Why proprietary software isn't ported to Linux

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 27, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Every year or two, someone has what they imagine is an original idea: why not encourage proprietary productivity software for Linux? Often, what they are hoping for is a port of MS Word, or, as in the case of the recent online petition, versions of PhotoShop and other Adobe products. But, aside from a few high-end exceptions, such Linux ports have not happened in the past, when the need was greater, and are no more likely to happen in the future.

For one thing, the few experiments that have been done are not encouraging. At the height of the Dot-Com era, dozens of startups tried selling proprietary applications for Linux -- and not one survived more than a couple of years. Even Adobe, after releasing a popular beta of FrameMaker, withdrew it from circulation after a poll suggested that users were unwilling to pay for applications. The business model of proprietary software developers is selling software licenses, which simply doesn't translate well into free and open source software (FOSS).

It doesn't help, either, that the number of potential customers is much fewer than for Windows or even OS X -- at least if you believe the figures usually cited. Personally, I suspect that the Linux market share is much higher than usually cited, but I can understand why software executives might be more cautious than I am.

Conversely, while some Linux users are concerned only with efficient software, others have a marked preference for FOSS. Some would go so far as to consider proprietary software immoral. Consequently, the sales of proprietary ports of productivity apps are likely to prove disappointing and require massive marketing campaigns and several years of market development to see any notable success.

Too Little, too Late
However, the main reason proprietary ports are unlikely is that very few can offer anything than FOSS does not. Around the turn of the millennium, proprietary ports might have made sense, because FOSS was frankly lacking. In 2000, for instance, when the extremely basic Applixware was one of the few alternatives for office software, a port of MS Office might have encouraged users to choose functionality over idealism. And, in fact, when OpenOffice.org's code was released around the same time, it was immediately recognized as the major step forward for the Linux desktop that it turned out to be.

Now, fast-forward to the present. An MS Office port released in 2014 would offer a word processor inferior in stability and features to LibreOffice's Writer, a spreadsheet with a slight edge on Calc, and a presentation program superior to Impress unless a number of extensions are added. Except perhaps for a few with specialized needs, FOSS users today would greet an MSO port with a polite yawn.

The same is true of a PhotoShop port. PhotoShop may have several dozen plugins for each one designed for GIMP, but in terms of features, the differences are small -- all the more so because GIMP can import many Photoshop plugins.

In fact, contrary to the often-heard claim, doing professional work in GIMP is no harder than in PhotoShop. I know, because I have regularly created professional work in GIMP, and had few difficulties and no complaints. A designer might be comforted because they are using the industry standard software when they run PhotoShop, but overall what they gain has little to do with functionality.

And so it goes for most everyday apps that you can name. Had the proprietary software companies entered the FOSS market fifteen years ago, they might have well-established markets by now. Probably, too, they would have stunted the growth of FOSS alternatives.

But instead, they hesitated and lost whatever advantage they might have had. Today, the release of proprietary software in most areas would only be redundant, and the chance of mind share that early entries into FOSS might have produced is gone forever. The proprietary development houses had their chance, and they threw it away due to a combination of hesitation and a lack of imagination.

In fact, the only proprietary software that has had any success in the Linux market is games, such as those offered by Steam. Yet even those, I suspect, have had more publicity than sales. Moreover, Steam appears to have the sense to realize that the market will take some development.

At any rate, games are considered an exception to some FOSS advocates. Unlike productivity apps, they are not necessary for software freedom, and for this reason, advocates exist who have no objections to paying for them.

But for productivity apps, the moment to establish themselves passed long ago -- assuming, of course, that it ever arrived at all.

A few apps for Android phones or tablets are probably the closest thing to a Linux market for proprietary apps, and I, for one, cannot be sorry about the situation. The development of free software has enough obstacles already without having to compete with better-known proprietary products as well.

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