Is open source a dead end for desktop applications?

Try as they might, open source desktop apps never gained much ground against proprietary rivals -- and maybe they never will

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But that model breaks down for desktop applications, where self-service is increasingly the norm. "My personal view is that if desktop software requires a support call, you have failed," Gosling says. Desktop UIs have become so standardized and online help so readily available, in fact, that few desktop software vendors even bother to ship printed manuals with their products anymore.

The most obvious alternative model, perhaps, is an ad-supported one. But while advertising works to support Web-based applications to some degree, the same is less true for desktop software, where users have been taught to associate unexpected advertising with spam and malware. Sun tried using advertising to support its software, particularly by offering advertising in its installers, and the result felt instantly odious.

Spare a dime for a developer?
So far, the Document Foundation has made good moves to promote LibreOffice. It has already made beta versions of the LibreOffice suite available on its website. It has announced that the enhancements made by the Go-OO team -- a de facto branch of the code maintained by Novell -- will become part of the main codebase immediately. And it claims that it aims to be "as developer-friendly as possible."

But how friendly is friendly? "The key milestone I think will be if someday the Document Foundation can claim a headcount of developers that equals or exceeds that which Oracle has working on," Rob Weir, an ODF architect with IBM, writes on his personal blog. "In the end code talks, and developers write code."

The very best developers, however, won't necessarily find the Document Foundation's stewardship of LibreOffice any more appealing than Oracle's. As Gosling says, "Look guys, I'm an engineer. I don't want to be an engineer as a hobby. I don't really care about being fabulously wealthy, but I do like to eat."

The fact of the matter is that a truly viable business model that can sustain open source development of desktop software has yet to be found. And without a clear revenue stream to support LibreOffice development, the project's future -- like that of its many open source cousins -- remains dim.

This article, "Is open source a dead end for desktop applications?," originally appeared at Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at

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