Does GNU/Linux need to run Windows apps? This question resurfaced last week, when the media noticed that Google has been contributing heavily to the Wine project, which develops a compatibility layer on GNU/Linux for running Windows applications.
Google seems to think so. Not only did Google employees and interns contribute over 1900 patches to WINE in 2006-07, but the company also funded work at Codeweavers to improve the ability of Crossover Linux (a commercial version of Wine) to run recent versions of PhotoShop.
Others are apparently of the same mind. An entire mini-industry exists for those who aren't yet weaned from their Windows programs. Besides Codeweavers, it includes virtual machines like VMware, emulators like Win4Lin, and -- for those who prefer a free software solution -- virtualization projects like VirtualBox.
All these solutions are ingenious, and, their technical appeal is obvious. And if coders want to contribute to such projects, nobody has the right or ability to prevent them. However, when financial resources are contributed, I question whether they are being allocated wisely.
Partly, of course, Google was interested in improving Wine for its own purpose -- specifically to improve the running of Picasa, which depends on Wine. However, getting PhotoShop up and running seems to have been work performed for no better reason than the fact that a year old survey showed that PhotoShop was the application that people would most like to see ported to GNU/Linux. But, at this stage of the operating system's development, such investments seem not only unnecessary, but even potentially harmful to the community as a whole, and the arguments in favor of them are seeming increasingly flimsy.
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I admit that, nine years ago, I advocated the ability to run Windows apps as strongly as anyone. As product manager at Stormix Technologies, I made sure that the first version of Storm Linux shipped with versions of both VMware and Win4Lin.
But that was a year before OpenOffice.org. Back then, AbiWord was a glorified text editor, and Netscape was the only available web browser for GNU/Linux. Both Inkscape and Scribus were four years in the future. In general, GNU/Linux desktop apps ranged from non-existent to the minimally functional.
Since then, native desktop apps have started coming into their own. Although more work is needed here and there, productivity software is maturing rapidly for GNU/Linux, to the point where, for most purposes, it equals or exceeds the proprietary Windows equivalents.
A case in point is the GIMP compared to Photoshop. Many people insist that only Photoshop will do for professional design work, and the GIMP is inadequate. Inevitably, though, questioning them reveals that they are either echoing an opinion they have heard, or basing their opinion on a brief look at the GIMP a few years ago. Since they looked with the assumption that free software is necessarily inferior to proprietary, guess what? They failed to investigate closely, and saw the inadequate program that they expected to see.
The truth is, the GIMP is wholly capable of being used by professionals. I know, because I've used it for my own design work, and without any inconvenience, either, beyond that of finding where a function was located in the menu. Aside from some obscure filters, the last barrier to using the GIMP was color management, and that was added a few months ago (and not strictly necessary, given that the differences in ink batches always means doing sample printouts anyway).
Much the same is true for all the most common productivity categories. For most users and purposes today, native applications will do the job. Admittedly, users will have to learn the native application's new menus and keystrokes, but learning the GIMP or OpenOffice.org is no harder than learning Xara Xtreme or WordPerfect Office -- or, for that matter, the latest redesign of Microsoft Office.
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