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Fancy some free software, Grandma?

Why do we make things difficult for ourselves when promoting alternative software and services, wonders Simon Brew...

This article originally appeared in issue 99 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Words, I’ve come to conclude, are stumbling blocks when it comes to technology. This isn’t my most radical piece of thinking, I’ll grant you that, but I’ve been pondering just what it is sometimes that holds people back from adopting certain pieces of technology.

Take Skype. Skype is, at heart, a system that can save many of us a sizeable amount of cash. A lazy Google search, masquerading as hard research, suggests that the total number of Skype registrants by the end of 2010 had reached 663 million. That’s no small number, granted, but that also factors in those who have registered multiple accounts. However, registered accounts doesn’t relate to active users, and estimates suggest that only 10% of those who register for Skype use the service on a daily basis. It’s a fair bet that, of those 90%, they’re still making phone calls, but they’re not using Skype to do so.

The obvious question, then: why? Naturally, there are several answers. Firstly, if the recipient of your call isn’t on Skype, then chances are that you will use a standard phone line to call them. Secondly, there’s also the people who sign up for services and never use them. And thirdly? Well, maybe people don’t realise they’ve got it this good – take Grandma, here, for example.

After all, the key selling point of Skype is free phone calls. That’s a fairly sizeable saving by anyone’s measure, and even Skype-to-landline calls come in a lot cheaper than your local telecommunications company’s charges. But still, Skype is a niche service. A big niche service, but a niche service nonetheless.
So why is that? Well, I wonder if language might have something to do with it. Talk to the average person on the street about Skype, and I’d happily wager that the majority of people would look at you blankly. Of those who had heard of Skype, I’d further bet that a good number of them aren’t using it.

Now imagine this. Imagine you’re stood on the street, and instead of asking Grandmas if they’re using Skype, you ask them instead if they want free phone calls, with no catch at all. Heck, let’s go further. Ask them if they want to save £50-60 on the price of a brand new PC. Enquire if they fancy making a 100% saving on their software purchases. With questions like those, I’d suspect people would be far more interested. Discounting, of course, those who thought you were a bit of a nutter.

Yet look at how we describe the benefits of genuinely advantageous software and services. We don’t ask people about saving money on their computers, we ask them whether they want Linux or Windows. Free phone calls? Nah. Let’s talk to them about Skype, another brand name in a world full of them. And what’s all this OpenOffice and LibreOffice stuff? To the everyday computer user, it means next to nothing.

Granted, I’ve simplified things a lot, here, and I’ve also skirted over the many other issues that open source software and services have to offer. But the guts of the problem here were recounted to me, ironically, by a Microsoft representative many years ago. He told me about the Grandma test. Basically, he argued, if your proposition doesn’t make sense with the word Grandma at the end, then you’re doomed. It’s a crude measure, but it does sort of work.

So: do you fancy using Skype, Grandma? No sale. No interest. But do you fancy free phone calls, Grandma? That might just result in a different answer…

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