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May 23, 2011
The Linux crowd has a reputation as a group that doesn’t like paying for things. That stereotype may or may not be fair, but either way, it hasn’t stopped Canonical from introducing more than a dozen for-purchase software packages to Ubuntu Desktop users over the last 10 months. Here’s a look at what the company has done, and what it says about end users in the open source channel.
It might be hard to believe, now that the Software Center has assumed such a central role in Ubuntu for adding, removing and maintaining software applications, that back in the day — until 2009, to be exact — the Software Center didn’t exist at all.
Moreover, when it did make its debut during the Ubuntu 9.10 development cycle, the tool was controversially dubbed the Ubuntu Software Store. It was only at the last minute that Canonical decided to rechristen the application as the Software Center, placating users concerned about the commercial implications of the original title.
Appellations aside, the Software Center gained its first for-purchase application in September 2010, when Fluendo’s DVD Player became available. Since then, the lineup of titles available for non-free download has steadily increased, indicating that Canonical and its partners have put serious stock in the willingness of Linux users, miserly though they stereotypically may be, to shell out cash in exchange for quality software.
And just what does the Software Center offer those willing to pay? As of today, it lists 15 titles ranging in price from a couple of simple games at $2.99 to Illumination Software Creator priced at $39.85.
A solid majority of packages available for paid download are games, most of them fancy and modern but some — particularly the cheap ones — of a more “retro” quality. A handful of the packages serve other purposes, including trials of the CrossOver emulator for Windows applications, Fluendo’s DVD Player, a general, all-inclusive Fluendo codec pack and the Illumination software development tool.
The ratings system, introduced to the Software Center in late 2010, allows potential purchasers to read other users’ comments on applications before buying. The number of comments currently available is less than abundant, but most of those that do exist are thorough and helpful.
The comments are also surprisingly positive, implying that most users are quite satisfied with the applications they paid for; if it weren’t for the small smattering of negative comments (such as David Strauss’s warning that Vendetta Online “made my Compiz explode”), and the fact that most conspiracies turn out to be figments of the imagination, I’d almost suspect censorship. (I’m joking; Canonical is a serious company with a reputation to uphold, not to mention better things to do with its employees’ time than censor ratings.)
Canonical’s not the first company to try selling software to Linux users, but it does enjoy a desktop user community of unprecedented size in the open source world, as well as strong partnerships with a variety of third-party developers. Given the steady expansion of the for-purchase section of the Software Store since last fall, and the apparent satisfaction of most of those who have used the feature, this seems to be an area worth watching.
And it’s not just Ubuntu users and developers who should care. On the contrary, anyone with an interest in the open source channel would do well to pay attention to how Ubuntu’s Software Center plays out, since Canonical just might prove false the age-old assumption that anyone who runs a free-as-in-beer operating system must be a tightwad and/or GNU lunatic unwilling to pay for any software. Stay tuned.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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