Chad Perrin: SOB

26 March 2006

Proprietary Software: its own worst enemy

Filed under: Geek — apotheon @ 02:23

Early last year, Adobe released a Linux-based Acrobat Reader. The overwhelming response: So what?

By the time that happened, there was already a plague of options for PDF-reading applications and libraries that were open source and Linux-friendly. Do you know of anyone that uses an official Adobe PDF reading application on a free unix OS? I don’t.

Adobe reacted so slowly to the need for PDF readers on OSes other than Windows and MacOS that by the time it produced something it was already obsolete and irrelevant. You can create PDFs from within OpenOffice.org, for crying out loud — reading PDFs is chump change in the Linux world.

Even more slowly than the Acrobat Reader is support for non-MS and non-Apple OSes for professional Adobe software such as Photoshop and the Acrobat PDF creator itself. As evidenced by open source software such as OpenOffice.org and utilities used to translate other document types into PDFs, Acrobat is dangerously close to being made obsolete in the Linux world already. All it really has going for it still is the fact that it’s a pure, professional-grade PDF creator. That’s the whole purpose of it, so of course the focus on development for it is in making it very good at that one task. As a result, its interface and built-in tools are excellent for that purpose. If Adobe were to provide a Linux-compatible version of Acrobat tomorrow, they’d be well-positioned for generating a lot of revenue in that area for a while. Sadly, Adobe just isn’t thinking along those lines. Adobe will put it off and put it off until there’s open source software close enough to Acrobat itself that releasing a Linux-compatible version will be a drop in the ocean, and once again the reaction will be underwhelming: Who cares?

Believe it or not, the application for which Linux users are clamoring the most from Adobe — Photoshop — is in an even worse position than Acrobat. Acrobat doesn’t have nearly the market demand that Photoshop has. This is both a positive and a negative in terms of Adobe’s ability to capitalize on that demand in the Linux market. On the positive side, producing a Linux-based Photoshop version would have a built-in market that would provide an instant and robust revenue stream. On the negative side, the demand is so great that open source developers are recreating Photoshop in their own particular idiom, and Adobe risks becoming an also-ran in its own market much, much more quickly.

The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is an image editor functionally equivalent to Photoshop. The only real barrier to adoption as an equal (or better, since it does basically everything Photoshop does and then some with far less resource usage and no price tag) has been the fact that it has a significantly different user interface. While I, for one, prefer the GIMP interface and find it much more intuitive and accessible than Photoshop’s, people who have been “raised” on Photoshop’s interface as the industry standard find it understandably more difficult to adjust. As a result, the GIMP is an also-ran.

However . . . there’s now (and has been for a couple of years) an interface variation of the GIMP called GIMPshop. It’s the GIMP filtered through a Photoshop-like interface. If I’m not mistaken, GIMPshop was originally developed only for MacOS, but is now available for Windows and Linux systems as well. It’s Photoshop for free — free as in speech as well as free as in beer. Suddenly, one begins to wonder whether Adobe’s reticence to support non-Windows environments might not only render Photoshop irrelevant in the Linux world, but in all OS markets, including the one market it has dominated for so long.

It’s the slow-moving tendency of proprietary, commercial software that is ultimately going to be proprietary software’s biggest enemy. Open source software is developed the moment some people with software development skills decide they need it, and if it’s good enough and popularly useful enough, it quickly becomes a powerhouse in its own market niche. Proprietary software, on the other hand, requires market and cost analyses, corporate strategy building, and a host of other delaying procedural issues to be resolved before anyone can even think of writing a line of useful code. Once the code starts getting written, it’s written for a target market, and it stays there until the whole procedural swamp can be renavigated to expand into another, highly limited, target market — while open source software often gets ported to a new platform in a matter of weeks when someone motivated decides (s)he wants to be able to use it on another platform.

It’s no wonder proprietary commercial software vendors characterize open source software licensing as “viral”. To them, that’s exactly how it seems. It seems as though open source software is some kind of infection spreading through markets that previously “belonged” to these dinosaurs of market dominance business models whose executives and boards cannot conceive of any other way to make a buck off software. How do you compete with something that is free and develops seemingly magically, of its own accord, when your entire business model is based around artificial scarcity of a resource?

When your business model is dependent upon your ability to enforce artificial scarcity of an otherwise abundant resource (ideas and the implementations thereof), a competitor that encourages abundance and replication, and costs effectively nothing to legally reproduce, distribute, and use is going to cut away the foundations of your revenue stream pretty effectively given a little time. The only way to fight that is to leverage already existing market dominance and simultaneously concoct means of using the law to fight the availability of the more abundant competition. As a delaying tactic while inventing new business models, this might work, but as a means of just holding on to the status quo it only delays the inevitable.

Frankly, I’m glad companies like Adobe are so slow on the uptake when it comes to expanding into other markets. It encourages open source development in those markets, which can then expand into Adobe’s markets (and those of other, similar software vendors). I distrust closed source software anyway, and for good reason as demonstrated by recent stupidities perpetrated by companies like Sony (remember the rootkit).

There’s even an open source Windows-compatible OS being developed, called ReactOS. Open Source Software is nipping at the heels of the very bedrock of the proprietary software personal computer market.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License