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Your Free Software Might Be Killing Your Efficiency And Your Business

Before I go into this, I have to make a disclaimer: I'm an efficiency lover. I hate wasting time on things, and I hate burying my workflows under tons of tasks that could be more efficiently handled. If you're a hobbyist or a tinkerer or a weekend warrior, this post may not apply to you so please do not be offended by what I'm about to say. If you are one of those people and you just want an interesting read, feel free to hang around and enjoy.

If you hang around the "makerspace" of the internet long enough and stay in enough forums, you start to see patterns emerge and there's one that particularly riles me up as I see it because, and it's really a personality quirk of mine I admit, it's completely and totally avoidable if a pivot is made from "cost" to "value of time."

People love free software. It is, after all free. You don't have to pay the maaaaaaaaaaaaaan for his overpriced commercial stuff. You can totally get all the functionality of the big apps that cost hundreds for free from a developer in Eastern Europe who totally figured it out and if you pay the maaaaaaaaaaaaaan you're just a rube being scammed by commercialism. And no, I'm not exaggerating. These are literal arguments and opinions I've heard over the years. Thing is? They're not completely wrong. In some cases, free software does work just as well as commercial and, for some tasks you can get by just fine using FOSS (Free Open Source Software). In fact, to their credit, the developers and contributors to the various versions of Linux and Apache, PHP, MYSQL, and other projects are the backbone of the internet. That's not the world we're talking about, though. We're talking about content creation and product design and production.

In the space I'm in, the main piece of software I see people using from free-land is Inkscape. It's a vector artwork editor and illustration package designed to compete with Adobe Illustrator. That's the intention. That's not the result. Inkscape is a cluttered mess of poor UI design and quirks and bugs and, if people were being honest, they'd admit that it was garbage. Instead, they use this one piece of software with gritted teeth because it's free, and if you're not paying for it, you just suck it up and enjoy. I read forums for the Cricut, the Glowforge, and the Xcarve. These three machines are all machines that rely heavily on SVG (scaled vector graphics) files for their workflow. If you want to work with those types of files you need software that can produce it and, because Adobe has switched to a monthly pricing model, people feel less inclined to invest.

But really what is the cost?

In the Glowforge group alone, questions about Inkscape are almost as common as photos of finished work. Often it's a simple thing that's buried in a menu because the UI is so bad. Or a function that I know would take seconds in Illustrator but either doesn't work or is much more complicated in Inkscape. With laser cutters, there are a lot of specific things you have to do to your files to get them ready for cutting and while everyone in the group uses Inkscape (except for a few of us), the number of complaints about it are massive, but then those same people justify how miserable the app makes them with something akin to "at least it's free." Pro tip: If your software is taking hours out of your day to seek help from a forum, the price of that software isn't your problem. Using garbage software isn't the problem, so much as people putting a price premium so high on something in their workflow. I can't even convey how many times people have said that a glitch or a missing feature has killed their workflow and then when someone suggests Illustrator would be a better match they get a lecture on the price.

You need to value your time. Period.

If your software is fighting you every step of the way in your workflow, isn't it worth the extra money to use the "better" paid software? And while I know Illustrator isn't perfect (no software is), I can say from experience that it's light-years ahead of Inkscape. Relying on Illustrator when I have client design work to do doesn't seem like a stretch to me, but Inkscape? Hmmmmm...

And lest you think I'm talking from a position of someone who has never used the software or is being unfair, I have. I never liked Illustrator. For years, I just didn't work with vectors at all. When I was finally forced to, I tried Inkscape because I wasn't about to start paying for software I didn't want to use. Did I make Inkscape work? Oh yeah. It was adequate, but then a friend of mine showed me something she was working on and watching her fly around Illustrator made my eyes bulge. Everything was so much more logically arranged. The software was faster. The UI was cleaner (that's my biggest gripe with Inkscape; the UI is crap). I bit the bullet and bought the full Creative Cloud bundle and I've never looked back.

That experience was quite an eye-opener for me, but nothing new because you can't talk about people pushing free garbage over better paid software without talking about Gimp. I could go on for days about how bad Gimp is, particularly when compared to Photoshop which is light years ahead, but people will still argue with me that Gimp does everything Photoshop does. It clearly doesn't, but it does do "everything Photoshop does" if your use of Photoshop is either a limited subset of its features or your pirated version of CS6 is your primary operating version (you'd be amazed how many people talk about today's version of Gimp compared to a version of Photoshop that was sold on 3.5" floppies).

Inkscape and Gimp are not good apps for production purposes. I say this from experience and I would never rely on either. If you're someone with light needs and you have no particular deadlines or commitments and you can make these apps work for you, by all means, do it. Like I said at the beginning, this post isn't for you. But if you find yourself struggling constantly with quirks in your software maybe it's time you stopped valuing the cost of the software so highly and started valuing what it does for you higher. And if you're a business or starting one or using software like this for production, don't cheap out. Your business deserves better.

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