Why Trolltech's Qt GPL license is hurting the Linux desktop

August 20, 2007

After my move away from Gnome and Evolution, I have now been running KDE for three weeks straight and still going. I have found KDE to be a surprisingly stable and reliable platform. It’s hard to find something to criticize in KDE. It’s a really nice desktop setup: well oiled machinery where everything seems to run smoothly. Inter-application communication and integration of all the KDE applications is simply superb, and I don’t think there is any other desktop out there, proprietary or open source, where you can see such tight integration of its parts. And this is mainly thanks to Trolltech’s fantastic toolkit, Qt.

Qt is a first class toolkit which has turned to be be a fantastic choice for KDE. Qt is probably the best graphical and utilities programming toolkit that truly looks like a native application on any target desktop: OS X, Windows or KDE. Developer productivity is probably as good as you can get with a C++ toolkit. However, Qt is GPL, and a GPL toolkit library is not a good thing if you are looking for mass adoption.

Qt's commercial non-GPL license fee is actually not high at all, and most professional developers and software houses should be able to buy the licenses. The problem however is that if you start using the GPL version and then you figure out you want to go proprietary, you simply can't. You must buy the Qt commercial license upfront. The problem lies with the grassroot developers: they won't pay for the commercial license since the prospect of revenue is non-existent in the beginning.  When individual developers are faced with writing an application, many will avoid Qt because of its viral licensing nature. As a developer you want to have the choice of whether to make your app GPL or not, you don't want your choice to be restricted by a license. Some of those grassroot developers turn to be writting the most popular applications for Linux, such as Mozilla Firefox, Gaim/Pidgin, OpenOffice, Evolution, etc. Guess what, the leading office, personal information management and groupware applications don't run on Qt. And that's where the users (and the money) is.

Many open source software houses sell software that is not GPL, and derive their revenues from support contracts and some professional services. It's surprising that to date Trolltech has not moved in this direction and introduced a more commercially friendly license for Qt. This would be a complete change to Trolltech's business model, and the dramatic increase in developers entering into support contracts for Qt would quickly offset any short-term loss of revenue from traditional licensing fees.

Sadly, it might be almost too late for Qt: Gtk+ has matured to become a good-enough toolkit, and although not yet as stable and tightly integrated as Qt, Gtk+ is sufficiently portable and usable. We have today because of that two opposed Linux desktop communities, with neither having sufficient momentum to be competitive with Aqua or Aero. It's sad to see how and why Linux has lost the desktop war. The community had a unique chance to make Linux a valid choice for the desktop OS, especially with Microsoft leaving such a big gap between Windows XP and Windows Vista. Linux missed it and Apple took it to its advantage. If the Linux desktop had united forces years ago, Trolltech might had become the next Apple.

Perhaps it's not too late. I am challenging Trolltech to license Qt on a royalty free commercially friendly license. I am challening the Gnome community to consider a radical merge onto Qt and KDE. I am challening the KDE community to open its arms towards the Gnome developers and the Gnome software. We can still make GKNOME a success.

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