Open source innovation on the cutting edge

Think open source doesn’t innovate? Here are seven projects exploring exciting new directions in computing -- for free

Open source doesn't innovate -- so goes the old saw. Proprietary software vendors, including Microsoft, would have you believe the open source movement has produced nothing but knockoffs of existing products and cast-off code that couldn't cut it in the free market.

But while many open source projects, such as OpenOffice.org, do in fact represent well-established categories, to claim that open source has contributed nothing new to the software landscape is a gross exaggeration. For starters, much of the software in use on the Web today -- from the Firefox and Chrome browsers to the Apache Web Server to scripting languages such as Perl, Python, and Ruby -- began life as open source projects.

[ See our slideshow summary: "7 open source innovations on the cutting edge" | Looking for more great open source tools? Check out InfoWorld's "Top 10 open source apps for Windows" and "Top 10 open source apps for Mac OS X," as well as the most recent winners of InfoWorld's Best of Open Source Software Awards ]

The open source movement remains a font of innovation to this day, and not just in the commercial sector. Numerous projects founded by universities, loosely knit communities, and individuals are exploring areas yet to be taken on by mainstream, proprietary software products. Here are just seven examples of exciting new ideas in software that you may be able to buy from proprietary vendors someday, but that you can only get for free from the open source community today.

Open source innovation: Alchemy
Adobe Photoshop remains the leading graphic manipulation program for proprietary operating systems, and as any GIMP user can tell you, duplicating Photoshop's feature set is a tall order. Alchemy doesn't try to do so. An open source drawing and sketching program created by Karl D. D. Willis and Jacob Hina, Alchemy eschews Photoshop's bulging toolbox and complex UI in favor of a stripped-down, minimalist approach.

alchemy.gif

Alchemy's focus is on the earliest stages of image creation, when artists doodle, sketch, and experiment in search of unique and compelling shapes. Its goal is to foster creativity, not render finished artworks. As such, it provides only a limited set of tools -- and an Undo button is not among them.

The tools Alchemy does provide, however, would astound even seasoned Photoshop experts. For example, artists can use "mirror drawing" to create symmetrical images, generate random shapes or distort shapes in random ways, or even shout into a microphone to draw using sound. Developers can add new drawing tools by creating modules -- which, like the Alchemy application itself, are written in Java, so the system runs on virtually any platform.

Alchemy isn't for everyone. In fact, it's sure to confound anyone who doesn't share its authors' freewheeling approach to the creative process. For visual artists looking for new sources of inspiration, however, Alchemy is a refreshing, open source alternative to the staid approach of so-called professional graphics software.

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