We haven’t had a good geek-centric post on here lately. I’m here to remedy that.
Open Source software has always been a basic building block of the web: the Linux operating system, Apache Web Server, PHP scripting language, MySQL database, an assortment of P2P networking applications, email clients, web browsers, etc. Sourceforge has nearly 100,000 open source projects registered—with at least a quarter of them being web-centric.
Yet few front end web designers—let alone web users—really have had any hands-on experience with open source products. For the most part, these products all remain in the background. To build a web site interface, most web designers still depend on the tried and true workhorses: a suite of products from either Adobe or Macromedia.
But that may be slowly changing.
The Firefox web browser is arguably the most successful Open Source project to date in terms of overall public acceptance and awareness. While it is a great browser in terms of its underlying technology and expansive feature set, its biggest asset has been a well designed user interface…something that tends to be an afterthought on most open source products.
But, still, Firefox is mainly for viewing the web…not creating it. Are there open source alternatives to the powerhouse applications such as Photoshop and Dreamweaver? I’d say not yet. But we’re close. I’ve recently downloaded a trio of open source web design and development tools that show some real potential. If you have access to the likes of Photoshop/Fireworks, Illustrator/Freehand or GoLive/Dreamweaver, these aren’t going to replace them…at least not for some time to come. But, if you are on a budget, or simply interested in what’s going on with open source design-centric products, you might want to take a look at this.
We’ll start with the one application that’s been around the longest and—while perhaps not one you’ve tried—likely one you’ve heard of. The Gimp (the GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a raster image editor. It has long been plagued with a rather arcane user interface and inevitable comparisons to its much more successful commercial sibling Adobe Photoshop. That said, it has matured quite nicely to a respectable version 2.2. And I’m impressed. It’s still not Photoshop (and likely never will be), but it’s close enough that anyone that has used Photoshop can manage their way around The Gimp with ease. And that’s actually saying a lot for an open source user interface.
It sports familiar palettes for drawing tools, layers, channels, paths, brushes and colors. Most of the tools will be familiar to anyone that’s used Macromedia Fireworks, Adobe Photoshop or the like. The icons used throughout are all quite handsome and clear as any commercial application. Like Macromedia Fireworks, this is mainly for web graphics…no CMYK support at this time.
Available for: OSX, Linux, Windows
Inkscape is still an infant. Just barely a year old now and only at version .41, it still has plenty of growing up to do. But it’s already showing signs of becoming a very talented illustration program. Inkscape is an SVG editor. SVG stands for Scalable Vector Graphic and is a W3C standard. It’s a cousin of Flash, but not yet as popular (though Adobe is on board with it). In terms of traditional illustration packages, it’s akin to Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia Freehand. The main difference being that Illustrator and Freehand speak Postscript, while Inkscape speaks SVG XML. But that’s all the geek-speak that no one is really that interested in anyway. How is it as an illustration tool? Well, not bad. It’s not nearly as robust as its commercial brethren, but is still a very capable vector illustration package. All the familiar basic tools are there…shapes, zoom, Bezier curves, freehand drawing, text tools, etc. as well as the important path transformations such as union, divide, intersection, etc. The behavior of the tools may be a tad foreign to users of Illustrator, but anyone that has used Flash to draw will find many similarities (and improvements) with Inkscape. Another anomaly to this application is its extensive documentation and set of detailed tutorials…something that isn’t always a given when it comes to open source projects.
Available for: Linux, Windows
Nvu (pronounced N-view)
Now that we’ve drawn some nice GIFs, edited a few photos, and drew a logo for our website, we need to put them all together with some HTML. When talking of HTML and open source editor, one usually thinks of hard-core hand coders launching their text editor from a few keystrokes from the command line with never a need to touch their mouse. Not exactly user friendly for those coming from the world of Dreamweaver or GoLive. Nvu is an attempt to give those folks an open source option. Nvu is a true WYSIWY(almost)G HTML editor. It’s based off of the Mozilla Composer product (who’s lead developer now works for Linspire…the company backing this open source product). Like Dreamweaver, you can edit HTML in code view or WYSIWYG mode. It includes a built in FTP tool and even a spell checker. Its CSS editor is commendable as well. The only major con to Nvu is that, at least for now, it’s strictly an HTML editor. No PHP or ASP support at this time.
Available for: OSX, Linux, Windows
I doubt any of the above applications are going to be replacing a professional web designer’s shelf full of Adobe and Macromedia products anytime soon. However, one could certainly build a respectable web site if only given those tools. I’m sticking with my Mac and the Macromedia Suite, but my PC now has a nice, acceptable set of tools to get me by when I need them. And given that these applications are many versions behind their commercial relatives, it looks like they will mature quite nicely over the next few years.