Proprietary Software and Linux: Good, Bad or Somewhere in Between?

Canonical is looking into selling proprietary software like Adobe's Photoshop and Apple's iTunes within its distribution, Ubuntu. This would undoubtedly be helpful for certain end users wanting to switch to Linux, but is it good for free software in the long run?

The introduction of the Ubuntu Software Center (originally named “Ubuntu Software Store”) into the recent Karmic Koala 9.10 release is a move towards creating a central interface for managing applications.

The original name was changed from “Store” to “Center” because it invoked images of selling software. Strange for a free Linux distribution.

Now however, that might not have been too far from the truth. Indeed, the plans for the Software Center indicate that by the 10.10 release (that’s the 10th month of 2010 for those who aren’t aware of the versioning scheme) it will be possible to purchase software.

Before this however, the upcoming 10.04 release should see the Software Center replace a majority of the existing package managers, including GNOME App Install, Gdebi and Synaptic. It should also replace the Update Manager and Software Sources for configuring repositories. By the April release of 2011, the application should be feature complete.

All of that sounds really good. A single, neat, easy to use interface would be a great addition to the desktop.

The Way Forward?

Canonical is definitely aligning itself to selling software. It’s nothing new though, it does it already for software like media codecs, DVD player support and, strangely enough, virtualization software. Commercial codec packs have been available through various distributions for a long time, as a way for end users to legitimately access their data without potentially violating software patents.

Now however, it appears that they are gearing up for something more. The reach is being extended and Ubuntu is asking for your input on which proprietary applications you would like to see made available in the distribution.

“We are trying to gather preferences for the apps that users would like to see in upcoming version of Ubuntu. While we all believe in the power of open source applications we are also very keen that users should get to choose the software they want to use. There are some great apps that aren’t yet available to Ubuntu users and Canonical would like to know the priority that users would like to see them.”

These are not proprietary applications to be included by default, but rather those which can be easily installed via official repositories. That’s right, presumable via the official “Partner” repository.

Considering that the list includes applications like Adobe Photoshop, that’s an interesting proposition. A user could, presumably, purchase a copy of Adobe Photoshop via the Ubuntu Software Center, which will configure the appropriate repository, download and install the application. Voilà!

There is no native Linux version of Photoshop, so this will most likely need to be run via Wine (Wine Is Not An Emulator), a free software implementation of the Windows API. There are several commercial products based on Wine, and one in particular is CrossOver, from Codeweavers. This company builds support for Windows programs into Wine and sells support for it. These improvements are then fed upstream, back into the Wine project.

In fact, “Codeweavers” is also on the list and CrossOver already supports Photoshop (version 6 through to CS2). Could it be that the Ubuntu Software Center will also be a front end for installing and removing packages seamlessly for use with CrossOver? Maybe so. Steam, World of Warcraft and Google’s Picasa, all of which are on the list too, are already supported under Wine.

Other applications on the list include Apple’s iTunes, one very popular application world wide which has no presence on the Linux desktop. Skype is also on the list, for which an Ubuntu package already exists.

At present, this survey is just a question of which applications users would like to see easily installable in Ubuntu. Perhaps these will use Wine, perhaps they will be native applications. At this stage just what this will entail, is not certain.

The Same Old Story

It’s easy to see why a distribution such as Ubuntu would want to enable support for popular proprietary software. The lack of ability to run popular Windows software on Linux impedes some users from making the move to free software.

We’ve all been there.

A friend’s Windows computer got a virus and you’ve been called to clean up the mess. They ask about this “Linux thing” you’ve been using. “It’s fast, stable, secure, free and best of all, doesn’t get viruses or spyware,” you point out.

“Sounds great!” the friend says. “Will it run Photoshop? I really need Photoshop.”

Uh oh. No, it doesn’t run Photoshop. In fact, generally speaking it doesn’t run any Windows software (well technically speaking you could get Photoshop and some others working under Wine). In this regard, it’s like a Mac. “There are lots of great free alternatives though, like the GIMP and Krita which you could learn how to use,” you meekly reply. However, the friend is perhaps reluctant to learn, doesn’t like the look of them, they don’t support the features they need – a dozen different reason. So they stick with Windows (which leaves you to fix their computer next time it dies).

What if that user could switch to Linux because Photoshop did run on Linux? What would that change?

On some level it would be fantastic to say, “Don’t worry, Photoshop runs perfectly on Linux! You can continue to use all those proprietary apps you need.” On another level, it’s also sad. It’s sad because if people understood the principles behind free software and why it’s a better way, perhaps they would be more willing to give free software replacements a try. Someone who wants to stick with their proprietary software, just doesn’t quite get it.

If all someone wants is a no-cost operating system, without understanding or caring about any of the philosophical elements behind it, what kind of future are we breeding?

Next: A Question of World View

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