The Critical 'I'

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Sunday, January 11, 2004

IBM LINUX: FROM PENGUIN TO KID
old kid new kid
Speaking of commercials, I've taken an interest in the new ones in the campaign for IBM's Linux business services initiative. They seem to represent a significant re-working of Linux's public persona.

To this point, the most recognizable logo for the Linux operating system, and more generally the Linux developmental community, has been the penguin mascot. While all sorts of penguin images, from photos of actual penguins to computer-generated 3D art, have been used, the cartoony Tux character has become the most prevalent and commonly accepted Linux icon, and the appearance of Tux in documentation is a visual shorthand for Linux. (Steve Baker has a fun little history of how the penguin came to represent Linux.)

But rather than use a penguin in its advertising, IBM has instead come up with a new character for its Linux services: A little boy, conveying everything from a "new kid on the block" approach to the knowledge potential of a growing child. Although he's apparently known internally as "Prodigy", he's explicitly identified as "Linux" in at least one TV spot:

Female Voice: Does he have a name?

Male Voice: His name is Linux.

Thus do they humanize the product and make it more relatable, which is especially critical for something like software. (I should note that at least a couple of people think this kid looks an awful lot like a little Eminem.)

Why should IBM break with established symbolism, ditching Tux for their Prodigy? I can think of a few reasons:

- Differentiation. While it's adopting and pushing an open standard, IBM feels the need to brand it's Linux offerings in order to make it unique. Big Blue isn't alone on this, as Red Hat and other Linux service providers also eschew the penguin in favor of their own brands and logos. This is also useful in distinguishing between the commercial and developmental sides of Linux.

- Broadening. While Tux works well for the clubby, informal community of Linux coders and user groups, he probably doesn't put across a "serious" enough image for IBM's corporate customers. Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles Linux has faced in being accepted in corporate systems has been that it's more of a hobbyist pursuit rather than a "business-grade" operating system (like Microsoft's desktop and server OSes). Having a cartoony animal as a symbol only reinforced this. More generally, Tux is a symbol of Linux's roots, rather than its present ready-for-primetime incarnation. In order to appeal to the world beyond the geeky developers community, IBM decided to go with a new, less-playful symbol.

- Communication. Fundamentally, the symbol of a child is much more understandable on a subconcious level than that of a penguin. Especially as the tone of these commercials suggest, a child is a sponge that absorbs knowledge and grows the more it learns; this is implicit and doesn't require any explanation, thus saving a crucial step in the marketing pitch. With Tux, the intial reaction from the average corporate decisionmaker is "What is that, and what is it supposed to mean?", thereby creating an obstacle to acceptance from the start.

Where will this lead? With IBM's large presence in the business market, and societal mindshare, it's reshaping of Linux symbolism could supplant the penguin as the recognizable symbol for the operating system. I'm not sure if the Prodigy will remain that visual key, but it could be the first step toward the eventual fading away of Tux. If anything, the penguin could stay alive in the Linux developmental community, but for the world at large, it would get crowded out by some other, corporate-inspired symbol.

UPDATE: Dana Blankenhorn at Moore's Lore is thinking along the same lines as I am on this (link found via KnowProSE).