Free as in beer

19 Feb 2022 / /

I have a complicated relationship with FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) .

I like not paying for things where possible – who doesn’t? It makes my money go further (sometimes quite a bit further). I am also vehement in my dislike of the concept of software by subscription – if I buy something, it should be mine to use forever.

So for many years I have sought out and used free alternatives to the commercial software I would otherwise have had to buy. I use LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office. Before LibreOffice I used OpenOffice. (Before OpenOffice I used a pirate copy of Microsoft Office like everyone else, but this article isn’t about piracy.)

As someone involved in web development, I also use graphic and design software. Initially because of the massive financial outlay, and later because of their subscription model, I have avoided Adobe software like the plague, and for several years my primary tools have been The Gimp and Inkscape.

But as my need to create SVG illustrations has grown over the last year, I have encountered more and more problems with Inkscape. The user interface is nosebleed-inducingly complex and not at all intuitive, SVGs downloaded from the web often look completely different when loaded in Inkscape, dealing with paths is very fiddly, and it continues to crash with distressing frequency.

Recently I found Inkscape simply couldn’t properly render some SVGs I had to edit, and as I was up against a deadlne, I had to find something else, and it had to be easy to use (no time for a steep learning curve).

So I had a hunt online. After I had eliminated everything that didn’t work on a Mac, everything that needed an account to use (Why? It’s a fucking image editor!), everything that ran in a browser (that’s just silly), and everything on a subscription model (see above), there wasn’t much left. There was the free macSVG, which is just garbage, and there was Affinity Designer, which isn’t free but is quite cheap and there is no ongoing subscription.

I downloaded Affinity Designer and tried it out (10 day free trial), and within 24 hours it had persuaded me to stump up the $50 for a license. Now I use it daily and it’s an absolute joy to use. After that I had to try Affinity Photo and found that it was also light years better than its open-source counterpart (The Gimp), so I’ve bought that as well. I’m saving hours every week in previously lost productivity.

Now, the point of these musings isn’t to advertise Affinity Designer or Affinity Photo, but rather to make the point that, often, you get what you pay for. Or as my wife endearingly says, you pay what you get for.

To put it another way, an application like Inkscape may have a number of talented developers working on it, but if they are not being paid for their work, that means it is not their primary focus, and they cannot be relied on to make improvements or squash bugs in a timely manner. And when an application is mission-critical, that’s often not good enough.

In its favour, free software is generally (though not always) open source, which has the useful attribute of allowing the source code to be audited to ensure it contains nothing malicious, but I’ve come to realise that this in itself isn’t enough to make the free option the best option. I feel this fact is often missed by FOSS purists (you know, the ones who think Richard Stallman is sane).

So let’s hear it for pragmatism. It’s good to save money and have access to source code, but it’s also good to get things done.

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