The end of proprietary software?

Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, called it a “cancer”. Other have outfitted it with “viral” attributes, destroying the software business as it was formerly known. And while Free Software advocates are very fast to dismiss these accusations as FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt), there is a grain of truth in them.

If we take a look at the Free/Open Source Software landscape, its advantages become quite evident; wherever there is a need for a certain tool, users gather, start to plan and develop a piece of software to satisfy that need. This works surprisingly good, as any Linux user can tell you; the Linux desktop has been a viable alternative to proprietary operating systems for quite a while now and I dare to say that the rate of progress is equal (if not higher) to that of any competitor. Indeed; this is not only limited to the desktop, but is true for almost every corner of the software landscape. However; there are to very distinct exceptions to that rule; games and specialist software.

The community based development approach of Free/OpenSource software has some very impressive advantages. First of all, the burden of the cost of the development is (ideally) not shouldered by one entity, but by a legion of contributors, be it enthusiast developers or hired programmers. Second; while the cost is divided, the advantages of the software is not. And third; abandoned software projects can be picked up again. For proprietary software, this is a no-go if you don’t own the copyrights.

However; since the development process is so utterly dependent on the community, Free/OpenSource software will only prevail where there are enough enthusiasts with the right skills. And this, unfortunately, does neither include specialist software nor games.

It is my expectation that Free/OpenSource software will increasingly dominate the software landscape. Utility software, office software, multimedia and productivity suites; these are categories that attract a huge crowd of people, some of them apt enough to contribute, in code, in documentation, in testing. I doubt that proprietary piece of software stands a chance against an Free/OpenSource product, at least in the long run, say; 10 to 15 years.

Games and specialist software however are something different. Their target audience is limited, the fields require a huge amount of expertise and thus the number of experts is limited. Creating a community in this kind of environment is a very difficult task. I expect proprietary software to flourish in this parts of the software landscape for quite some time to come.

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