The Dubious Benefits of Porting FOSS to Windows

by chromatic

A couple of weeks ago, the O'Reilly editors asked Is Microsoft Relevant in a Post-Rails World? Contrary to some reports, there are still desktop applications in the world besides a web browser--and there are plenty of desktop applications under serious development.

Many of them are F/OSS. Of those, plenty have ties to existing projects to produce fully-free desktop software. They run on top of free Unixes, take advantage of free APIs and libraries, and interoperate well with other free software.

There are very few technical reasons much of this software cannot run on non-free platforms, however. One of the first pieces of free software I used reliably was Emacs (though I quickly switched to Vim). This was on Windows NT 4. Perhaps the most successful free software desktop application is Mozilla Firefox.


15 Comments

Simon Hibbs
2007-07-11 11:38:18
You raise the Mozilla Foundation as an example. I can't speak for them, but they have shown that they are platform agnostic. Their goal is to provide the best, standards compliant browser and supporting suite they can regardless of platform. In fact they are creating a form of super-platform.


I'd argue that even if the sole goal was only to create the best browser for Linux, it would still be in the best interests of Linux users for the browser to run well on Windows and MacOS X, on the basis that this way the user base is expanded and so web sites are more likely to be optimized for it. Even Linux only forks of Mozilla benefit from the fact that millions of Windows users run Firefox, and the incentive for Firefox compatibility this brings to bear on web sites.


The same argument can also be applied to other applications. The windows port of OO.org makes the OO.org and ODF formats more important and widely used, which increases the chance that organizations will either adopt them or be interested in interoperating with them. For many applications more users directly benefits all users, whatever platform those users run it on. It increases the market for books, the number of people that might submit documentation, or write about in blog posts, etc.


IMHO platform isolationism hurts the isolationists just as much as economic isolationism hurts the isolated economies, and IMHO for similar reasons. If you realy support free software, then more free software is always going to be better, wherever that software runs.


Simon Hibbs

Kevin Ollivier
2007-07-11 15:58:18
If you write software using cross-platform toolkits, then it's really not much extra effort. (I know, as I use wxPython regularly and have made considerable progress in porting WebKit, aka Safari, to wx as well.) As you said, the question is mostly one of philosophy - it boils down to the idea of whether or not supporting non-free platforms is acceptable to you.


In that sense, I agree with Simon - isolation is not going to help anything, and it will in fact hurt. How many bug fixes have Mozilla, OpenOffice, etc. gotten from Windows and Mac users that benefitted Linux users as well? What if all those Windows and Mac contributors disappeared? Would that really have a positive impact?


Open source relies heavily on community to debug, promote, and document software, so in my eyes, cutting the potential userbase of your software by ~90% is quite likely to starve the project for resources. Commercial software can get away with this by having paid developers and beta testers, but OSS cannot, and ultimately, getting people to adopt free solutions means being able to provide solutions that are as good, if not better, than comparable proprietary solutions. As the saying goes, 'we need all the help we can get'. :-)

Bob Lee
2007-07-12 04:12:59
I also use Firefox and have installed the user agent switcher extension. This allows you to change the browser identification to IE, Netscape or Opera. It works quite well. I was able to install WXP service pack 1 using it. Other sites accept it's ID as well.Give it a try.
W. Anderson
2007-07-12 08:23:59
Projects like "Click 'N Run" (CNR) from Linspire that is now available without subscription to several GNU/Linux distributions is a major improvement over most alternatives and earlier efforts at "easy and intuitive" software installation and updates. It should also compare favourably with the Mac OS X functions. However, I fear a sinister obtusive lock-in for most users of CNR now that Linspire has "joined" with Microsoft to supposedly bring
interoperable software to the Linux masses.
Matthew Sporleder
2007-07-12 17:24:24
Going slightly off-topic from desktop apps-
Server apps running on windows should not be forgotten. Apache, for example, is pretty heavily used on windows. Is the apache foundation benefiting from this? Probably. openldap is also ported to windows via symas (or a little extra effort from source) -- they are probably benefiting from the extra effort to make openldap as vistual-studio compliant as possible and benefit from additional customers.


So if you're writing free software and benefiting from supporting it- the more installs the better. I would say the only things gained by sticking to a single platform are a bad reputation and fewer users.

Steven Rosenberg
2007-07-13 12:02:11
FOSS ports to Windows and OS X are, in my opinion, both vital to the spread of free software and a great "hook" for those who have never used a free, open-source operating system. Once they're using Firefox, Open Office, Thunderbird, even the GIMP, etc., in Windows, their familiarity with the applications themselves will really help if and when they decide to try Linux. "Hmmmm ... if all my apps are there, why do I need to pay for a Windows upgrade and worry about rampant virus attacks when I could get a free Ubuntu/Mepis/Debian/Fedora?"


I bet that for every Linux user of Open Office, there are 10, maybe even 100 using it on Windows. For Firefox, it's probably 10 to 10,000 or more. Porting to Windows especially is essential for any big-time FOSS application to gain traction among users.

