BACK when the speed of PCs was measured in megahertz, most serious graphics design work was done on powerful and expensive workstations.
The arrival of more powerful PCs would change all that. As processors became faster and memory became cheaper, software developers began writing graphics design and image editing programs for the Apple Macintosh or for Windows PCs.
Nowadays, anyone with a modern PC and the right software can create stunning art–or tacky graphics. Witness the number of political posters these days with candidates who are anything but saintly sporting Photoshop halos behind their heads.
Introduced in 1990, Adobe Photoshop revolutionized the way people processed digital images, enabling them to work with graphic elements or layers within an image that could be individually manipulated then stacked one on top of another. The growing popularity of digital cameras only served to strengthen the program’s position as the de facto standard for image manipulation.
As popular and as powerful as Photoshop is, however, it isn’t always the right tool for the job.
Photoshop works with raster graphics or bitmaps, which store information about each individual dot or pixel used to make up an image. The more pixels there are in an image, the higher its quality or resolution–and the larger the file size.
This means it takes a large amount of data to store a high-quality image, and a huge chunk of a computer’s memory to hold that information while it’s being processed. Because of this, Photoshop can be a memory hog, and processing can slow down to a crawl if the image is large.
Another limitation of a raster graphics editor is that images will invariably suffer a loss of quality when they are enlarged, often appearing rough and blocky along curved edges.
In contrast, a vector graphics editor use geometrical elements such as points, lines, curves and polygons to create images, requiring much less data and memory. Objects created in this way can be stacked, much in the same way that Photoshop stacks its layers. What’s more, vector images can be scaled up or down without suffering any loss in resolution.
As a rule, a raster graphics editor such as Photoshop is practical for manipulating photographs, while a vector graphics editor such as Illustrator, also from Adobe, is more practical for creating graphic designs.
Among professional artists, Illustrator is the industry standard, but the program is expensive and difficult to learn. Another favorite on the Windows platform is CorelDRAW, first released in 1989. Freehand was another important competitor until Adobe bought Macromedia and sent the product into limbo.
In the free and open source world, the most fully developed product is Inkscape, but an exciting development is the entry of Xara Xtreme LX, a Linux translation of a commercial Windows program that’s fast, powerful and easy to use.
On its Web site, the British company Xara explains that it hopes to speed up development of Linux and Mac OS X versions of the program by taking the radical step of opening up its proprietary code and encouraging open source developers to contribute to it.
“Xara does not have the financial resources to compete effectively with the likes of Adobe or Microsoft using a traditional closed-source business model…. The open source approach, when successful, can leverage the skills of a large number of developers who have a common goal to create products that are as good as or better than the best commercial equivalents,” the company says.
“Any company has to be worried when a giant like Microsoft decides to get into their market,” the company continues, referring to the software giant’s coming product, Expression.
“In our opinion the first versions of Microsoft Expression will not be a threat to us, any more than to Adobe. But throw millions of dollars at it, and by the time they’ve got to version 3, a few years down the road, it might be competitive… So we decided to do something dramatic. Many have suggested what we’re doing is extreme. We believe this is the only thing that will make a difference.”
Xara launched a new version of its graphics editor with photo editing tools, cut the price of the Windows version down to $79 (compared to $499 for Illustrator) and made the product open source under the GNU Public License.
As proof of concept, the Linux translation, now on Version 0.7, was developed rapidly with the help of volunteer programmers and can be downloaded free from the company’s Web site. The biggest feature missing that’s already in the Windows version is the ability to edit bitmap pictures.
In moving into Linux and Mac OS X, Xara observes, it has moved into territory that Microsoft and Adobe cannot follow.
“They cannot and will not make their products free and open source (they can’t afford to). They (almost certainly) won’t even make them cross-platform,” the company adds. “We like the idea of upsetting the apple cart. We like the idea of doing something that disrupts the (un)natural order of things.”
It’s a bold gamble and it’s unclear if Xara will survive the transformation. Just last month, the company announced that it had been bought by Magix AG of Germany. For the sake of graphic designers who want to use a powerful tool in an open source environment, let’s hope more volunteer programmers contribute to the project, and that Xara’s new owners won’t pull the plug on its daring experiment.