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Proprietary Software: Still Not Doomed, Sorry

These days, I can scarcely click a mouse without running headlong into some variety of punditry regarding the imminent death of proprietary software thanks to open source. Sorry, I don't believe proprietary software is digging its inevitable collective grave any more than the sun is about to go nova.

These days, I can scarcely click a mouse without running headlong into some variety of punditry regarding the imminent death of proprietary software thanks to open source. Sorry, I don't believe proprietary software is digging its inevitable collective grave any more than the sun is about to go nova.

The most common version of the argument runs something like this: Since there are now open source replacements for just about any proprietary program or platform, said proprietary platforms and apps have lifespans you can now measure with a stopwatch. The move to open source is inevitable. Dinosaurs like Oracle and Microsoft are headed for the boneyard in the next five years. (Or maybe ten. Or maybe fifteen.)

Trick up this line of thought any way you like, but at core it remains an article of faith and not an observation based in fact. "Inevitable" is like "never" or "always": looks great on a headline, but all it takes it one contrary example to rip it up the middle.

Yes, open source can render some proprietary apps obsolete, or at the very least force them to radically rethink their approach. Or, the proprietary apps in question were moribund to begin with, and open source competition was just the death blow. Example: open source content management systems have thrived in a market that used to be dominated by some real lumbering-dinosaur products. Also consider proprietary UNIX, now being gobbled up by Linux in all its forms.

Now consider the counterexamples.

Here's one from my own personal experience. I hear entirely too many times about how the open source GIMP image editor can replace Adobe Photoshop. Sure, GIMP can eclipse Photoshop in realms where people don't have hundreds of dollars to blow on a program and don't need to; no one with brain cells to bang together argues this.

But in professional environments, Photoshop is an industry standard. It's part of the basic cost of doing work in that space. No one there kids themselves about it; they have bigger things to worry about. They buy the program and get on with their lives. Their attitudes are not negotiable. And a big part of why it's so entrenched is because of its support for patented technologies that are widely used in that space -- the Pantone color-matching system, for instance.

The smarter folks who deal in open source realize that making use of such technologies is next to impossible to ignore. A real open source replacement for Photoshop would essentially be an "open core" product. The main app would be free; Pantone and other patented goodies would be available at cost, to defray the development of the program in general and pay for the patent licensing.

Mention of the dreaded P word, patents, brings up another common trope: The patent system needs an overhaul anyway, so why bother prostrating ourselves to that false god? Let's just fix the patent system and be done with it! The problem is the overhaul in question could be any number of years in the making, and may not be anywhere nearly as broad or definitive as one might think. It's like never buying a car because there could be a breakthrough in teleportation any day now.

As long as open source advocacy revolves around an all-or-nothing attitude, where patent licensing is unthinkable or at the very least greeted with distaste, proprietary software will continue not just to exist, but to thrive. And for good reason. You can't just wait with folded arms for the whole system to come around to your way of thinking.

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