Proprietary Software for Linux: A Good Idea?

Thursday Apr 12th 2012 by Matt Hartley

Many Linux users shun proprietary software written for Linux. Yet some of these apps are hard to replace.

When Linux enthusiasts think about software on the Linux desktop, they're likely thinking about applications that are available under various open source software licenses. Yet what about the other side of the software world – proprietary software for the Linux platform?

Despite the fact that proprietary applications do exist for the Linux desktop, I've found that most people tend to avoid them.

In this article, I'll explore some of the challenges proprietary software faces in gaining traction with Linux enthusiasts, in addition to providing some software titles that I think are worth looking into.

Software licensing

There are sizable groups of Linux users who have zero interest in seeing proprietary software gaining ground within the Linux space. Of course, this ignores the fact that most Linux users are already using proprietary software without even realizing it. There are also many users who feel strongly that proprietary software has no place in Linux.

Speaking for myself, I am fairly agnostic on the issue. I simply utilize what works best for my needs. This choice usually results in me selecting natively supported applications, most of which happen to be open source in nature.

Despite my open source software preference, I still do find myself using proprietary software such as Adobe Flash, the proprietary ATI driver for my dual-monitors, in addition to the likelihood of proprietary firmware for my wireless devices. I don't use this software because of its licensing, rather because it allows me to accomplish specific tasks throughout my day.

It has been my experience that I am not alone on this front. I'd even dare to say most Linux users today are less concerned with how software is licensed and more about what the application can offer.

On the flip side of this issue, I also realize that there are indeed individuals who are very conscientious about the code being run on their PCs. Utilizing pure Linux distributions such as Trisquel, these enthusiasts are able to ensure that their Linux experience is as pure as they like. If a user running Trisquel wants to install something like Flash, they're free to do so. Out of the box however, they'll be provided the non-proprietary alternatives instead.

If avoiding proprietary software is important to you, then I would recommend avoiding distributions such as Ubuntu and instead opt for Trisquel in its place.

Ubuntu picking up where Linspire left off

Newer Linux users might be tempted to believe that the idea of a software marketplace in Linux was born with Ubuntu. This of course is completely false. It was actually Linspire (aka Lindows), that first offered Linux enthusiasts the idea of a software marketplace where open source and proprietary software was offered side by side.

Before Ubuntu was even conceived of, Linspire offered paid subscriptions to a software repository called the Click-n-Run Warehouse (CNR). Considered highly controversial at the time, the CNR software repository allowed anyone with the ability to read English and a copy of Linspire Linux to install software with only a few clicks of the mouse. Unfortunately after the CNR concept was extended to other distributions, any perceived ease of use was shot right out the window.

Flash forward to 2012, Ubuntu offers their users a variation of this marketplace called the Ubuntu Software Center. Designed to be single source for software of all licensing types, there hasn't been very much concern over the software offered.

My guess as to why, is that Ubuntu users can access the software center without a subscription fee. This is a significant issue in which Linspire and Ubuntu differ. Like CNR, the Ubuntu Software Center sells proprietary applications right alongside the open source titles. Unlike CNR, however, the proprietary applications can be easily hidden by unchecking the correct repositories from the software sources dialog.

Do we need proprietary software for Linux?

Recently someone explained to me that proprietary software for Linux is completely unnecessary. After having a chance to really ponder this line of thinking, I decided to do some digging to see which applications might be difficult to find open source alternatives for. Needless to say, it didn't take me long to realize there are some proprietary Linux applications that are very difficult to replace.

Moneydance – To be brutally honest, Moneydance is the best personal finance management software available on the Linux desktop – period. It includes the stuff you might find in the open source arena, but it also includes online banking support (U.S. banking support, unlike other apps), mobile support for Android /iOS, plus a really clean user interface.

TeamViewer – Because grandma isn't going to help you SSH into her PC, TeamViewer remains a favorite in my household. Available through a specially packaged Wine bundle, TeamViewer works flawlessly across all platforms and even allows the administrator to offer help via their mobile device.

ForeUI – I haven't yet found an open source alternative to ForeUI. Based on my experience, it's the single best prototyping utility I've ever seen for Linux. Brain-dead simple to use, ForeUI allows you to take an idea and generate a fully interactive mockup to demonstrate to others.

Nuke – Linux enthusiasts may not have access to Adobe After Effects, but for those users who fancy themselves to be movie producers, there's always Nuke! Priced for movie creators and not hobbyists, Nuke is a full-featured composting suite that has been used in countless Hollywood productions.

Userful Multiplier – Unlike MultiseatX, you won't spend hours pouring over documentation trying to get it working properly. Userful Multiplier allows you to take a single PC and turn it into multiple virtual desktops. It's a must-have for libraries and schools.

Illumination Software Creator – With the latest release of Illumination Software Creator, there's very little one can't create with a little time and some imagination. To date, there is no other application creator like it that I know of, or that even compares to it. While it's (obviously) not for programmers, it's a great way to take neat ideas for software and turn them into reality.

I realize there are other great applications available, however these are the software titles that strike me as the most compelling. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to locate open source alternatives for these titles.

And while not all of them apply to everyday computing, the specialized nature of their functionality indicates to me that this is software that may never be available with open source alternatives. Hopefully someday I'll be proven wrong on this.

Different software licenses standing together

Many of you are likely to think that I'm suggesting that the proprietary software offered with Linux distributions such as Ubuntu is a good thing. However, I never made that claim. What I will say, however, is regardless of what you or I may think, proprietary software is here to stay on the Linux desktop.

It's a software business model that is tried and true and even though I happen to prefer open source applications whenever possible, I also enjoy the option to buy an application for my Linux PC, should I wish to.

My challenge to each of you is this: before we dismiss the idea of proprietary software on Linux, is there not a single application that you wish you could bring with you from other platforms?

With the sky being the limit, I suspect at least some users have software titles you'd be willing to buy if they were only available.

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