The Prestige of Proprietary Software

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 27, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I spent the weekend at the graduation for an art school. I had an overwhelmingly wonderful time -- except for one scenario that kept playing and replaying all weekend.

As usual, telling people what I do for a living required some explanation of free and open source software (FOSS). Since I haven't met a student yet who had enough money, I supposed that the availability of professional tools at no cost would interest my audience. Gradually, though, I realized that my audience wasn't interested for a reason that I had never previously imagined: They wanted the prestige of using name brand products.

Software and Professionals

I suppose that part of this reaction had to do with branding. If you're an artist who works with software, you know all about Adobe PhotoShop and Illustrator. They've been the standard design tools for two decades. By contrast, who's heard of Inkscape or Krita? And The GIMP sounds simply comical at best, or politically incorrect at worst.

But my impression is that the lack of interest goes deeper than that. For one thing, many students were probably either using illegal copies of proprietary software, or had undergone some hardship to save for legal copies. A lucky few may have used a bursary or an award to buy. Those who used illegal copies looked forward to a time when they could afford to buy legal ones, while those who had managed to afford legal copies remained well aware of the effort required.

Either way, the students had invested in proprietary software -- and I am not just talking about money spent now or expected to be spent in the future. Owning proprietary software was a major milestone in their careers, and they were not immediately willing to forget about it for other intangibles such as user empowerment or cost-free productivity. Buying the standard proprietary software was a sign of commitment for them, a sign that they were serious in their goals. Being able to afford the software was (or would be) that they were progressing along their chosen career path.

Or to put it another way: professionals own these pieces of proprietary software, so owning this software was (or would be) proof that they were professionals, too.

Naturally, when I suggested this equation, those that I talked to denied that it applied to them. They would laugh and say that tools don't make the artist -- and, of course, they would be right.

All the same, I observed that this equation operated in other ways. Students who received awards or gifts of cash from their family would inevitably go out and buy the most expensive tools possible. Giant screen laptops or dozens of brushes or carving tools -- things that they had got along perfectly well without -- suddenly seemed absolutely essential for them to have. On some level, many of the students seemed to be operating on the level of sympathetic magic, half-believing that having the tools of a professional would transform them into professionals, too.

By contrast, none of them know of any professional artists who were using FOSS. There are some; contrary to the claims you sometimes hear, The GIMP is a perfectly adequate tool for professional publication (I know, because I have frequently sent PDFs and postscript files created in The GIMP to print shops, and never had any trouble producing work acceptable to my clients). But artists who use FOSS are still relatively rare, and, like any working artists, more likely to talk about results than the tools used to produce those results. Their preferred software is invisible, so students never aspire to use it.

Moreover, even had the students heard about FOSS, for them it would carry none of the sense of prestige, or of having arrived as professionals. Not only can anyone use FOSS, but no prestige is to be had from using FOSS because it is generally unknown. So why would an art school student -- much less a professional artist?

FOSS and Consumerism

What this observation amounts to is saying that, in the struggle to gain acceptance, FOSS has to struggle against the consumer mind set. Unlike its proprietary counterparts, FOSS has no coherent brand.

Nor is using it a proof of status. In fact, the whole point of FOSS is that it is available for anyone.

Needless to say, this situation is arbitrary and, to anyone who is results-oriented, completely missing the point. These days, the functional difference between FOSS and proprietary software is generally slight, at least among basic productivity tools, and in some cases, the FOSS offerings are superior in some ways to their proprietary counterparts. Moreover, the political, ethical, and practical advantages of FOSS can make it a clear choice.

Yet this logic is irrelevant to the consumer society. Where consumerism rules, what matters is status through possession. FOSS lacks such status, so many people are going to ignore it.

I don't have any solution to this problem. But, having seen it at the art school, I realize that it is common in other settings as well -- for instance, in offices that buy Microsoft Office because it is the industry standard. Eventually, FOSS will need to find ways around this attitude, but the first step is recognizing that the problem exists.


