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With new proprietary applications finding their way onto the Ubuntu desktop, one has to wonder what the long-term effects might be. Before we dive into this too deeply, however, there are some points we should consider.
First of all, proprietary software isn't new to the Linux desktop. Applications such as Opera, Lotus Notes and VueScan are just a few of the older proprietary titles available for the Linux desktop. Unlike software titles like Steam or Skype, however, these were titles that never really garnered much attention.
Targeting the Ubuntu desktop only
While there are some limited exceptions, most proprietary software titles coming to Ubuntu are centered around recreating experiences we might have from other operating systems. Skype is one of my favorite examples, as it's now more than ever the de facto video conferencing application for all three major computing platforms.
Another area where smooth software migration is being sought after is with gaming. And as luck would have it, new proprietary games are beginning to float into the Ubuntu Software Center. Regardless of what your view might happen to be on proprietary software or games, one must ask oneself – what about the other distros out there?
As things stand now, Valve is seeking to support operations for Ubuntu only. While this is likely to change, other non-Valve apps are already pushing forward with an Ubuntu-only view of the world. The fact is, newcomers to Linux software development (proprietary apps) see Ubuntu as being widely adopted, corporately supported and easier to work with. As great as other distributions of Linux may happen to be, they unfortunately lack the market share found with Ubuntu.
Here comes the great divide
Perhaps I'm simply being too pessimistic, but I believe these proprietary apps coming to Ubuntu will add to Ubuntu's appeal, and other newbie-friendly distributions will feel the pinch as a result. Clearly Arch Linux users couldn't care less, and most of them have little interest in running anything on their Linux installations. However, those who use PCLinuxOS or Mageia will care because their reliance on RPMs over Debian-based packaging will leave them out in the cold with regard to some proprietary software titles. This isn't to say that converting packaging isn't possible; rather that it will become yet another hurdle for those using a non-Ubuntu-based distribution. And quite frankly, this is a lousy deal for anyone using alternative distributions.
Despite what I think is a division taking place within the Linux community thanks to so much focus on one distribution of Linux, some other distros are managing to keep pace. One great example was when some Ubuntu users figured out how to use the Steam client from Valve despite not being part of the beta program. Arch users took this ability and created an Arch Linux Steam package. Later on though, licensing concerns over its use came to light. So I am skeptical as to where this will leave Arch Linux users in the future.
It's issues like this that create what I think will turn into a significant divide. Previously, the divide was merely software politics. Now, I think the divide will be Ubuntu users vs. the rest of the Linux community. And with passing time, I suspect we'll see other proprietary applications forming alliances with Canonical so that their software can be crafted to meet with Ubuntu's needs.
So why is this a bad thing? Is this an issue we should be concerned about?
Some people have expressed grave concern over newbies and existing users alike sticking with Ubuntu-based distros simply because of the flood of games being offered. I take a much lighter view and believe that it's all relative. See, even if proprietary games and software are targeted to Ubuntu only, if the demand for the software is strong enough, developers will find a way to port these apps to other Linux distributions. Besides, all of their cross-platform development is going to have a far more important effect on the Linux community as a whole – a fresh crop of new Linux enthusiasts! But before we get too excited, there are still a fair number of legacy applications yet to find their way onto the Ubuntu desktop.
Legacy software challenges
Most Ubuntu users such as myself are quite at home with open source applications such as GIMP and Rhythmbox. Others still long for the day when Photoshop and iTunes will show themselves in the Ubuntu Software Center. Back in 2010, Canonical asked Ubuntu users to fill out a survey expressing which proprietary applications they'd like to see ported to Ubuntu. At the time, many Ubuntu users felt that this offered a glimmer of hope that these applications would someday find their way onto the Linux landscape. In reality, it led nowhere, and we won't likely ever see either application ported to Ubuntu.
Apple, for one, would sooner go out of business than bother trying to give Ubuntu a leg up with iTunes for Linux. On the other hand, Adobe is slightly warmer to the Linux desktop considering how many years they supported a Flash plugin for the platform. In reality though, I don't think either application is ever going to be natively supported -- at least not without heavy "social proof."
For example, take the recent PPA repository which finally allows Ubuntu users to watch Netflix on their Linux PCs, using a customized version of WINE bundled with Firefox for Windows and Silverlight. We see that Ubuntu users wanted Netflix on their computers so badly that they hacked together a workable solution. This produces a win for Netflix, as it will mean greater subscriber retention instead of further excluding their Ubuntu-using user base. And perhaps more importantly, Netflix now has social proof that Ubuntu users would be a worthwhile investment. In other words, it's time to lose Silverlight and use Flash like Amazon and Hulu do.
Where this comes full circle is that this kind of social proof needs to happen with other Windows applications, and at a level that motivates developers of said applications to take action and port their software to Linux. As mentioned above, anything from Apple will never happen. And Adobe Photoshop has had limited social proof for years with various WINE configurations. The problem I see with Photoshop ever making it to the Ubuntu desktop is that most hard-core Photoshop users are already content with their existing operating system. In order to break this cycle, I think we'll have to look to other proprietary software titles that are not quite so niche-based. Yes, Photoshop is indeed a niche application centered around a smaller audience than say, watching video on Netflix.
Licensing concerns may be short lived
Each year I see new and exciting applications released for Android and on the cloud. In both instances, these applications either are or will one day be accessible to Ubuntu users everywhere. As the lines between Android and Ubuntu continue to blur, I believe that we'll see legacy titles finding their way onto Ubuntu via Android in the near future. I don't believe, however, that we'll see most legacy proprietary titles appearing on Ubuntu natively.
As for new software titles, I think that Google, among others, will continue to push the envelope in this the cloud computing space. These days, the Web browser is fast becoming the central point for software access to everything from accounting to Web conferencing.
One thing is becoming clear to me – proprietary software will indeed play a major part in the Ubuntu desktop of the future. The key question is, how beneficial will this be to existing Ubuntu enthusiasts? At this point, only time will tell.