Fighting with computers

Computers are not always friendly.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Free software is not only for geeks

I've recently learned that the software taught at the Fine Arts School at the university I am with is based on three comercial programs: Adobe's Photoshop, Macromedia's Freehand and Microsoft's PowerPoint. The three are nice pieces of software in my opinion and I am aware they are used by many companies.
What troubles me is that students are left either bankrupt (Photoshop €1.042, Freehand €520 and PowerPoint €338, which totals €1.900) or having to get a pirate copy of the software.
With all due respect I think they could teach the same concepts (which I guess are the very basics as it is an undergraduate course) using the free counterparts The GIMP, Inkscape and OpenOffice's Impress. These programs have a similar functionality (ok, maybe just 90% of the others features) but are available for free for almost ANY platform, including Windows, Linux and Apple's OS X.

For those unfamiliar with the software world, let me put an example: If we compare the software industry to the food industry, then we may think of a program as a recipe. There are many recipes that are freely available, you learn them from your mom or your spouse, you write them down and you share them with other people. There are also cookbooks, with many recipes not invented by the books' authors. Cookbooks are sold for a profit (most of the time). Still, there are some recipes that are kept secret. Maybe a chef developed a new delicious dish but has kept the details secret. What about the recipe for Coca-Cola soft drink? It is suposed to be a trade secret and as such it can be protected by our legal system.

In similar terms, there are programs that are sold for a profit, usually called proprietary software. These programs are not sold but licenced to the customers. Most of the time licenceses strictly forbid any copy of the software to non-paying customers (or should I say users?). There are other programs that are free, called free software. Free having here two meanings: They are available without paying any money and, secondly, you are free to copy them to other people or to modify them.

There is always this doubt on whether something I am paying for can be as good as something you get for free. Well ... it depends. If you think about getting a new car, I am not aware you can get one for free unless it is an old wreck from your uncle. In other contexts, paying can bring in a new orientation, for example, paying for sex may not be as good as sex you are getting for free (the example is not mine but from Linux creator Linus Torvalds). In the case of software programs there are good and bad ones in both the free softare and the proprietary software worlds.

The programs I mention as alternatives to the ones proposed by the school are certainly more than good enough for any undergraduate level, unless you want to specifically train your students on the use of one particular brand name of software (which can be a legitimate goal too).

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