Monday, 29 January 2007

To open source, or not to open source.

This post started very differently. I was all boisterous in my description of Open Source software and how advanced it was getting... and then my open source browser crashed and I lost everything. I don't normally swear, but 3 minutes ago I let one slip. It happens.

I guess it goes to prove what I've seen time and again. Things work marvelously, until you show someone how well they work, or until you tell someone about it in your blog. (sigh, save as draft.. continue)

I've been using Open Source software for quite a number of years now. And I've realised that the decision to use Open Source is quite an individual one, and requires thinking about your particular situation. There are times when an Open Source replacement will suffice, and other times where the added time and frustration caused by moving to Open Source/freeware is just not worth it. I remember trying to convince Wesley that Eudora was the coolest Mail Client out there. I never really succeeded in this, and more often I think I was trying to convince myself of my decision. I'm currently using Thunderbird which is not my idea of the perfect mail client either. It is an example of something that is almost but not quite there.

When I switched. Switching is a term I've learnt from the Mac users I've recently come into contact with. People who move from PC to Mac are known as switchers. I'm not applying this term to people who move across to the Open Source alternative, because, the move from the known and familiar to the unknown is a common factor. So, look into it when switching.

I've used the Open Office suite since it's inception, and used StarOffice before then. This is a product that has really come a long way and I definitely recommend it. I tried it when I decided to legitimise the software on my machine, because there are times when I refuse to shell out a few grand (in ZAR) for a piece of software. Ofcourse, some of my choices turned out to be black sheep: my constant convincing my friend Wesley (and myself in the process) that Eudora was actually cool. [cough, change topic]

So when is it better to spend money on software. In my opinion, when it greatly affects your productivity or quality of work. For me: I've been very impressed with the (Macromedia) Adobe Studio product suite. And I paid up from version MX through to Studio 8. It is good software, great value at it's cost, and I'll gladly spend what I consider to be very reasonable upgrade fees to the newer version (hoping this stays reasonable with Adobe at the help of MM). AND you get Flash! That alone is worth it.

Recently, I've changed the primary technology I use for churning out websites. My focus has moved from predominantly Adobe Coldfusion websites to ones done in PHP, the widely used Open Source web language. I've also started working on a project which uses the Symfony framework as it's core, which is also Open Source. Learning PHP and Object Orientated thinking has really been exciting and challenging, but it has included a few frustrations now and then. I have to get out of the habit of wanting to write queries which do stuff. It's quite a discipline, and I'm fortunate to have a seasoned web programmer (PHP, Java, Python, TCL/Tk, PERL) leading the project, guiding and helping me adapt. The best way is just to do a project and learn from your mistakes. Mistakes like writing 16 lines of complicated PHP code instead of 1 line which says $this->user->save(); Wow. Thats when OO really blows your socks off!

Symfony work has shown me that the common idea of "Choosing Open Source means being abandoned to figure stuff out alone" is just not true. It is so well supported, and the developer are eager to help others out. And many of them are French, which goes against another common idea about helpfulness and the people of France. Je veux dire que les francais sont formidables sur le projet symfony!

Another option for Open Source is just to play around with software that you wouldn't invest in. An example: Blender3D. I'm no 3D artist, and I certainly wouldn't spend the thousands of Rands needed to get set up with Maya just to mess around. But I have installed Blender3D and I'm having fun playing around with it. What a great product, and it is available for PC, Mac and Linux. Students with future careers in animation, wanting to dabble, take note: Open Source/ Freeware is your friend.

So, sometimes it's worth switching over. But it's always fun to check stuff out and play. Here's a nice grouping of software to get you started. Enjoy.

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