in the UK, you are going to have trouble getting hold of this book, since the hardback wasn’t released over here, and the paperback won’t be until July.

However, I’d heard good things about this, so I found a copy (on eBay Canada!) and got the vendor to fly it over 🙂

The fundamental premise of “Wikinomics” is that the value gained by sharing “information” with “the community” is often greater that the value that is given away by so doing.

An example: Office software

Apologies for picking an example from the IT industry – but it’s what I know, and there aren’t that many great examples from the property investment community 🙂 vs. Microsoft Office.  Microsoft Office costs about £300. If you buy a copy, you have the right to use it on a single PC, and use it “as is”. OpenOffice (primarily made by Sun – another US software company with a billionaire founder) costs £0. If you download a copy, you have the right to install it on multiple PCs, and make changes to it…  If you want to share those changes with other people, you submit them back to Sun, and if they like them, they will be included in the next release of the product. You won’t get paid for this (other than in reputation, which is as important in the IT community as the rest of the business world), but everyone will get a better product.

Now, I write as an user – frankly, I don’t find it (overall) as good as MS Office. However, it’s got one feature I love and use all the time – it can convert a file into Adobe “PDF” format. SMS Office can’t do that – you need to buy additional software such as Acrobat  Standard at an extra £150. (Adobe aren’t dumb – the reader is £0, but the writer is £150.) Hence, while MSO is better, it’s not worth an extra £450 to me, so I stay with

Tapscott and Williams make the point that no-one could, realistically, compete with Microsoft in producing a competitor to MS Office, if they had to do all the development themselves, but by opening up the “code” to its competitors, Sun is producing a product that is close. However, they can’t make money selling the product directly, but they can sell services. Hence there’s a “cost per seat” version of the product, called Star Office, which they do sell as a direct competitor to MSO – and that product also includes the community improvements. Works well for everyone except Microsoft shareholders.

It’s not just about IT

These concepts are familiar within the IT industry, but Wikinomics introduces the concept of “community product development” to a wider, business, audience.

The key message I need to get over in this review is that the concepts are beginning to be used heavily outside of the IT industry, and the book introduces examples from, say, the mining industry as an area where things that used to be regarded as company secrets, are now actively in the public domain… because sometimes customers, commentators, or just interested people can improve upon them, and those improvements can be fed back on a “share and share alike” basis.

I’m a convert to the concept, by the way – I posted a few weeks ago about the fact that anyone was welcome to take any of my articles, either from this blog, or from the newsletter, and re-write them (provided they included a link back to me.) What I get is improved material (and hopefully extra readers of the newsletter.) The hope for me is that doing this is twofold – firstly I might sell extra copies of my paid-for products because more people know about them… but secondly, I get back ideas about how to tweak my own investment strategy, and do things better, because people take what I’ve written, and improve upon it.

 So, what’s the book like?

It’s good – well worth a read. It’s well-written, and not too evangelistic. One of the problems with much that’s written about these concepts is that the writing is done by “evangelists”, or people who tell you that you should use Linux because of the (sic) moral argument.

Tapscott and Williams freely admit that the “Wikinomics” model isn’t the only one, or always the best, and pull out comparisons with other companies who have taken completely the opposite approach. For example, Sony have a complete “lockdown” policy on their products, so that “community improvements” made to, say, their consoles, stop working the next time they get an official update from Sony.

The arguments they make don’t claim to be “moral”, but are economic – and they don’t make conclusions about which is better – they do, however, do an excellent job of presenting the arguments for the “community collaboration” model of product- and service- development.

Is it worth importing? Probably not 🙂

Should you get it in July – yup!

Posted in Book Review, Building Businesses, Open Source, Productivity | 5 Comments »

Free to good home?

Posted by markharrison on April 23, 2007

There are several reasons why it would be nice to be French – good wine and great cheese spring to mind… but one of the big advantages of having French as a mother tongue is that there is a difference in the words “libre” and “gratuit”, both of which translate into English as the word “free”, but which mean completely different things.

  • “Gratuit” means “free” in the sense of at zero price – as in “buy one, get one free”
  • “Libre” means “free” in the sense of unrestricted, unconstrained – as in “Nelson Mandela is now free”

What on earth has this got to do with Web Marketing?