  • I couldn’t agree more

    I couldn’t agree more. This is the case with literally every thing out there in the world, in my opinion. People always want to use some products with a brand name. This is one reason why many deny Linux even though Linux is far better than Microsoft. Whether it is software or hardware, everyone wants to have the kind of prestige of using branded ones. In this world of Proprietary software’s, it is only obvious that Free and Open source software’s would get neglected.
  • Re: Educational pricing

    Yes, educational pricing does exist. But even educational prices can be expensive on a student budget.
  • Educational pricing

    Many, if not most, proprietary vendors offer their products at educational discounts. The discounts can be huge, with $800 programs selling for $40 to students. As a result, the students you talked to may never have had to contend with proprietary software sticker shock.

    Apple pioneered this technique in the late '70's and early '80's. Stuck with obsolete hardware and being clobbered in the market by CP/M, Z80 machines and later by IBM PCs and compatibles, they dumped their inventory on schools at ridiculous prices. It saved the company and bred a generation of Apple fans.
  • de facto standard

    I previously worked in education both as a teacher and network admin (+ anything with a plug dogsbody).

    Where possible to keep costs down I installed FOSS software on machines. I configured all the machines in my teaching room to duel boot. The advantage of this was that I could offer the rich variety of FOSS applications to students on both Linux (Ubuntu) and Windows and save the college money.

    I would never have been able to replace Windows on the desktops despite the fact that I could do all my teaching (and most other subject work could also be taught) using Ubuntu.
    For exactly the same reason it was a requirement that the art (and other creative) departments had to have Photoshop, Illustrator and other "Prestigious" applications. Education may get some cost cuts (to perpetuate training in software) it is still expensive.

    The reality is that:
    - People have the perception that these prestigious software applications and operating systems are what is used in industry (in most cases solely).
    - If you are applying for a creative media job and don't have experience in the de facto standard software that the *whole* industry uses (Within most of the industry this is the perception) you aren't the man for the job.
    - Educational establishments are funded on a "per seat" basis, so want to get more students through the door.

    So for educational establishments to get most students in the door they must have the de facto standard applications (and show them off/use them).

    We all know that it is useful for students to be able to have the same tools on their home computer. For my students I could make all the FOSS software that I used available to them for free and encouraged them to install it at home etc.. Many of the art students resorted to piracy.
  • Open Source brand and prestige

    For me as an open source user, former student (sometime in the distant past) and a marketing professional, this discussion creates a lot of conflicts.

    As a marketing professional I know that good branding is built into of the value of a product or company. Brands work when they express the truth of the product or service. The brand of say, Photoshop, is NOT it's prestige, it is the that it can be relied on to get the job done without screwing up a creative process. In commercial environments where professionals work, and students hope to, that has significant value. Artists – as a rule - won't be futzing with a .config file or anything else.

    As a long time ago student (engineering) I used the tools my lecturers told me to – prime directive "pass the course" and move on. In addition I wanted stuff on my resume that will get me a job, not stuff employers have never heard of.

    In my business document compatibility is a big issue. Any slight error and the conversation immediately gets into “...what version are you using” , and FOSS always loses that debate. Open Office is not – and possibly never will be – perfectly compatible with Office. Microsoft have no reason to let this happen, its not evil – its business.

    This all said I am a big fan of opensouce - use Ubuntu Linux in my business as my desktop and love it. In addition I rely on GIMP, Evolution, Scribus (sometimes) and OpenOffice. I mostly agree with Bruce with what to do next.

    Make it work reliably – I agree Ubuntu and others are doing a good job of this. Make it fun and good looking – try telling a group of creatives that they need to use a console command line and time how fast the room empties. Finally recognize that the professionals (Adobe, Microsoft etc) do a good job expressing the value of their products to their costumers – don't hate them – emulate them.
  • Cattle

    It seems people need prorietary products because they believe that is what is expected of them and feel peer pressure to conform, even if they have to steal to be accepted. That is a sad state of affairs for the majority of the human race. Like cattle being corralled and branded, with the electric prod of conformity leading them to the slaughter. I pity the empty headed cud chewers, glad i am not one of them.

  • very true

    Very true! We should brand FOSS more effectively.. I think Ubuntu is doing well at this point: create a community, add gadgets etc. I believe this functional aspect will become more popular and FOSS will fit that need more than commercial software will.
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