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What is FUD?

Written by Roger Irwin, 1998. Comments etc. to irwin(at)mail.com

F.U.D. stands for Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt. It is a marketing technique used when a competitor launches a product that is both better than yours and costs less, i.e. your product is no longer competitive. Unable to respond with hard facts, scare-mongering is used via 'gossip channels' to cast a shadow of doubt over the competitors offerings and make people think twice before using it.

In general it is used by companies with a large market share, and the overall message is 'Hey, it could be risky going down that road, stick with us and you are with the crowd. Our next soon-to-be-released version will be better than that anyway'.

In the computer world, FUD was first practiced on a large scale by IBM in the 1970's. Many people cite Amdahl as coining the phrase when he left IBM to start his own company thus making himself a FUD target.

When IBM moved into the desktop market with the launch of the IBM PC, it took FUD tactics along with it. IBM themselves only reckoned on selling around 100 to 200 thousand units of the PC, which were to be sold as an alternative to the APPLE II in 'all IBM' companies. It should be remembered that in many respects the IBM PC was an overpriced and retrograde step for the desktop market which had already reached the level of 16 bit multi-user, multi-tasking machines with a good deal of flexibility and inter-operability of hardware. The IBM PC had non of these characteristics and cost more, but by marketing on the strength of the IBM label (stick with us, we are big), the PC exceeded all expectations and killed off the existing market.

Of course the PC story is perhaps more a tale of big name marketing rather than deliberate FUD mongering, but the PC also brought Microsoft to the forefront as the supplier of the basic-in-ROM cum disk operating system. Microsoft soon picked up the art of FUD from IBM, and throughout the 80's used FUD as a primary marketing tool, much as IBM had in the previous decade. They ended up out FUD-ding IBM themselves during the OS2 vs Win3.1 years.

A good example of MS FUD, and its potential, was demonstrated when Digital Research launched their DR DOS against MS-DOS5. DR-DOS offered more features and cost less, and was widely acclaimed by all. Then the new MS windows 3.1 release flashed up a trivial error message when run under DR DOS, and all of a sudden everybody was saying DR DOS is great but you can have problems running Windows on it. At the same time Microsoft announced the 'imminent' release of MS DOS6 which would be far more feature packed than DR DOS. In reality they had nothing, they had only just started looking at a 'DOS 6' in response to the DR launch, and it is also questionable whether the MS product was better. This classic FUD pack occurred together with a dealer package designed to make it financially advantageous to offer MS DOS with windows, and the result is history. Many believe this was the making of the MS monopoly.

Whilst the DR DOS case may be one of the most significant events in the story of the PC, my favorite FUD factor event pre-dates this, before FUD was a household world, and the story relates to hardware, not software.

AMSTRAD, a UK consumer electronics manufacturer, had a reputation of selling reasonably OK electronics goods at rock-bottom prices. Much of their success was due to rationalized design, giving customers what they most desired whilst keeping the construction simple. One day they decided to launch a range of PC's aimed at the home consumer. Due to the optimization of the design, AMSTRAD decided that a 35W PSU would be sufficient, even if a hard disk and tape-streamer were added (at that time many low end PC's just had twin floppy drives). As the computer was supplied complete with a monitor (and monitors have complicated PSU requirements), they also decided that instead of putting the standard PSU in the corner of the box (as most manufacturers still do today), they would supply the computer from the monitors PSU, which was accordingly upgraded.

This actually spawned another advantage. Monitors dissipate a lot of heat, and so the large case is peppered with holes to allow effective convention cooling. Computers by contrast tend to be closed boxes, and so it was (and still is) normal to have a fan incorporated in the PSU. As the AMSTRAD had no PSU in the case, and the contents dissipated typically 20W, they ran quite happily with no fan (they had incorporated convection cooling in the case), and so were also quieter.

The AMSTRAD computers were a great success. Too great. Not only did they sell in AMSTRAD's traditional consumer market, but they were finding a place in office environments, where equivalent 'traditional' models cost typically 50-100% more, and of course the AMSTRAD'S were quiet. FUD campaign gets rolling. "The AMSTRAD has no cooling fan", shock horror. "Stick a hard disk in an AMSTRAD and it melts", aghhh.., "If your program crashes it is because your AMSTRAD has no cooling fan".

The FUD was easily refuted. AMSTRADS actually worked quite well, and you could use them all day, then feel the box and find it to be cool. Nonetheless, many new customers where being scared away from the AMSTRAD because it had no fan when everybody else did. So in the end AMSTRAD fitted fans, right in the back corner where the PSU normally goes. Of course the AMSTRAD had no PSU there, and because the case was designed for natural air-flow, a simple test with a cigarette would soon reveal that the air was just going round in circles.

But it kept everybody happy! Rational people in the know simply cut the wires to the fan (and never had any problems), but the majority of users just accepted the constant whine of the fan as necessary. Such is the power of FUD.

A few FUD examples and links:

Confusing naming of USB standards and speeds. This link has changed...

Athlon CPUs seems to be named after Windows XP and labeled with wrong clock rates. Read more...

Seeing things from a biblical perspective might even help you to understand the basic mechanisms and the level of moral it takes, to carry out a full fledged FUD. Read more...

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