"Dependent on" ???
Posted Feb 27, 2007 22:02 UTC (Tue) by eklitzke
In reply to: "Dependent on" ???
Parent article: Mitchell Baker and the Firefox Paradox (Inc)
Sorry, but I think that the point that the author makes has a lot of merit. Lets consider a few examples (mostly biased from a math perspective, because I am a math student).
TeX/LaTeX. There is simply no competing tool to do what this does in the open source world. And there are _serious_ deficiencies in TeX. For example, TeX (and hence LaTeX) has no support for non-ASCII character sets. You can get TeX to render non-ASCII characters, but your .tex file needs to be ASCII only. I talked to a German math professor about this the other day. Every time he is writing a math paper in German and wants to insert an umlaut-u he has to enter \"u, even though his keyboard can insert them natively. There are packages to make typesetting particular character sets easier, but they are still hacks -- for example, there is a package that lets one instead type "u, but this is still two characters. The syntax for TeX/LaTeX is in many ways old and obsolete, and the TeX system as a whole is complicated enough that the only distribution I know of that has moved away from tetex to texlive (tetex has been unmaintained since the summer) is Debian/Ubuntu.
Octave and Maxima. If you want a Maple-like math implementation, octave is your only choice in the free software world. And it is miles behind Matlab. While octave does what it does very well, it isn't even close to Matlab/Mathematica/Maple wrt feature parity. Maxima does symbolic math, and nothing in the free software world comes even close to it in features and speed. But maxima is still sorely lacking in features (you can't even take complex derivatives!), and far behind commercial alternatives. Again, there isn't very much competition here, and we have to stick to the inferior implementations we have.
GCC. This is pretty much your only choice if you want a C/C++ compiler. Many years ago GCC was a healthy project with lots of progress and competition (remember EGCS?). Nowadays my impression is that there are only a handful of developers working on GCC. The codebase is big and complicated, and not a lot of people have the expertise required to contribute. As a result, most of the changes to GCC in the past few years have been to make it more ANSI compliant, and there have been relatively new features or speedups. In fact, compiling code takes longer than it used to.
GIMP. There really isn't any other open source program that competes with GIMP. While GIMP is pretty good, and I use it relatively frequently, I think everyone recognizes that there are a lot of big changes that need to be made to bring it up to the same level of esteem that is held for its proprietary counterparts, and this has been the case for many years. AFAICT not a lot of fresh new development is going on on the GIMP, and it is one of those niche programs that everyone uses because they don't have a real alternative.
(I'm sure you can come up with many others)
The free software world has a plethora of MTAs, mail clients, IRC clients, text editors, and terminal emulators. There are a lot of areas where there is healthy competition, and the software that is produced is better than the best proprietary counterparts, and many of these are enterprise products like Apache and MySQL. But the fact still remains that there are really a lot of cases where we are dependent on a particular implementation of a piece of software, where there isn't any competing application, and where things have been stagnating in the same state for years. It's true that as the software mentioned is open source, anyone is free to step up and improve it (or even fork it). But realistically, this hasn't happened in a lot of cases where it should have. A year or two ago I would have put X11 on this list, and recent developments have made it so I no longer feel that this is an application whose particular implementation we are dependent on, so there is hope. But I still feel that there are a _lot_ of cases of free software that doesn't have any alternative implementation, that is unmaintained, and that many people are dependent on.
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