Desktop Linux: The Dream Is Dead

One of the saddest (but tragically true) technology articles I've read lately is Robert Strohmeyer's article in PCWorld Desktop Linux: The Dream Is Dead. The most important paragraph is:
Ultimately, Linux is doomed on the desktop because of a critical lack of content. And that lack of content owes its existence to two key factors: the fragmentation of the Linux platform, and the fierce ideology of the open-source community at large.
One of the key pieces of the linux ideology that has been a huge part of the problem is the focus on "free". In extreme corners of the community, software developers are supposed to be feeding themselves by doing day jobs, and writing software at night. Often, employers sponsor open-source work, but it's not enough and sometimes has a conflict-of-interest. In the enterprise world, there is an economic model: service and support. On the desktop side, there is no similar economic model: desktop software is a labor of love.

The enterprise model for linux has been a huge success. Folks from the proprietary software world find this perplexing. One of the better ways of looking at it is that proprietary software typically has a large sales force, does expensive advertising, and so has a generally large cost-of-sales. Often, the cost-of-sales is alarmingly close to the license fee - they cancel out. So why not just give the software for free and let it sell itself? Volume goes up, so service and support revenue will go up too. All goodness. My major problem with this revenue model is that it creates a dis-incentive for quality: crappy software needs more service and support. This is counterbalanced by the fact that crappy software is also less likely to get adopted, but the tension is there. I've actually heard senior executives push back on projects to improve installation and configuration because that removes service and support opportunities - "features" and demos are good because they help sales. This isn't just an open-source phenomenon: I've heard it very strongly from large proprietary software companies.

But for desktop software, the service-and-support model doesn't work. To be successful, desktop software has to "just work". Some folks do shareware or donateware, but it's not very successful: such models rarely generate enough money to keep the developers fed. And the packaging model of most of the distributions discourages economic models: they slurp up the source and compile it themselves, holding on to the relationship with the user. Money isn't evil: it's just a way of keeping score in a barter economy. I'm happy to trade code for food. And it doesn't take much money to make things work: look at the iPhone app store. If the Gimp cost a few dollars, the development team could put a lot more energy into the Gimp and it would be hugely better for it. Now it's just a shadow of Photoshop (sorry), which succeeds despite rapacious pricing.

Developers follow the money. They aren't evil, they just need to be fed and housed. Unless the Linux community gets over the whole "free" thing on the desktop, Strohmeyer's pronouncement of death will hold.

October 18, 2010