OK – let’s re-cap the complete basics of web marketing. To build a business you:

  1. Attract people to your site
  2. Offer them something “free” in exchange for getting their contact details and permission to email them
  3. Make the “free” thing of such good value that you build up (over time) a reputation as a trustworthy source
  4. Once you have that reputation, explain what you can offer that would cost them money
  5. Track the whole process so that you understand what percentage of visitors to the website hand over their details, and what percentage of people getting the “free thing” go on to become paying customers – then use this information to gradually refine all aspects of your business so that those percentages improve over time.

This is exactly the model I use on two of my sites:

The vast majority of people who get the free stuff are perfectly happy with it – I regularly get emails of thanks attributing specific figures that people have made using some of the tips in the mini course – and this is absolutely fine. However, a small number of people go on to buy either my ebook on Property Negotiation, or even attend my one-day training course. (95% of the material in the two is the same – it’s really a question of whether people learn better by coming on an instructor-led course, whether the emotional commitment of coming to a course spurs them to action, and whether they want the confidence boost of meeting a bunch of like-minded people who are accomplishing similar things.) And let me be honest, this isn’t a huge money-maker for me – I run training courses because I enjoy it, and like meeting interesting people, rather than because it’s the most financially efficient use of my time!

However, this is only “free” in the sense of “gratuit” – I don’t charge for the newsletter or mini-course.

What about “libre” – what “freedom” comes with these items?

Under UK (and International) copyright law – the contents of the course and newsletter are mine – and the only “rights” a subscriber has is the right to read that newsletter / course item. They don’t have the right to forward them to friends, nor the right to reproduce them in their own newsletters.

The traditional view of “intellectual property” says that it would be sensible for me to enforce these rights – to try to clamp down on anyone “ripping off my material” by passing it on.

However, there’s another view – if the point of my giving this stuff away “gratuit” is to spread my reputation as a credible authority (in my case, on property negotiation specifically, and property investment in general), then what’s in my best interest?

  • To lock down and restrict the material so that only people who have given over their contact details get it?
  • To make sure that it only ever appears in exactly the format I’d intended, without modification


  • To open it up, and let as many people as possible get at it
  • To allow other people to use vast chunks of it, with their own angle, or improvement
  • (providing the new readers know where it came from originally)

The second model is exactly the one that that the “free software” community uses. The software licences like the so-called “GPL” are specifically written to give people a bunch of rights not just to use software, but to modify it, and redistribute it. Both of the elements are key – the “redistribution” right means that software like Ubuntu Linux now has millions of users world-wide. And the “modify” right means that the product is far, far, better than if only the small team (who work for a company called Canonical) who produced the original Ubuntu CDs could change things. Canonical make their money be providing support and installation services – though you are welcome to use their products whether you buy their add-on services or not. Indeed, their products are, in turn, modifications and improvements of other products issued under similar terms.

My view is that I’m far better off trying to get the newsletter stuff out to as wide an audience as possible, and not worry too much whether I have the email address of every reader on my database!

So, what does this mean to my material?

As of today, there’s a “new deal” available on the newsletter:

  • If you run a website or newsletter yourself, you are welcome to take any article from the website, and re-distribute it to your readers provided that you include the line “Copyright <year> – reproduced with permission” on the article.
  • There is no obligation on you to let me know you’ve done this (though it would be nice)
  • Obviously, you’ll need to replace the text <year> with the year the article was actually written.
  • If you allow other people to use articles from your stuff, you need to make sure that they know they have to include that message as well!

Right, that covers the “redistribution” side, what about the “modification” side?

  • If you run a website or newsletter yourself, you are welcome to take any article from the website, and use parts of it, added in with your own text, and re-distribute it to your readers provided that you include the line “Parts of this article are Copyright <year> – reproduced with permission” on your version.
  • There is no obligation on you to let me know you’ve done this (though it would be nice)
  • Obviously, you’ll need to replace the text <year> with the year the article was actually written.
  • If you allow other people to use articles from your stuff, you need to make sure that they know they have to include that message as well!

At this point, the traditional “list-builder” marketeers will be reeling in shock! The traditional approach is that you have to capture every name, and that the key metric to success is the “size of your list”, because they are the people you can sell other stuff to more effectively.

My point is that making all this stuff available for free (libre and gratuit) is, I believe, a better way to grow that list quickly – since many people who’ve read my material elsewhere will ultimately choose to come to the source and subscribe directly… and that providing material to other people will only increase the brand awareness of the name “Mark Harrison” in property investment circles.

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