Gimp, Inkscape & Blender: A FOSS Visual Communications Suite

by Mike Levin on February 14, 2012

Gimp Inkscape Blender Unity LauncherGimp and Inkscape. I think that phrase will soon be comfortably rolling off my tongue like Photoshop and Illustrator did in years past. I’m just through with having to be a pirate because I switch hardware so often. Gimp is the Photoshop of the Free and Open Source Software realm (FOSS) and Inkscape is the Illustrator.

I believe I’ll also be be adding Blender to that phrase, as it is time to have 3D modeling software in my toolbox. Ideally, I would like CAD for preparing files for the new home 3D printers for rapid prototyping, but nothing in open source CAD compares to the 3D Blender modeling software. Hopefully, I can get it to work as CAD as well—but even so, 3D modeling and animation is a powerful communication skill to have—even if only a rudimentary command of.

Now by no means do I think the first two programs, Gimp and Inkscape, will be feature-equivalent to their Adobe counterparts anytime soon, but I am undergoing a transition in my computer usage where no particular hardware instance has any special significance for me. Sure, I love my Commodore C64x, but I’ll be switching out its feeble Atom-based motherboard soon for an quad-core i7, and probably will have to reinstall my software to get it all optimized.

What hardware I’m running on these these days just seems to be a moving target. What’s worse, it may not even be the same platform. One day I’m on Ubuntu Linux, the next Mac OS X Lion, and the next, Windows XP. All the valuable stuff to preserve is your irreplaceable data files—which happens to be the “cloud’s” sweet spot, with apps like Dropbox—which runs on all of these platforms: Yay! And despite my love-affair with Google Docs, software like Photoshop and Illustrator will always run best when run local—thus my switch over to the FOSS equivalents that I can reinstall without fear, guilt, version issues, or download serial number activation difficulties.

Even so, the industry is trying to make the install unnecessary, with a download-and-cache model. Generally under this model, everything is thrown into a sandbox and run under an isolated virtual machines—what happens when you run Java applets. It’s what happens with JavaScript apps in Google Chrome tabs, and even with apps on the iPhone—although of course, you download those. And there is a lesson in that.

Apple’s version of cloud apps are all actually downloaded and installed locally, whether on the iPhone or Mac. Only the data gets cloud-ified. Why do you think that is? The answer is, as with so many things Apple, is quality. Things run better when run local. And even if you manage to get the code to run local with a sandboxed download-and-cache model, it’s probably an online-only solution that goes wonky when you loose that net connection. That’s why iWork works so well on a laptop online and off—they’re not trying to make the download-and-cache model work. It’s installed software.

Okay, so installed software has an advantage. And thankfully, there is a rich and maturing base of free and open source software to cherry-pick category killers from. And while these category-killers aren’t as feature-rich as their Adobe Creative Studio counterparts, they satisfy the 80/20 rule very well. Who really needs the new Photoshop’s unblur feature, if you can get 80% of what you need for free on every machine you work on, without having to be a pirate?

One of the biggest obstacles to making the switch over to FOSS Adobe alternatives is long-time investment into the Adobe products to the point where muscle-memory chokes on and rejects anything that is not the Adobe product. This is so much the case for me, but I have just so many Macs in my life now, I simply can’t install Adobe software on any Mac I might sit down on while keeping myself legally licensed. It’s no longer practical.

My main machine at work is Ubuntu Linux, so the Adobe software isn’t even a choice there. And I started doing my experiments of researching the category killers in all the visual communication software I’m determined to re-master, sort of in sync with re-platforming myself onto Linux. I came up with Gimp (that I had flirted with for years) and Inkscape (new to me, but as much Illustrator as Gimp is Photoshop). I installed both Gimp and Inkscape on both my Mac(s) and Linux computers.

I did one of my first real projects in Inkscape yesterday—updating my logo to green. It went as smoothly as I could have hoped, and I find the interface even smoother and more natural than Illustrator. I’m one of those who preferred the drawing interface of Freehand, watching it fade into oblivion, knowing that there could be better. And I feel in Inkscape, very clue-full developers keeping the spirit of Illustrator, while taking the opportunity to re-imagine what structured drawing should feel like.

And so, the re-training begins. In a sign of public commitment in order to create consistency in my own behavior, I have gone so far as to make Gimp and Inkscape “arms” on my website spider diagram on the homepage. This way, I will force myself to take up one of these two packages over their Adobe equivalents, which I still run old versions of on my old XP laptop I keep around. I only remote desktop into the PC anymore which is fine for 99% of all tasks (email, etc) but is terrible for Photoshop, so this is further conditioning to make sure I forego the incumbent software.

Probably the biggest stumbling block is finding things on the drop-down menu. They’re both named subtly different than in Photoshop and Illustrator, and in slightly different locations. I really can’t wait until Mark Shuttleworth’s Ubuntu Unity HUD—the future of software menus. Most people are going to hate them, but most people hate change. These things are made for me—no more hunting through video-game-like drop-down menus. Just start typing what you want and auto-completion does the rest! Woot! I just hope their performance is faster than Dash in Ubuntu 11.10. HUD might be the killer feature to make FOSS alternatives to proprietary category-killers more appealing.

Add to this the fact that it’s finally time for me to take up 3D modeling or CAD software in order to prepare for the rapid prototyping future. I’m very drawn to making my own case for the Raspberry Pi the way this guy Marco Alici did. He used Google SketchUp, and I may actually end up going in that direction too as I try things out, but it only runs on Macs and PCs (not Linux). But this FOSS software called Blender, which actually has the makings of a category-killer for 3D modeling software (close to, but not quite CAD software). This dove-tails perfectly with my move to Gimp and Inkscape, and wraps everything up into a nice, neat FOSS visual communication software re-platforming suite.

Anyway, I thought I’d end this article with some snapshots of what my App Launcher menus look like now on both my Commodore C64x and Apple MacBook Air, with the Gimp, Inkscape and Blender icons—the new look of visual communication software launchers for me.Gimp Inkscape Blender Mac OS X

 

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