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There is a computer term that you hear some geeks and industry insiders use, but many people new to computers don't know, but should. That term is FUD. FUD means "Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt", and it was the tool of large companies to scare users from using small companies software (or hardware). They'd so uncertainty, so customers would buy from the safest (largest) company, even if it wasn't currently the best software, or scare them into buying the biggest program, over features they might someday need (but only added complexity today).


FUD was originally coined for IBM in the 60s or 70s. The idea was that IBM sales and marketing would go in an bully people that were buying computers or consulting into buying IBM, by using "FUD".

They'd say things like:

  • Oh, you want to buy from competitor-X, well are they as big as IBM?
  • Are they going to be in 5 or 10 years?
  • Is their organization big enough to support you?
  • Do their programs have all the features that you want?
  • Why don't you just buy from the biggest/safest?

Thus most purchasers would get scared away from other competitors, even if they offered more cost effective systems or systems that might have been better for their needs, and would just buy from the "safe choice". So people bought "IBM" because of their own fear, uncertainty and doubt; FUD - or as people used to say, "no one gets fired for buying IBM".

IBM used their size very effectively.

Feature FUD

By the 1980's and 1990's, it was no longer the era of the "big-iron" or mainframes that IBM sold, and there became many more microcomputers sold. The term of FUD adapted. By then, Microsoft was the largest software company, so they used FUD to scare everyone into buying Microsoft packages. But they did it just a little differently.

With IBM it was mostly about the size of the organization, and especially their ability to survive or support customers. Microsoft has never been as much about support, and was insecure about their size, so it was more about features. Microsoft's whole philosophy was to create programs with lots of features, more features than most users could ever use, but then they'd go to sell their packages and use Feature-FUD.

They'd say things like, "Are you sure you're never going to need this feature that only our package has?", and so on. Customers didn't know what they might need, so instead of buying the best or simplest package for them, they'd just buy the Microsoft version, because they might need the feature some day, and it was easier than thinking or taking a risk.

If I were to relate this logic to buying cars, Microsoft would sell a single guy that commutes 50 miles to work every day, that he really needs an SUV instead of an ecomy car; because you never know when you might need to haul something or seat eight, when in truth he's unlikely to ever need either. The facts are that he could buy the economy car, park it easier, save money on gas and insurance, he could afford to rent a truck whenever he needed it, and still come out way ahead. But why be reasonable when you can make a sale with FUD?

Bundle FUD ("Suites")

When Microsoft started running out of features, they started bundling many packages together. So instead of just selling Microsoft Word, they started selling Office (with a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation package all-in-one). For just a little more (bundling), they could FUD you into buying things you didn't need, or to scare you away from any competitor that didn't also have a whole office suite. And eventually, they scared the market to death, where there's no one else that competes in all the areas that Microsoft does.

Later other companies, including Adobe, figured out the magic of the Suite (or bundle). A smaller competitor might be able to make a better image editor, illustration program, page layout program, or non-linear editor (video program) -- but nobody else made all of those, and could bundle them all in for a single price. And voila: Adobe Creative Suite.

The same happened with Apple. While other competitors had a store to sell music, a program to do playback/management, or the hardware to listen to digital music, Apple bundled all of them with the iPod, iTunes and the Music Store, into a complete solution that was harder to compete with, and owned the digital music segment. Then they added a phone on top, and used that to leverage into the smart phone market, which they took over. And then they got sales of their Macs because if you were already using their phone, why not use their computer as well. (Which also came bundled with a free OS upgrades and free version of a simplistic Microsoft Office competitor called AppleWorks, MacWorks, or eventually iWork.


I don't really blame IBM, Microsoft, Adobe or Apple for marketing their products/services well, and playing to their advantage (size). They just did what they are supposed to do; convince consumers to buy their products. But it has had a serious cost on our industry (especially Microsoft). There used to be many more choices, and choices that were better at doing some things; like word processors that are just for writing manuscripts or technical book building packages, or little word processors for doing book reports, and so on. Each may have been better at one thing, but FUD got people to buy a product that was less good at what they needed, because of what they "might" need. And consumers have slowly seen more and more choices die out, and now we have these overly complex, feature rich but very confusing, software packages that can do a little of a lot of things well, but nothing really well. The "swiss army knife" of software, or "featuritis" as it is known - all because of people, human nature and FUD.

Now that you know what FUD is, will it influence your purchasing habits?

Written: 2002.03.11 • Edited 2018.04.14

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