Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Could a failed Ubuntu Software Store be a failure for Linux in general?

One of the things I believe has always held Linux and open source back from mainstream adoption is the near total dependence on community software development and support. While I certainly see the value of community and would be the first to say it works very well, I think the demand for 'free as in freedom, free as in price, software that's totally community developed is beginning to cripple both the movement and the platform.

Canonical, makers of the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution, is one of the first Linux distributors to tackle this problem head on and offer developers the ability to sell their software directly to Ubuntu users via an upcoming upgrade to the built-in Software Center. Using Software Center, users will be able to easily purchase and install software directly on their machines without the need for command line configuration, editing configuration files, or even seeing a hint of the command line. To some degree, Software Center, especially with this upgrade, brings Linux software management every bit as easy as Windows or Mac.

Unfortunately things don't look too promising for the store as it's scheduled to be released next month with only one official application: a suite of media codecs that while useful, will definitely leave a bad first impression of the service. To add insult to injury, there seems to be no defined way, even with only a month left to go before release, for developers to request to have their applications included in the store and Canonical is very dodgy when asked directly about how to do so.

This could be very bad. As one of the largest, if not the largest, consumer installed Linux distribution in use today, people will be looking for Ubuntu to set a standard for software distribution on the platform. A failure to deliver a clear, user-friendly, defined product will not only hurt Ubuntu as a brand but the entire Linux community. If the software store fails, people aren't going to say 'look at how Canonical failed to offer a working software store', they're going to say 'Yeah, Linux tried to sell software once and it failed miserably'. They won't differentiate, they won't connect it with Connonical, it will forever be associated in users minds with a Linux failure.

"See", they will say, "you can't make money on Linux. Why bother developing for it? Stick to Windows and Mac." Sure, they say that now, but Canonical is in a unique position to either prove them laughably wrong or deathly right. Everything is riding on the success of the software store and, right now, it's just not where it needs to be.

With no well defined process for software inclusion, no well defined pricing and payment structure and only one application in the store on launch, I hope Canonical has the wisdom to pull the plug on the store and delay its release for while until they've built up a decent list of paid applications. With its crazy six-month release cycle, there seems to be a feeling that the store must be ready for the upcoming 10.10 release. Only Ubuntu adheres to this crazy software cycle. Everyone else on earth understands that major new features that aren't intrinsically tied to the functionality of the operating system can be deployed anytime. Imagine what would happen if Microsoft released no new software for Windows except when they upgraded the OS. Windows users would think it's insanity and Linux users should feel the exact same way. There is absolutely no compelling reason why the software store has to be launched on the 10.10 release date. It's short sighted and could easily translate to the total failure of the software store - a feature who's time has come, but just isn't ready for 10.10.

Personally, I'd like to see a few things from Canonical before they officially release the software store:

1. I want a clear, well-defined, way to get my paid applications into the store.

2. I want a clear understanding of how I will be paid and how much Canonical will take from each sale.

3. I want my applications to have a good chance of selling. That means I want a robust marketplace with lots of well-written, competing, software and good backing from Canonical.

4. I do not want a requirement that my applications must be open source to be included in the marketplace. Sure, open source has a lot of benefits, but the choice should be the users. Freedom of choice, by definition, should include the freedom to choose non-freedom. I think this is something the free software and open source movements have missed. This one point could make or break the software store.

In short, I suppose I really want something like the Apple App Store for the Ubuntu desktop. For all its problems, Apple has developed a vibrant and thriving marketplace where developers can make real money. There's a good balance between free and paid apps and the user always has the freedom, with a few constraints, to choose whatever application that works for them.

Will the Ubuntu Software Store live up to the bar set by Apple? Probably not at first. But, with time, I think it can get there as long as the community breaks the 'free means free of cost" mentality. Regardless of what Richard Stallman says, there's nothing really evil about proprietary software. Sometimes, it makes the best sense for both the developer and the consumer. It would do Canonical well to remember not to be so fanatical about 'free software' tat it alienates the very companies and developers that could most benefit the Linux movement.

I'm looking forward to the software store. I hope it's not released in October with the shipping of Ubuntu 10.10 but, in the end, it's going to be a true partnership between Canonical, software developers, and end users working together to make the software store a success or failure. I just hope Canonical has the wisdom to break out of this 'release with new OS upgrade' mindset and put the needs of the community ahead of its own marketing hype.

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