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February 2, 2009
There’s been some speculation (albeit with minimal supporting evidence) that Microsoft is crafting a ‘software center’ for Windows that will resemble the package-management system Ubuntu users have known and loved for years. While I don’t doubt the possibility that Microsoft might try to implement something like that, I strongly suspect that it will fail. Here’s why.
It would certainly be nice for Windows to have a single interface where users could instantly download and manage software packages. Having to hunt around the Internet for obscure .exe files feels distinctly obsolete once you’ve gotten used to installing applications in a single click via apt-get or its graphical front-ends, Synaptic and Add/Remove Programs, in Ubuntu. The current Windows approach to software installation also opens a lot of doors to malware and social engineering that Microsoft would do well to close.
The reason package management works so well in the Linux world, however, is that the vast majority of Linux software is free. Most Windows applications–or at least the ones that most people use with Windows because they don’t realize there are free alternatives–are decidedly less so.
Free software is easy to load into a repository. Since the source is open, package maintainers for a given Linux distribution can easily modify and compile an application to fit the needs of their package-management system and kernel. More importantly, in most cases there’s no legal nonsense to deal with–GPL’d software can be redistributed by third parties without having to ask permission of the developers and without forcing end-users to promise not to use said software for creating nuclear arms, etc.
Microsoft would have to go through many more more bureaucratic and technical hurdles to fill its repository with closed-source software. Implementing a secure payment system that users would trust in order to sell software through a repository would be challenging, and dealing with licensing would be an inherently messy and confusing process for both Microsoft and end-users. I’m doubtful as to how many useful applications could really be distributed through a Windows software center.
Given these limitations, I suspect that Microsoft would not actually offer a comprehensive software-management system à la Synaptic that would allow users to install thousands of applications from a wide range of developers and companies. Instead, I’d bet that the Windows software center would be filled with a handful of expensive applications that Microsoft either owns itself or receives a commission to redistribute, and a great deal of free-to-download bloatware that few people will find useful.
Finally, to preempt the Mac fanboys: yes, Apple has managed to create a centralized software repository for the iPhone, even though most of the applications in it are closed-source and some of them cost money.
But I posit that Apple was only successful in this endeavour because:
so many developers subscribe to the cult of Steve Jobs’ divinity that few complain when he takes a ludicrous 30% cut of their profits
in its obsession with controlling developers and users, Apple specifically designed the iPhone so that the App Store is the only legitimate way to install software
the iPhone is not a desktop computer, which makes it much less complicated
Apple was able to pull off its App Store because of its carefully cultivated image and the uniformity of the platform it needs to support. Microsoft doesn’t enjoy these advantages.
In conclusion: a real Windows software center where users could install and manage all their software in one click would be great, although hardly original. But unless Microsoft suddenly embraces open-source software, Linux users can be confident that the glories of apt-get, yum and friends will remain the exclusive domain of free software, at least on the desktop.
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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