- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
I pity RealPlayer developers and all the other people who have put their energy into commercial multimedia software for Windows, because Microsoft is including utilities in Windows XP that is going to make it hard for "outside" multimedia software to maintain market share among Windows users. This can't happen in Linux, because the chance of any commercial software being included in the Linux kernel is exactly zero.
Since Microsoft seems bent on adding more applications to its operating system in every version, it may now be better business for small developers to start making commercial software for Linux instead of concentrating on Windows applications.
About five years ago I was chatting with a gentleman who ran a small mapping software company. His products had a faster and more useful search utility, and displayed faster, than any other map software I had ever seen. His company was selling this software only to large companies and government agencies.
"Do you plan to come out with a consumer or small business version?" I asked.
"No," he said, "Microsoft is getting into map software, so it would be pointless. Sure, our product is better, but they'd market us into the ground. There is just no way a small company like ours can go up against Microsoft and win."
I've heard similar words from many other developers. The simple fact is that developing Windows applications is dangerous financially because, at any moment, Microsoft can come out with a similar product and use its market clout to put a huge, even fatal, dent, in anyone else's sales to Windows users. Look at Quicken, which once dominated the home and small business financial software marketplace, but now struggles so hard against Microsoft Money that the company's Web site runs pop-under ads to drag in additional revenue, even though pop-unders are hated by almost every Web user in the world.
Meanwhile, in Linux-land, the big cry is for more consumer and small business applications. With GNU/Linux desktop market share currently under 5%, there is little chance for sudden, billion-dollar-a-year success. But there is a strong opportunity to nurture a modest, long-term market position among a loyal, steadily-growing user base and to operate on a level playing field where no one company dominates either the operating system or any segment of the applications market, except perhaps Sun's StarOffice, which currently has a near-lock on the "Microsoft Office-compatible" Linux office suite niche simply because it is far and away better at what it does than any competing product, and is "free beer" free, too.
But it would be a lot easier to compete against StarOffice in Linux than against Microsoft Office in Windows. Even though StarOffice is a giveaway at the moment, chances of it staying that way are nil; at some point Sun's management is going to want a return on their investment. Not only that, a competitor charging $99 for a cleaner and more usable Linux office suite would only need to be $99 better than StarOffice or any other free competitor, and that is not a hard value proposition to sell to home office and small business users if your product truly is $99 better or more usable than StarOffice and other freebies.
The biggest problem commercial developers seem to see with Linux is the "we want nothing but free -- beer and speech -- software" attitude held by many early Linux adopters. But at this point, what percentage of Linux users are true Free Software believers, and how many use Linux because of its stability, low cost, and virus resistance instead of for political reasons? I suspect the "I use Linux simply because it's better" crowd makes up the vast majority of new users, especially on the business side.
This is the market segment that is most amenable to commercial Linux applications, and it is one that deserves serious courting. It is a tiny market when viewed in the context of overall computer use -- perhaps less than 2% of all PCs fall into it -- but that is still millions of potential customers, more than enough to support hundreds of small companies run by developers who would rather concentrate on making quality software than worrying about Microsoft's next marketing strategy change.
Most Linux commercial software failures so far -- and there have been many -- have been caused by products that were not fully thought-out or truly ready for the user-level market when they were introduced. The failure record among commercial Linux software developers is another big reason the "you can't make money with Linux software" mindset has taken such strong hold among developers who rely on software sales to pay their bills, but I don't attribute these failures to Linux or Linux users as much as I attribute them to bad software. I have been shocked, over and over, by the bugginess and general lack of usability I have seen in commercial software for Linux. More than once, I have listened to big hype, decided to give this or that "hot" program a try, and found that the product did not even come close to living up to the claims made for it.
So, Windows applications developers, if you are in the habit of writing software that ordinary people can install and use without a lot of tweaking and patching; software that performs useful functions without a lot of hassle or special training, you have a hungry Linux market waiting for you.
And best of all, it's a market that isn't dominated by a single giant company that can put you out of business at any time without its managers losing an hour's sleep over the damage it has done to you.