One Size Fits All Versus The Right Tool for the Job

by Ostatic Staff - Oct. 10, 2008

On, Christopher Saunders asks if Linux is really necessary for the desktop. He relates a discussion he had with a creative/marketing executive recently, and the doubts that this executive has about the ability of open source alternatives to meet his company's needs.

This conversation goes astray with the word "necessary." Is Linux necessary? Is Windows necessary? Perhaps a Mac would do better here? A key point that many open source detractors -- and supporters -- miss is that there doesn't have to be an all or nothing approach to using free software. Both sides forget, too often, that a computer is a tool. Chainsaws and paring knives are at heart the same tool -- they are designed to cut. But coring an apple with a chainsaw or taking a paring knife to a beech tree is madness. The tools might be similar, but they might not be the right tools for the task at hand.

For the sake of honesty, I'll admit this "one size fits all" notion is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to software discussion. It rubs the wrong way from both sides of the argument. Saunders mentions the GIMP/Photoshop comparison.

He is talking about using GIMP in place of Photoshop in terms of graphics professionals. For a vast number of users, GIMP is likely far more powerful an application than they would ever need. Photoshop, for this audience, would be more than overkill. Is it necessary to use an application that handles CMYK and other print-specific functions when the end-user's goal is to simply resize, crop, or color balance photos? Is it necessary for straight web design? No, and GIMP would do the job quite nicely in this regard.

But the person Saunders was speaking with would likely need the print media features that Photoshop offers. Though GIMP has plugins that give some support in these areas, they aren't perfected or necessarily complete. He was discussing replacing Photoshop with GIMP in an industry (one of the few) it just wouldn't fit the bill.

Put aside the notion that trying the mentioned applications (OpenOffice, GIMP) would require switching to a Linux desktop (both are cross-platform). Just as there are not truly any "one size fits all" applications, the introduction to open source software doesn't need to be all or nothing. If an individual, or office, wants and is able to make a clean break into open source software, that's great. It's probably not the norm, though, especially in a workplace environment.

That is fine, too. I'd be willing to venture that people and offices using open source applications -- and keep using them, and recommending them to others, over the long term -- have gradually introduced new aspects and applications into existing systems. Most open source applications operate well and produce the same end result as their proprietary counterparts. They are not the same though, and not only from an open code standpoint. From a tech viewpoint, it's easy to say that the differences are transparent -- even when considering the user interface. They aren't transparent to many, however. Easing a business (or oneself) into the open source water an application at a time may lead to a more successful transition than just jumping in headlong ever would.

The bottom line is that open source software does a lot of things really well -- and it is, in many ways, equivalent or superior to its proprietary counterparts. There are areas, however, that go beyond general desktop computing where it just isn't there -- yet. We need to break ourselves -- and others -- from the notion that it has to be all or nothing. Keep using that crucial proprietary application, if it is needed to do your job -- but is that closed browser necessary? How about that office suite?