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

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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.

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 favour of a stripped-down, minimalist approach.

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.

Open source innovation: Bespin

Mozilla Labs' Bespin project may seem little more than a run-of-the-mill programmer's editor at first -- and more edlin than Visual Studio, at that. Its UI is spare, and its editor commands are entered from a text prompt. Even the fact that Bespin runs inside a Web browser window is not terribly impressive until you understand how it works.

Under the hood, Bespin is an ambitious attempt to push the boundaries of what's possible for Web-based applications. Every element of the editor's UI, from the blinking cursor to the editor text itself, is rendered using HTML5's new "canvas" element. That makes Bespin virtually unique among modern Web applications in that it's not bound by the limitations of HTML markup and traditional Web rendering engines to display its UI.

Mind you, to say Bespin is a work in progress is an understatement -- for now. Its current feature set is extremely limited, and a recent reboot of its code base didn't help. Users can load, edit, and save files, as well as interact with source code version control systems, but not much else. The editor performs rudimentary syntax highlighting for HTML and JavaScript files and can execute some code-formatting operations, but it hardly competes with full-blown desktop editors at this stage.

Over the long term, however, Mozilla Labs' plans for Bespin are as intriguing as they are ambitious. Once it's mature, Bespin will offer a collaborative, online code authoring environment like no other. Because it lives in the cloud, Bespin will be uniquely suited to team-based agile development methodologies, Web application development, and even as an embedded editor for other software. And because it's based entirely on Web technologies, it won't require any firewall configuration or additional security -- which few of today's IDEs can match.

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