Thursday, February 26, 2009

It's Not the Cost of the OS - It's the Cost of Apps

I'm a professional sculptor and product designer, a photographer, and an amateur musician, among other interests and hobbies. And I use computers intensively for most of it. And I use Ubuntu Linux and absolutely love it.

Here's one fallacy that some people seem to have about Linux: people are drawn to it because it's a no-cost operating system. I have news for you, the cost of an OS is just the tiny little beginning of what the proprietary software world has in store for you. It was really the unsupportable cost of apps that first put me onto open source applications, to begin with, and then onto Linux itself.

What, an artist with no Mac?

A lot of people familiar with my work are surprised that I don't use a Mac, since most artists and design and media people seem to gravitate towards that. Macs are unquestionably great machines. But for a number of very concrete reasons I've never been an Apple fan. Apple is the most proprietary of all computer companies, and that alone has always rubbed me the wrong way. In that sense, Apple and the Mac system are, in root philosophy, the exact opposite of the Free-libre software movement. And I should state up front that I'm pretty much in agreement with Richard M. Stallman's views of why software ought to be free-libre and open source. But one of the other aspects of Apple is that the hardware comes from only one company, and they really don't like people opening up their cases. Some do, I'm sure, but there certainly are not a lot of people who go out and build their own Macs and install their own OS's and hard drives and network cards, like I do. That's not what Mac's are really about.

At any rate, this puts me in an awkward situation. The worlds of graphic design and multimedia production are drenched in proprietary-ness. Photoshop and all things Adobe have an ironclad grip on most pro graphic designers. Video and audio codecs are a proprietary patent-laden minefield. Beyond that there is the world of architecture and engineering, where companies like Autodesk are a virtual monopolies in their professions.

Like most design professionals, I need sophisticated software. I had an expensive software habit to maintain: 3D Studio Max, AutoCAD, Adobe Creative Suite, CorelDraw, Cakewalk, Adobe Premiere - these programs run from a couple hundred dollars each to well over $3,000 for a programs like 3DS Max and AutoCAD. At one time I was running well over $8000 in applications on my one little machine. Plus the myriad little pieces of sub-$100 software and utilities all grind down your wallet as well. ACDSee is a nice photo browser, much better than what comes with Windows. It's about $80. Quicktime Pro has some nice Quicktime video coding features, $30. Need an MP3 codec for that audio or video editor of yours? Bingo bango, that'll be $15 bucks, thanks. Want some nicer DVD menu designs? Unlock this hidden feature of your video editor for $10. Etc, etc. And of course it's not just once, it's every couple or three years. The upgrade hamster wheel was getting real old real fast.

Now, I suppose if I had been just a video pro, or just a 3D designer, or just an audio recording producer, or just a photographer, I could have lived with it. I know a photographers who charges a couple thousand bucks for a day's photo shoot, so what's the cost of Lightroom and Photoshop in that light, right? But for a lot of people like me, computers are not a narrow-aspect tool. A professional sculptor like me needs a wide variety of applications, not just to design and produce sculpture, but to photograph my work, produce and print photo portfolios, edit a web site, produce promotional videos and advertising.

So what's the cost of a $200 operating system? Honestly, my last gripe was the cost of Windows. (Though that's probably because it was a hidden cost, built into the computer I was buying.) But still it's nothing compared to the hundreds or thousands of dollars a designer will spend on applications. I guess in the old days, when I was paying $3000 for a nice 'fast' computer, the cost of software seemed almost reasonable, or at least, not completely out of line. And I think that's how Apple users felt as well, because the extra cost of a Mac was really no big deal compared to software: it undoubtedly seemed well worth it.

Software costs now dwarf hardware costs

Times have changed though, pretty thoroughly: at this point you can get a pretty rocking computer loaded with RAM, a quad core processor, a great graphics card, and a gi-normous fast hard drive for about $700. And have room in the budget for a great big gorgeous color LCD to see it all on and maybe even a nice big graphics pen-tablet. Meanwhile, the cost of Photoshop and all the other creative software has not come down one iota. Something's gotta give.

So it was the lure of free-libre programs like the Gimp, Blender, Audacity, Inkscape, and Rawstudio that first drew me in. Actually, I think it was probably OpenOffice that was the first FOSS program I downloaded and installed onto Windows 2000. You see, with the relatively small amount of word processing and office type stuff I do, it seemed crazy to keep buying office software. (I used WordPerfect ages ago, and I've never used MS Office at all.) So I tried OOo and guess what? It was just brilliant, exactly what I needed and more. Wow, I thought, how can a program this good be completely free?

At that point, there didn't really seem to be a lot of free software for design. Gimp I found to be a strange thing I tried in lieu of Photoshop. But all the weird windows that opened up really confused me. So for a year or two, OpenOffice was really all I used. But then I discovered Audacity, and then - holy smoke! - Blender for 3D design. You mean someone wrote this free, brilliant program that can completely replace my $3,400 copy of 3D Studio Max - and it downloads in only 25MB??? Now I was really beginning to think that this 'free open source' thing was the real deal. I even gave Gimp a second try and actually liked it.

Eventually I got interested in actually trying Linux itself, the mothership of all open source. I bought a book with some live CD's of Mandrake, and then ran Fedora for a couple months, and eventually discovered Ubuntu Dapper. On balance it seemed to work better than anything, and what really got me was the pace of improvement, the great people in the forums and the community of people helping each other out, and mostly, the ease of finding and installing software. Software - the apps - that's what I wanted, and Ubuntu made it really easy to explore a lot of free software. You mean you just click on all the software packages you want, and it will download and install all of them with another click, and . . . keep them updated forever? f-f-wowww . . .

Can you really design things with Linux only?

Now, all is far from perfect in the world of Linux and design and multimedia software. There still is no first-rate video editing software, for instance. (And yes, I've tried them all and follow their development, I promise you.) Gimp still can't edit 48 bit color images or CMYK. There is nothing like AutoCAD on Linux. On the other hand, I can get an enormous amount done and NEVER worry about upgrades. In fact, I look forward to upgrades with relish.

IN THE NEXT POST: Linux - the OS - is plenty good enough already. It's the apps we need to be bootstrapping . . .