DavidM
2007-07-14 06:47:54
Its simple really..I use windows because I play games.


Until somehow Linux/Mac/Other becomes more viable in this space I will retain the ability to boot into Windows.

james
2007-07-14 07:26:32
DavidM, Real men dont play games; unless you consider kernel hacking a game...
Pete
2007-07-14 10:43:05
You may like to have a look at IEs4Linux. It works very well as a last-resort option for those tiresome IE-only sites.


It's really quite nice - just sets up a minimal little Windows environment, exclusively for running IE (5, 5.5 and 6, with 7 as an option in the latest beta) under Wine. No thinking required, the script downloads and sets up everything, it Just Works.


I actually found it useful in a work environment - the primary OS was Windows XP (of course), but I'd installed IE7 and later found a need to use IE6. Bizarrely enough, the quickest/easiest workaround turned out to be to use IEs4Linux from my existing CoLinux virtual machine. :-)

Anshul
2007-07-15 05:58:39
I find this strange. On one side, the philosophers say that they want freedom enough to introduce the Tivo-ization clauses in GPLv3, saying that the users should have the freedom to run software where ever they want, including any and all hardware. On the other hand people say that giving the user freedom to run Vim on Windows is against the philosophy.


Consider, for example - would it be in the spirit of free speech to allow those who oppose free speech to speak freely? I think a similar question is being asked here and to my mind, the answer is perfectly clear.


A principle is a goal in itself - something that only serves as a means to a different goal is not a principle, it's only a tool. In this case, you stated the "goal is to spread freedom by encouraging the use of free platforms". So if you believe in the principle of free software, you cannot then oppose the existence of free software on propreitary systems. If you believe the only your particular goal is important then yes one needs to evaluate whether or not free software should be restricted to free platforms.

Matthew Sporleder
2007-07-16 06:13:01
Anshul, you sound like a good candidate for BSD: where you can run stuff where and how you like, you just have to give credit.


http://www.netbsd.org/about/redistribution.html

JulieE
2007-12-07 20:32:42
Googled why I shouldn't just go with Firefox as my browser. Am afraid that I will lose favs (though I could just save---lazy, but to where?). Realize that this is a bit old, but are you saying what I think you are without actually 'naming' that there is a better way than IE. While I am sooo very careful not to click, or even go to "unknown" sites occasionally even I do. Much less my 14 yr old daughter even though she has been taught (don't want to pull the ADMIN on her) to never do such things.
Will Firefox stop much of that? Have downloaded, but not run it. Won't make default browser until I'm sure. But, everyone at work gives it much applause. (work on a HelpDesk that supports Redhat/changing to Fedora system) You'd think I would already know, but am 'scared', if you will. Just won't admit to anyone at work. Please guide me Obi Wan.
JulieE
2007-12-07 20:32:57
Googled why I shouldn't just go with Firefox as my browser. Am afraid that I will lose favs (though I could just save---lazy, but to where?). Realize that this is a bit old, but are you saying what I think you are without actually 'naming' that there is a better way than IE. While I am sooo very careful not to click, or even go to "unknown" sites occasionally even I do. Much less my 14 yr old daughter even though she has been taught (don't want to pull the ADMIN on her) to never do such things.
Will Firefox stop much of that? Have downloaded, but not run it. Won't make default browser until I'm sure. But, everyone at work gives it much applause. (work on a HelpDesk that supports Redhat/changing to Fedora system) You'd think I would already know, but am 'scared', if you will. Just won't admit to anyone at work. Please guide me Obi Wan.
JulieE
2007-12-07 20:32:57
Googled why I shouldn't just go with Firefox as my browser. Am afraid that I will lose favs (though I could just save---lazy, but to where?). Realize that this is a bit old, but are you saying what I think you are without actually 'naming' that there is a better way than IE. While I am sooo very careful not to click, or even go to "unknown" sites occasionally even I do. Much less my 14 yr old daughter even though she has been taught (don't want to pull the ADMIN on her) to never do such things.
Will Firefox stop much of that? Have downloaded, but not run it. Won't make default browser until I'm sure. But, everyone at work gives it much applause. (work on a HelpDesk that supports Redhat/changing to Fedora system) You'd think I would already know, but am 'scared', if you will. Just won't admit to anyone at work. Please guide me Obi Wan.
JulieE
2007-12-07 20:33:07
Googled why I shouldn't just go with Firefox as my browser. Am afraid that I will lose favs (though I could just save---lazy, but to where?). Realize that this is a bit old, but are you saying what I think you are without actually 'naming' that there is a better way than IE. While I am sooo very careful not to click, or even go to "unknown" sites occasionally even I do. Much less my 14 yr old daughter even though she has been taught (don't want to pull the ADMIN on her) to never do such things.
Will Firefox stop much of that? Have downloaded, but not run it. Won't make default browser until I'm sure. But, everyone at work gives it much applause. (work on a HelpDesk that supports Redhat/changing to Fedora system) You'd think I would already know, but am 'scared', if you will. Just won't admit to anyone at work. Please guide me Obi Wan.