I am currently studying at the local community college (Whitireia Polytechnic, Porirua), brushing up on my desktop publishing skills, in particular the design side of it. As part of the course we are learning to use the Adobe Creative Suite, including Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. These are wonderful pieces of software, real professional tools. However, in the real world they are also very expensive pieces of software. as a student I able to buy a discounted version of these packages, for just a few hundred dollars, but they cannot legally be used for commercial work, even though it seems to be quite common for students to buy them and then use them after they get into the commercial world.
About half of my computers at home use Ubuntu as the main operating system, and have The Gimp as the installed image manipulation program, suitable for working with raster images. The others run Windows, and also have The Gimp installed. The Gimp seems to have all the functionality I need, the few features that Photoshop has that The Gimp doesn’t are probably outside my areas of expertise, and by the time I need them, I am sure The Gimp will have them. The Gimp is of course free software (free to use, free to modify etc), its one drawback is that there are no courses in the Gimp, and precious few books on using it.
So there is a reasonable alternative to Photoshop, but what about Illustrator, which is used for vector images? A bit of research soon finds Inkscape, another free, open source package, now available both in Linux and Windows. The website for this package has a free html manual/text book, and a quick read shows that Inkscape is probably quite a good match for Illustrator, but once again little training and few books.
Finally InDesign. This one is a bit trickier. InDesign is a very good layout program for documents, with some very sophisticated pre-press functionality, along with raster and vector manipulation, and excellent text handling capabilities. In the open source world, there is no real equivalent, but Scribus is a possibility which I am looking at. It lacks sophistication at first glance, but I haven’t spent too much time on it or InDesign yet, so can’t give a real opinion yet.
Getting to know these products is quite hard, there is nothing out there in your local polytechnics, or on the shelves at your local bookshop, so you end up searching online for books. There are two or three good Gimp books out there, two InkScape books of note, and one Scribus book that I could find, which are all available from Amazon. I also found the same books available locally on Fishpond, with a delivery time of just a week rather than the 3-4 weeks Amazon were quoting. Prices are a bit higher, but I can pay in NZ dollars, by direct payment from my business account. I bought Gimp Bible published by Wiley in the USA, and Inkscape: Guide to a Vector Drawing Program, which is available for free in HTML, as a PDF for US$20, and as a printed book from Prentice Hall. The service from Fishpond was excellent, and the books are really good value.
Other free software I use includes Gnu Cash, an open source accounting package, which again has little in the way of available documentation. The PDF manual available is full of unfinished sections and placeholders – not a good look! If I didn’t have a paid for MSOffice, I would probably use an open office product too.