February 4, 2005

It's time to integrate open source graphic applications

Author: Jozsef Mak

I've been a graphic artist and Web designer for more than a decade, and in that time, I've seen software companies expend a great deal of effort in attempts to monopolize the market. Adobe, for instance, took over the desktop publishing field early on by developing a set of powerful products, such as Photoshop and Illustrator. Macromedia had to fight to gain control over the Web design and development business, and its hold on Web development became apparent only after it integrated its products. Today, with a remarkable range of Web design and development applications, Macromedia is the indisputable leader of the field. It's time open source graphic application developers did the same.

Among proprietary graphic software companies the trend is toward product integration. Besides being financially profitable, integrated products have additional advantages over independently developed products. They are superior in facilitating specialized segments of the market by providing specific solutions for specific market needs.

In the open source arena, product integration is still lagging. Most open source products are developed independently, and this is definitely the case with graphic applications. However, a package of three applications that target desktop publishers and graphic artists -- the GIMP, Inkscape, and Scribus -- would make a strong ensemble if their developers could be enticed to create a common interface and integrate their features.

The GIMP is a well-established bitmap editing program and the most mature of the three; its advanced features are comparable to Photoshop's and enjoy some popularity among Windows users as well. It currently lacks color management functionality, but developers are working to implement that feature in the program's next release.

Inkscape is a vector drawing program with great potential. The project is still in its initial development stage but it is already brimming with clever features. It has ingenious shape-editing tools that make interactive editing not only easy but fun as well. Inkscape natively supports SVG, an open source vector drawing standard, and the most popular bitmap formats, including JPEG, PNG, and TIFF.

Scribus is a layout application with the potential to challenge QuarkXpress, the de facto standard layout program in desktop publishing. It can output files in advanced PDF format, and in this capacity it is second only to InDesign, Adobe's flagship desktop publishing application. Scribus also has a well-thought-out tool set and a more intuitive interface with fewer complexities than QuarkXpress. Scribus, like Inkscape, is a relatively recent project and needs to further mature to make a dent on the market.

Integrating these products would be a challenge. But against all odds, I see a plausible scenario where developers of the various initiatives agree on implementing a common user interface among the products following GNOME GUI guidelines. GNOME-style icons, color schemes, and layout rules would confer a unified look and feel on the entire "product line." Seamlessly integrating popular features such as drag and drop, copy and paste, color management techniques, and font specifications could solve interoperability issues.

Integration could turn out to be a beneficial thing for developers. The greatest benefit might be the sharing of ideas and solutions among the projects. For instance, Inkscape currently lacks swatches libraries, a major shortcoming. But the GIMP has an excellent implementation of swatches. One of the answers for Inkscape developers might be adopting the GIMP's solution. In addition, sharing artwork such as icons would simplify artwork maintenance among all three projects. Eventually we could see seamlessly integrated graphic applications that would compete as a suite with their commercial counterparts.

There are a number of successful projects the developers might consider as models, but perhaps the best example is the Mozilla project, which is not just a successful initiative but represents a way of thinking still uncommon among open source developers. The key point is that Mozilla applications provide a comprehensive Web experience for users. The Firefox browser, the Thunderbird email client, and the upcoming Sunbird calendar comprise a unified product line. Mozilla developers were among the first in the open source world to recognize the advantages of software integration. The result speaks for itself; today, more than 20 million copies of the Firefox Web browser have been downloaded.

Companies today expect graphic and Web designers to be competent with a slew of programs, including bitmap editors, vector drawing applications, layout programs, and 3D modeling and animation software. Just designing programs with common look and feel would greatly help to ease the stress on graphic artists created by the above conditions.

Today, it is a shifting business climate that propels software development. Now that Linux has started knocking at corporate office doors, the traditional independent development strategy doesn't seem to be the best bet for producing software. Commercial software companies have already changed their strategies and started integrating their products some time ago. Isn't it the right time for open source graphic application developers to do the same?

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