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If it quacks like a canard

Canonical’s Jono Bacon suggested on Identi.ca yesterday that Linux users should head over to the Adobe Web site and vote for the software behemoth to bring Photoshop to Linux.  It’s not the first time that someone has asked for this, but what’s irritating is the supporting logic, including, notably, the assertion that bringing Photoshop to Linux will bring new users to Linux: specifically, people who would like to switch OSes but  who are “mandated” to use Photoshop at work.

This is a straight-up Internet urban legend.  For starters, it’s flat out untrue that there are designers or photographers in *any* significant numbers who are required by “corporate policy” to use Photoshop.  Design firms don’t work that way.  Sure, there may be some person somewhere who has an office-wide rule to that effect — it’s a huge world — but it’s nonsense to suggest that it’s anything close to a meaningful blip in the stats.  But even if there was such a person, are any of us supposed to believe that they are not allowed to install GIMP on their computers — but that they will erase OS X or Windows and install Linux instead, in order to use Photoshop-on-Linux?  Are we supposed to believe that Management will allow that?

This chestnut is appealing, because it creates an appealingly noble protagonist: the strident designer who wants to use Linux, but isn’t allowed to, because he’s being held back by The Man.  How can we not want to help that prisoner of conscience?  But it’s an illusion: GIMP, like OpenOffice and Firefox, is available for Windows and OS X.  The prisoner has a path to freedom, and if he’s not taking it today, it’s not because Enemies of Freedom stand in the way, it’s because either the free apps are unknown to him or he’s looked and prefers what he uses now.  The crux is this: whatever barrier-to-usage exists that prevents a budding free-software user from installing and using GIMP on a non-free OS, that barrier is orders of magnitude smaller than the cost of writing-over the existing OS and installing a new one so that the user can use the hypothetical Photoshop-on-Linux.  The path to conversion is Free App on Existing OS, then Free OS altogether.  It is not Proprietary App on Free OS, then Freedom altogether.  The only people capable of thinking in reverse like that are operating system vendors.

I get why nobody likes that solution; it’s harder on the open source community.  It means we have to do hard, thankless work on components like GTK+-on-OSX, on installers and focus and different keybindings, on single-button pointing devices and application resources in screwy Apple Places, and jump through all kinds of other hoops that don’t really seem to earn us many more users. And it seems like an ethical compromise to port free software to a proprietary OS (though for some reason, it’s not to do the reverse…?)  It’s much easier to say “Hey, Adobe, you do all the work to port Photoshop to Linux, we’ll wait right over here.”

Honestly, any designer who wants to try using Photoshop on Linux right now, can.  The pricetag of a CrossOver license is way, way less than a new OSX box or a new Windows 7 license.  So why don’t these designers try that whenever they upgrade their PC hardware?  Partly it’s cause CrossOver ain’t perfect.  But the big reason is simply inertia, like every other PC user has.  Couple that with the fact that an office-ful of designers probably buys bundled licenses for  its Adobe products, and the fact that big firms have The IT Guys do all that installing stuff, and you have a situation where nobody’s going to change operating systems only to use the same apps they can already use today.

Every designer I know has a Dock full of apps; little ones, big ones, expensive ones, cheapo ones.  Flexible ones and single-purpose ones.  Nobody does design work 40 hours a week in a single application.  So if we want to bring designers into the fold of open source and free software, we have to start by making the free apps more appealing to the designer currently running other stuff on a proprietary OS.  Easier to download, easier to install, better integrated with the existing OS conventions.  We have to pre-load things like PSPI with GIMP, include more high-end plugins; we have to promote (and yeah, enhance) GIMP’s PSD import capabilities.  GIMP can already export to PSD, something I suspect Bacon isn’t aware of due to his corporate policy comment.  But of course Adobe changes and extends the format periodically, since it’s their ball.

The upshot is that designers care about results, and they’ll use any tool they can get their hands on if it can do cool stuff.  If anything, designers are less resistant to trying new applications than generic-office-workers or middle-managers. The company may insist on saving work in a file format like PSD, particularly when working in a team situation, but that’s an interoperability issue.  In all of the years I spent being a photographer and designer, and working with both, the only time I ever heard a company dictate a software choice, it was for a DAM that they used to keep in sync with remote clients and contractors.  And yep, it was a proprietary one: Extensis.  You know what — that’s another area where free software needs to do some work.  But designers who want to use Linux but can’t because of the lack of Adobe CS?  Come on.

Corporate buying policies are a big deal, and a big hurdle, but not here — they affect offices that upgrade their desktops en masse and buy suites of licenses, and (in my estimation, far more importantly) they affect schools and universities, who negotiate for software licenses in bulk, and have IT or “Academic Computing” offices that manage multiple campus-wide labs, usually remotely, rather than the teachers who actually spend their time in those labs with the students.  They affect governments, which is probably an even bigger obstacle because of all the rules and legal requirements that restrict their buying practices.  Open source needs to make in these areas.  Porting proprietary software to Linux and swapping out the OS isn’t going to do it.

Let’s put “There are people dying to use Linux, but can’t because they have to use Photoshop” to rest — you know,  so we can give air-time back to the other oft-repeated urban legend about GIMP adoption: that no “professional” users will touch it because of its “unprofessional” name.  Cause guess what: that’s flat out untrue, too.  But one canard at a time.

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