Who cares about market share?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 30, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

On Google+, my colleague Swapnil Bhartiya has been reviving old claims. Free software applications, he proposes (perhaps playing devil's advocate) do not meet professional standards, and the Linux desktop will never be commercial grade. After seventeen years of using primarily Linux, I find myself unimpressed by either claim.

For one thing, when people denigrate free software, what they often mean is that it is different from rival proprietary applications. It functions differently, and features have different names or different positions in the menu. However, instead of taking the time to learn, or to find the appropriate tool, they make a hasty judgment, influenced, perhaps, by the longstanding prejudice that software you for which you don't pay is worthless.

Take, for example, the Writer word processor in LibreOffice and its cousin Apache OpenOffice. As someone who literally wrote the book on the subject, I have the expertise to say that Writer is more than halfway to being a desktop publisher. It has a precision and a stability that Microsoft Word has never come near in several decades of supposed development. Yet articles are still being published, solemnly asking if Writer has caught up with Word. The most that these articles grant is that Writer might do if you can't find some dodge to get hold of Word.

To which I can only reply with a raised eyebrow, "Oh, really?"

Similarly, I have read time and time again that GIMP cannot possibly be substituted for PhotoShop for professional work. As someone who has used GIMP for over a dozen professional contracts, I can only crank my eyebrow up another centimeter or two. Whether GIMP is suitable for professional work depends entirely on what you want to do. For most purposes, its main disadvantage is that its filters are vastly outnumbered by PhotoShop's, and even that is mitigated by GIMP's ability to import PhotoShop's filters with at least an eighty percent success rate.

Anyway, if GIMP lacks a function, you can be almost certain that Krita will have it. Designed in consultation with working artists, it is one of the premier graphic tools available on any platform. Yet because it is KDE-based, many GNOME users know nothing about, and make sweeping statements about free software graphics that exclude its importance.

And let's not even talk about all the first-rate apps available in free software, like Amarok, Audacity, K3B, and digiKam. So far as I'm concerned, using free software means being able to work with applications that are best of breed in their categories.

As for desktops, KDE Plasma is so far in advance of any other desktop environment that using Windows or OS X always feels to me like a massive downgrade in convenience and efficiency.

The Irrelevance of the Market
Admittedly, Linux has only a two percent share of the desktop market. The main reason for this low market share is that no one promotes the Linux desktop. You have to go back over a decade to find efforts to sell Linux in a store, and the modern Linux success stories have not occurred on the desktop.

Still, so what?

Maybe commercial success means respectability in some people's eyes. Yet what innovation has come from commercial products in the last decade? Too often, new features in commercial products are differences for the sake of being different, to keep consumers on the upgrade path. In fact, recent versions of both Windows and OS X have been criticized for their lack of significant improvements. In the last few years, I have seen more innovation come from a combination of crowdfunding and free software than I have from software houses.

Famously, free software has been described as a developer scratching their own itch -- adding the software or the features they want. If someone else wants another approach, they are free to follow it instead.

This approach has problems -- notably, a division between users and developers. However, unencumbered by the imperatives of the market, free software is able to focus on real needs and improvements. If the price of that diversity is a small market share, why should I care? I have no shares in Red Hat. So long as I can enjoy the advantages of free software, Linux's market share is irrelevant to me.

Sure, I would like to see Linux used more. When I discover excellence, I like to share my discovery. After seventeen years, I have developed a certain loyalty.

However, I can enjoy the advantages of Linux without an increase in market share. Let others use and curse Windows and OS X. The solutions to most of their problems are already available in free software. If they are unadventurous enough to miss those solutions, or convinced by their mythologies to stay with what they have, I am sorry, but that is not concern. I found the solutions long ago, and never regreted adopting them.

And if that seems selfish, I only have so much time for evangelism. Besides, if the advantage of free software for developers is that they are free to pursue their own interests, I see no reason that ordinary users can't claim the same privilege. I may be irked by the inaccurate statements about free software, or wish Linux more popular, but neither really matters compared to my everyday experience on the desktop. The diversity that I enjoy exists precisely because free software development is bound by considerations other than the commercial.

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