Free and open source is not always the answer – by “Emily Y”

A recent New York Times article spotlighted a key issue in the world of open source software: businesses using others’ open source code to develop their own products and then failing to follow Open Source Standard (OSS) requirements. Open source issues such as these can be difficult – if not impossible – to overcome in the business sphere.  How can we expect programmers to put years of hard work into a quality program, and then just give it away for free?  But as its benefits to technological growth become increasingly obvious, open source software is becoming more common and accessible.  Is it possible for the future of software to be completely free and open source?

In the past, I’d been skeptical about of free software.  In respect to the quality, the free programs I’d downloaded and tested were fine, but never matched up to the caliber of (pricey) proprietary software programs.  More importantly, however, might have been that the phrase “open source” sounded like something that might appeal to a computer programmer, but not to me, a generally-technologically-capable-but-coding-oblivious student.  Why would I care whether or not I could access software code?

I’m not sure that I will ever have the desire to look at the coding of software.  What it comes down to is that some software on the market just doesn’t fit in a college student’s budget.  Moreover, most of this software is packed with features I’d never use, for techniques I’ll never understand.  When it comes to computers, I’m just a hobbyist.  For example, in working with newspaper design, I love toying around with the abundance of features that Adobe InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator offer.  However, purchasing Adobe Creative Suite CS5 would set me back anywhere from $300 to $900 – and that’s the Student pricing.  Thinking about all of this led me to go the free route and test out a couple of “alternative” open source programs: GIMP and Inkscape, two major open source rivals to Adobe’s Creative Suite.

GIMP

GIMP is a free graphics manipulation program, with offerings similar to that of Adobe Photoshop.  In several ways, it lacks the power and usability of Photoshop.  Yet there are offshoots of GIMP that have used it to come awfully close to reproducing Photoshop.  The creator of GimPhoto took GIMP and modified it with features and a UI that rival those of Photoshop.  One major issue I held with GIMP was its inability to simply batch process a group of photos (automatically execute the same adjustments on several photos simultaneously).  According to the GIMP Wiki, in order to do this, the user must input commands, such as the one below:

(define (simple-unsharp-mask filename
radius
amount
threshold)
(let* ((image (car (gimp-file-load RUN-NONINTERACTIVE filename filename)))
(drawable (car (gimp-image-get-active-layer image))))
(plug-in-unsharp-mask RUN-NONINTERACTIVE
image drawable radius amount threshold)
(gimp-file-save RUN-NONINTERACTIVE image drawable filename filename)
(gimp-image-delete image)))

Which, to me, is closer to gibberish than a true “command.”

But still, the bottom line is that most of what GIMP doesn’t have, I wouldn’t use anyway.

Inkscape

Inkscape is the GIMP to Adobe Illustrator.  On most levels, Inkscape and Illustrator are identical when it comes to features.  There are a very small number of Illustrator features that are missing in Inkscape, but again, the people who makes use of these features are just a tiny fraction of the software’s users.   And the reverse is also true: Inkscape includes a number of useful features that are unavailable in Illustrator.  In fact, I found the Inkscape UI to be slightly more intuitive than Illustrator’s.   Thus, in my opinion, user interface and personal likings are what should influence one’s decision in this case.  Brand names are irrelevant.

A question often posed on the topic of open source software is whether or not computer programmers would continue to output quality software if there was no profit incentive.  But there is actually a great deal of profit to be made via free, open source software.  Where does the money come from?   Large companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and Google pay licensing fees to use open source software more freely.  For example, MySQL (an open source database) allows users to access and use its software at no cost; however, improvements that users make to the software must be shared with the company.  For individual users, this is generally a non-issue, but businesses rely on keeping the rights to their work to generate profit.  Thus, they pay these licensing fees, which can add up to significant profits for the original creator.

So why (or why not) open source?   There’s incredible room for enhancements in software, and with the increased freedom and flexibility of open source, the possibilities are endless.  Yet at the end of the day, I can’t use OpenOffice (sorry, Maria!).  I like the power of Microsoft Office, and I’m much more comfortable using it — no matter how annoyed I get with its UI changes.  Therefore, I understand if you can’t bear to make the switch to GIMP.  While we shouldn’t let our lives be controlled by proprietary software, we also shouldn’t impose limits on ourselves solely to promote open source.

In the end, a healthy balance between the two is really what we need.  There still is – and, I believe, always will be – a market for proprietary software.  Yet the major advancements made by open source software in the past decade are proof that open source is changing the way we create and use computer software.  The age of assuming “expensive software is better software” has passed; we are realizing that free software is no less advanced than proprietary software, while once-seemingly-impossible barriers to open source are gradually being overcome.

“A lot of people talk about open-source versus commercial, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Don’t view it as an all-or-nothing prospect.” — Steve Gerdt, program manager for open-source strategy at IBM.

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