What if Ubuntu Hosted a Repository and Nobody Came?: Page 2

Posted February 12, 2008

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

(Page 2 of 2)

Who's buying?

While the possibility of a later backlash can never be discounted, one reason that it may fail to materialize is simple lack of interest in the idea. Today, major software vendors and hardware manufacturers routinely offer free readers, media players and device drivers for GNU/Linux, yet otherwise no more proprietary software is available for the operating system than at the height of the dot-com boom.

Some software, such as Anime Studio Pro, has sprouted GNU/Linux versions because of pressure from users; others, such as Nero, have offered half-hearted versions of their Windows apps -- and that's all. Despite frequent requests from users, major proprietary vendors like Adobe seem no more interested in developing for the platform now than they were seven years ago.

In fact, if you look at the CNR warehouse, what is striking is the scarcity of proprietary products. Not surprisingly, you see more in the Windows Marketplace, yet, even there, few of the major vendors other than Microsoft have any products listed. Instead, what you see are mostly small-timers and shareware developers of specialized products -- and these are exactly the kind of applications that free software has always excelled at producing.

Look, for example, at Parallels Workstation, the Partners repository's first proprietary offering. It's priced at $49.99, which is more than a reasonable price for virtualization software. Yet VirtualBox does the same thing and is free for the download. For that matter, you can download VMware Player at no cost, even if it’s not philosophically free. With this competition, how many would want to pay to download Parallels Workstation?

Even if major vendors were to release GNU/Linux versions of their products, the enthusiasm would likely be muted. Seven years ago, a GNU/Linux version of Microsoft Office or PhotoShop would have been big news, and cornered the market. But, in the interval, programs like OpenOffice.org or the GIMP have filled the gap created by the proprietary vendor's reluctance with applications of roughly equivalent functionality.

Users -- especially unimaginative ones -- may carp about the lack of one particular feature or the other, but in the major productivity areas, free solutions are already available. Even those who have no political or philosophical objection to proprietary software are going to hesitate about paying for functionality that they can get for free.

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A possible exception to this situation may be high-end applications such as the GNU/Linux versions of the 3-D modeling software Maya or the Oracle database. The trouble is, these apps are beyond the budgets of home users, and no well-run business is going to buy software without a procurement process that negates the speed and convenience of the Partners repository.

Perhaps this line of reasoning is what keeps so many proprietary vendors away from similar download services. At any rate, the service is a new distribution model, and mostly untried, both by vendors and by users coming from Windows. Both seem more comfortable with the retail store than the download service, and are likely to remain so for a few years.

A limited niche

A download service might find a temporary niche in offering software for which no free equivalent exists. For instance, despite recent improvements in apps like Kooka and Tesseract, someone who regularly needed to convert scanned text to a usable format might welcome a GNU/Linux version of OmniPage. The trouble is, given the speed with which free software is developing, such a market would be temporary, lasting a year or two at most. A service specializing in these niches would continually lose out to maturing free software, with no prospect of replacement products.

Similarly, users migrating from Windows might become temporary customers because they retain the assumption that proprietary software is superior. But, if they remained with Ubuntu, they would be lost as customers as they learned to trust free software.

Canonical has been considering such a service for over a year, but you have to wonder why. The users who are comfortable with this type of service have no need of it, while those home and business users who might find it useful or reassuring are not comfortable with it -- even if they could find products worth buying.

Perhaps, as Canonical claims, the service is a response to requests from partners. Yet it is so poorly considered that you might wonder how familiar its developers were with its market. Or, had so much time and effort been spent on the project that nobody had the courage to cut the company's losses before it was completed?

If any company could make the idea pay, it would be an innovative one like Canonical. However, the likeliest scenario is that the Partners repository will limp along under-used and unnoticed for four or five years before someone takes pity and puts it out of its misery.

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