Last week, Canonical, the commercial face of the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution, announced that it would be using its Partners repository to sell proprietary applications like Parallels Workstation. You can see the reasoning: Ubuntu's Debian technology already has the infrastructure for on-demand downloads and software installation, so why not monetize it?
But, if past incarnations of the idea are any indication, then the results are likely to be disappointing at best. For one thing, neither the free software community nor the software vendors care for the idea, so there's little market for it. For another, with the recent maturity of many pieces of free software, how many Ubuntu users will be so insistent on a brand name that they'll pay for functionality that they can get for free?
So far as I know, the idea of a commercial repository was first raised by Ximian back in the dot-com bubble with Red Carpet. At the time, the idea made sense if you squinted a little. Many free productivity apps were light on features, and hopeful startups like Chilliware were rushing to fill the gap with proprietary applications. However, Ximian was acquired by Novell before it could experiment with the idea very much, and the sudden collapse of the bubble took most of the potential vendors for Red Carpet with it.
The next major incarnation was Linspire's Click-N-Run (CNR), which still exists. Linspire claims that CNR contains over 20,000 applications. But perhaps a better indication of the service's success may be that, in the last year, Linspire has offered basic access for free, and extended support to include non-Debian based distributions.
Certainly, the service seems to have done little to move Linspire from the second or third tier of distros. Nor do any major distributions offer to connect users to CNR, though at one point Canonical was considering partnering with Linspire in CNR rather than creating its own commercial repository.
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The latest version of the idea is Windows Marketplace. Few, if any Windows users are aware of it, much less using it, despite the fact that the number of applications it offers has grown steadily since Vista was released. For all the marketing logic behind the idea, it seems that even association with the world's most widely used operating system cannot make a commercial repository more than an indifferent success. With this history, you have to wonder why Canonical has bothered reviving the idea, especially when conditions for success seem poorer than ever.
One problem with the idea is the danger of a backlash within the community. True, only a minority of GNU/Linux users refuse to use any proprietary software whatsoever. However, most feel uncomfortable doing so. Moreover, to judge from the reaction when Fedora made proprietary sound codecs available through the desktop, many object to having access to proprietary software made too easy.
Although this attitude is hypocritical and is unlikely to be shared by the new users that Ubuntu is increasingly targeting, it is still an issue that the Partners repository has to face. In fact, if you read the news about the repository carefully, you can sense Canonical bracing for a negative reaction, as its representatives stress that use of the repository is voluntary and emphasizes convenience and choice. They mention that both free and proprietary applications will be available through it.
So far, the backlash hasn't happened. Yet neither has any great enthusiasm. Judging by the Ubuntu forums, the most common reaction has been mild curiosity, followed by efforts to resolve individual technical problems.