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, 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 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.


  1. I was raised on mspaint, so I can barely navigate the gimp and photoshop. Yay xpaint?

    Comment by Snorre — 26 March 2006 @ 06:05

  2. I think you’re making an assumption about an “instant and robust revenue stream” that would need to be supported by numbers. What is the penetration of the Un*x desktop in the markets where Photoshop is used (publishing/marketing/graphic design/etc.)? I’m betting that Adobe already knows the answer to that question, and perhaps they’ve decided that the potential revenue isn’t enough to justify the cost of development.

    OTOH, I don’t think this validates your main premise, that proprietary software developers tend to react very slowly to the needs of open-source users. And, as you say, I think that works to the benefit of the OSS world–what would have been the fate of OpenOffice or the GIMP if Microsoft and Adobe had embraced Linux early on and released reasonably priced versions of Office and Photoshop say, four or five years ago?

    Nice blog, BTW. Good stuff here. And I note with a bit of irony that your GoogleAds are hawking Acrobat and Photoshop. ;-)

    Comment by Brian Martinez — 26 March 2006 @ 09:00

  3. Those ads certainly are ironic and amusing.

    My guesstimate about the sort of revenue that could be had for providing Linux versions of Adobe professional applications is, admittedly, based only on personal observations and not on comprehensive surveys. Even so, I think it’s unrealistic to believe that Photoshop would not be profitable pretty much instantly. Anything after initial development costs are covered for a proprietary application is almost pure profit, discounting lawsuits (which would apply just as easily to Windows-based versions, as long as they don’t do something stupid like include GPLed code in proprietary closed source applications).

    Over the last few years, I’ve run across a great many mentions of people lamenting the lack of Photoshop and Acrobat on Linux systems (particularly Photoshop). I’ve heard a great many Linux users say the only reason they still have a Windows system is Photoshop. Et cetera. I think the reason Adobe isn’t moving faster is, mostly, that they wouldn’t make enough immediate profit for them to feel like it’s worth it. Of course, that’s discounting the long-run market costs involved in letting the GIMP and other competing software to own the non-Windows market in their niche. I never claimed corporate execs and board members typically made good long-term decisions, though.

    Comment by apotheon — 26 March 2006 @ 09:27

  4. Nice take on this issue, not sure what I can add to it other then a trackback or at least link to this blog in my own.

    Comment by Joseph A Nagy Jr — 26 March 2006 @ 09:47

  5. Er, I don’t think you’ve done much commercial software development if you believe that revenue after the initial costs are “almost pure profit”. There’s a cost associated with every phase of the software lifecycle, and not all of them factor into OSS projects (marketing, duplication and distribution; technical and customer support; maintenance [patches and upgrades]; business analysis, etc.). All of this needs to be considered before making a decision to enter what is currently a very tiny market. Again, though, it reinforces the notion that big software companies can’t move quickly enough to adapt to rapidly-changing developments in the OSS world. Like you, I don’t see this as a Bad Thing.

    (One nit to pick; I don’t see the Sony rootkit debacle as an example of untrustworthy closed-source software so much as an unconscionably stupid way to protect copyright.)

    Comment by Brian Martinez — 26 March 2006 @ 10:03

  6. That’s what I get for posting when I haven’t slept in a very long time. I didn’t make it clear that I was referring to supporting additional platforms being almost pure profit. Large software vendors can easily subsume costs like support and distribution for a new platform within the continued costs of supporting the older platform. For instance, it doesn’t cost any more to ship twenty of one version and eighty of another than it does to ship a hundred of only one.

    re: Sony If the Sony software was open source, the rootkit would never have gotten as far as it did. Someone discovered the rootkit only after it was widely distributed and widely installed. That situation was very much a good example of the untrustworthiness of closed source software.

    Comment by apotheon — 26 March 2006 @ 12:31

  7. Whew! Believe it or not, I wrote this before I read your post.

    Comment by Sterling Camden — 27 March 2006 @ 11:22

  8. I believe it, Sterling.

    Comment by apotheon — 27 March 2006 @ 11:45

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

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