The problem of selling software on Linux

Recently I listened Bryan Lunduke’s talk “Why Linux Sucks“. One of the arguments he made was that the open source/free software development model has produced a lot of great software but struggled to produce highly specialised and sophisticated software like Photoshop or some of the top audio/video editing apps.

The argument is certainly food for thought and he points out that the projects like the Linux kernel that are making progress very quickly are largely commercially backed. From there he talks about the need for the developers to get paid and lauds the Ubuntu Software Centre for offering the ability to sell software as a potential solution. I have been digesting this for a little while now and I think the concept of selling software can be deeply problematic.

The difficulty I have is that the economic incentives are for the developer to maximise the amount of money they collect by treating each version as a separate product. When you sell someone a particular version, the will keep that version until they feel that it is worth it to shell out for the next one. My Dad for instance ran Office 97 for almost 10 years, because he never felt the new features were worth the money.

The problem with this situation lies in the fact that old software lingering on your system is a vector for attack. Microsoft’s failure to entice my Dad into upgrading means that my Dad’s computer is now at risk of infection and compromise by all sorts of malware. Once he is infected and his computer starts attacking other people, this becomes everyone’s problem.

I think one of the strengths of the Linux platform is that all this “free as in speech” software has largely translated into “free as in beer” software which in turn means the barrier to staying up-to-date is nearly non-existent. Your package manager keeps installing the latest version for free and you don’t need to worry about virus’s and malware and I don’t need to worry that your computer is attacking mine. Throwing paid for software into this ecosystem seems like a way to compromise on of the best things about the platform. While Bryan Lunduke’s talk was good for stimulating some discussion I have come to feel that he has misdiagnosed the problem.

At a recent Android meetup I met a guy who was being paid by IBM to work on PhoneGap (now known as Apache Cordova). When I asked him why IBM would do this his answer was that IBM has hundreds of people that are trained and familiar with web technologies and almost none familiar with Objective C and the rest of the Apple technologies. With a need to make a bunch of apps on a variety of mobile devices and a a bunch of trained web developers on staff they looked around for a technology that could bridge that gap and found PhoneGap. After a little poking around they determined that it didn’t do everything they wanted but was close enough that paying someone to work on improving PhoneGap was cheaper than retraining all their web developers to learn Java and Objective C.

Coming back to the lack of good image/video/audio editors on Linux, it seems to me, then, that we have a chicken and egg type problem. The editors on Linux don’t attract financial backing because they are not good enough to be considered “good enough” for basic professional use. While that sounds a little circular, I think its sound. Just like IBM looking at PhoneGap and deciding that it was close enough to what they wanted that with minor investment they could make it fit their needs, GIMP and other programs could find that both monetary and code contributions could start rolling in once they cross that “close enough” threshold for their industry.

A good example is the GIMP. Much maligned for its interface, its real problem is that its lack of CMYK support has meant that anyone that deals with printing presses has been unable to use it. With the GIMP teams recent announcement that 90% of GIMP core has been ported to GEGL which allows them to operate in different colour-spaces like CMYK. This means that price sensitive people in the printing industry and can finally consider using GIMP in their daily workflow and may just find that its “good enough”. When they do, they too may find that throwing a few dollars towards the project to smooth out some rough edges will make the same kind of sense to them as it did to IBM.

For my part I took Bryan’s advice and took a look at the Ardour audio editor he used as one of his examples. He mentioned that it was getting some traction in the industry and was in need of donations to keep the developer working on it full time. I decided to donate monthly to the project, hoping that it too will cross that threshold into “good enough” and start attracting some investment from professionals looking for improvements. Here’s hoping!


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