I’ve developed something of a recent fascination with free software. I’m not turning into a Linux freak or someone who like to beat their chest over Open Source crap, but as someone who wants to embark on endeavours that usually revolve around expensive software, the idea of viable alternatives is interesting. In addition, I’m always interested in what people out there come up with in order to compete with the “big boys”. These guys are ambitious to say the least, and if the public decides en masse to get away from Microsoft software products (if not operating systems), then these guys could have a shot at hitting the big time.

Take, for example The GIMP, the Gnu Image Manipulation Program. Originally a college project, it has now turned into a massive graphic application on the order of PhotoShop. PhotoShop is so on top of the graphic application market that people just refer to it by name – it’s the Coke of graphic software (i.e., “I PhotoShop-ed him into that picture”). PhotoShop of course retails for close to $600. A company called JASC developed a little shareware program called Paint Shop Pro, but seven versions in it has changed from a $30 shareware program into a bloated $110 application – still, it’s becoming comprable to PhotoShop. However, The GIMP is pretty impressive. Prior to its unveiling, there really wasn’t a whole lot on Linux in the way of graphics (which is why most Linux generated web content seemed pretty bland). The creators of GIMP originally relied on a commercial Linux product to provide the menus and such (limiting its use to people who owned that) before writing their own, GTK (GIMP Tool Kit). GTK is portable and is used in projects like GtkRadiant, a port of a program written by id Software to make Quake 3 levels. Q3Radiant used MFC and looked like it was never going to come to Linux. Now Windows and Linux users can use the same program, though it feels a little funny to Windows users. GIMP also has tons of plugins (many of which are designed to mimic their PhotoShop counterparts), a 900+ page PDF manual (formerly available as a printed book at Barnes & Noble) and Script-Fu – a scripting language that can generate images for things like buttons and the like given the parameters. GIMP is a true contenter, it’s available for Windows and Linux, and it’s 100% free.

Then there’s StarOffice. Recently the 6.0 beta was released, and it’s the first version truly intended to take on Microsoft Office. My scant amount of research on the topic seems to indicate that indeed StarOffice is the current day implementation of the package that once contained WordStar. WordStar was a word processor that had 90% of the word processing market at one point in time, but squandered it as the product became increasingly counter-intuitive and difficult to use. It stemmed from a DOS era where word processors were little more than celebrated text-editors, not the complicated layout tools they are today. The most famous example of WordStar difficulties was the “exit the program” key sequence – CTRL-K-D. $50 if you could have guessed that one. WordStar gave way to Word Perfect, which had the market cornered (the PhotoShop of word processing, if you will) until internal struggles within the company and the company’s being bought and sold three times (eventually into the hands of Corel) destroyed consumer confidence, and Microsoft Word took over, as did the rest of the Microsoft Office suite. The WordStar comany trudged on for some time, before going kaput and being bought by Sun Microsystems. Sun, still angered at Microsoft’s tactics in undermining Java and destroying their good buddy Netscape, decided to come up with a new version, StarOffice 5.2, and release it as not only freeware, but open source it as well. Seeing as how Microsoft killed Netscape more or less by offering the (then) inferior Internet Explorer 3.0 for free (few people remember that you were “supposed” to pay for Netscape – $70 in fact – they gave up and made it freeware later), why not use the same tactic and offer StarOffice for free, to hurt Microsoft’s product? It was a great plan, except that no one was going to give up Office for StarOffice, not this one at least. It came with my Mother-in-Law’s eMachine (to keep costs down – a full MS Office would double the price of the computer) and I tried it. No thanks. This new 6.0 beta however is intriguing. It’s kinda like the old “works” programs – one integrated application. Plus it uses a version of ADABAS, “ADABAS D”, which is the same database paradigm we use up here at A&M on our mainframes. I still don’t think it will topple MS Office, but it’s still good enough for those of you on the cheap.

So these are some free packages taking on 800 lb. gorillas. Look into them if you want to keep your software legit and keep your money in your wallet.