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SPECIAL AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN OPEN SOURCE: SourceForge
This week's review/award section marks the start of what will be a recurring feature on DonationCoder.com, which we will call "The Open Source Roundup". Every so often we will devote a review day to recognizing some open source projects that we feel are special in some way, and deserving of broader recognition.
It would be impossible, however, for us to begin such a series without first giving some recognition to a site that has provided a loving home to so many of these Open Source projects. And so our first award for Excellence in Open Source goes to SourceForge.net.
The official blurb on SourceForge says it most succinctly: "SourceForge.net is the world's largest Open Source software development website, with the largest repository of Open Source code and applications available on the Internet. SourceForge.net provides free services to Open Source developers."
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SOURCEFORGE
SourceForge seems so big and well established that it's hard to believe it's only 6 years old. It's part of a larger commercial enterprise called OSTG (The Open Source Technology Group, which includes things like SlashDot, FreshMeat, ThinkGeek).
According to a recent presentation, as of 2004 SourceForge was receiving 10 million unique visitors per month, and had 92,000 projects and 920,000 registered developers (25% of those projects were windows-based). On a given day, they serve 10 million page views and a million file downloads.
How can they afford to do this if they don't charge developers? We don't really know. In case you haven't figured it out yet, we aren't very savvy about money. SourceForge is run by a larger business though and presumably there are benefits to providing such a prominent service. But we do not pretend to understand the complexities of capitalism.
FREEDOM FOR THE OPEN SOURCE CODERS
The most remarkable thing about SourceForge is the generosity shown towards programmers in terms of web space and bandwidth. If you are working on a project, even if you are only in the planning stages, you can fill out a short form at SourceForge, indicating the Open Source licensing model, and a description of your project. Barring some unforeseen issue, within a few days you will receive confirmation that your account was created.
A this point SourceForge has given you a website and an ftp for your project. And they won't bother you after that, they simply leave you to code, without further involvement. You can easily add new users to the ftp account which makes it ideal for collaborative exchanges.
Some of the more popular projects like Gaim on SourceForge go through massive amounts of bandwidth, enough to bankrupt a normal person trying to host such a project on their own site. Without SourceForge such projects would simply not be able to afford a proper website and remain free. SourceForge has provided a home to thousands of Open Source projects that would otherwise have just disappeared, and they do it with the lightest of touches, freeing the programmers to go about their work and not worry about the vagaries of hosting.
You can read more about SourceForge and some of the more involved services like compilation farms, download mirroring, cvs, etc., on their official "About Sourceforge" pages. More recently SourceForge has set up a Donation system where visitors can donate to individual projects or developers, with SourceForge getting a small cut of the donation. Seems reasonable to me.
WTF IS WRONG WITH THE FORUMS?
Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but as wonderful as SourceForge is about providing web space and bandwidth to Open Source projects, there are some services that SourceForge provides that are embarrassingly primitive. Perhaps the most ironically bizarre example is the forum technology provided for by SourceForge. Despite the existence of some incredible open source forum software (for example phpbb, whose files are hosted on sourceforge, or the one we use here, simplemachines), SourceForge uses an insanely horrible and ugly forum system that virtually guarantees an empty forum for your project.
The search facilities at SourceForge are also barely usable. For a site with so many projects, a more sophisticated search function, such as the kind that can be found on every other web site on planet earth, would be welcome. We might recommend two open source search engines, phpdig and tsep (which is hosted on sourceforge), both of which we have used at DonationCoder.com.
Lastly, while we love how generous SourceForge is about approving projects that are just in the idea phase, there needs to be a better way to separate projects that are actual real projects from those that were dreamed up in a drunken haze one night in 1985 and were forgotten by the morning, and now just exist as disembodied vaporware descriptions on the sourceforge site, and whose only role in life is to frustrate those who go searching for code. A simple, benign solution would be to have the option to filter out or even just flag sites which have no files or homepages.
After that introductory award to sourceforge, we now present this week's award for excellence in open source:
SPECIAL AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN OPEN SOURCE: DrawSwf
Macromedia Flash has caught on like wildfire as a tool for interactive animation on the web, but the creation of flash animation is a complicated process beyond the reach of most casual computer users.
A number of sites have cropped up to let users type in some text which is added to a flash greeting card, or even type captions to a short movie, such as on the popular fanta shokata site (website down), but in our opinion all of these pale in comparison to the fun flash-based greeting you can make for people with our pick for this weeks Open Source Roundup award: DrawSwf.
ANIMATE YOUR DRAWING
DrawSwf is a cross-platform Java-based drawing program that is extremely simple to use.
Its interface is reminiscent of the old microsoft paint program, so don't expect Photoshop-like controls. This is a very minimal drawing program.
BUT, the key is that DrawSwf records the progress of your drawing as you work , and renders your drawing as an animation.
The end result is a wonderful little animation of you drawing your picture that is sure to entertain and amuse anyone you send it to.
A SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENT
You might wonder, as we did, whether such a tool will be usable if you are not a skilled artist. In fact, after a rigorous scientific study with double-blinds and 28-page subject release forms, we came to the conclusion that the worse you are at drawing, the more entertaining the end result. Click on these pictures to play the flash animations and judge for yourself:
sample from drawswf website
click to play (16k)
my cat with a birthday cake
click to play (28k)
NEW EDITING FEATURES
When we first came across DrawSwf several years ago, there was no editing, if you made a mistake, ce la vie, Ingres didn't have an undo either. But the current version sports a slick new design with a very simple but effective queue of animated steps in your drawing, which you can modify, delete or reorder. Very nice addition.
new user interface (click to enlarge)
using drawswf (click to play)
A QUICK NOTE ON INSTALLING AND RUNNING
The DrawSwf download is just a single java .jar archive file, available on the DrawSwf download page (note you don't need the .src source distribution). You will need to have Java installed on your computer to use it.
Once you have Java installed, you may be able to simply double-click the .jar file to launch it (expect a delay while it loads since this is a java application). If not, you can tell windows to use java to open .jar files in the future by right clicking and choosing "open with.." and browsing to your java.exe and choosing to make the association permanent.
Or you can open a dos commandline window and type "java - jar drawswf-1.2.9.jar", or more sensibly, create a .bat batch file in the same directory containing that one line. You can then launch the program by double-clicking on the batch file.
And if you end up loving DrawSwf as much as we do, why not send them a note of thanks and make a small donation to them to reward them for their work and encourage future development on the program?
If you like DrawSwf, there are some other programs you might want to check out.
The program most clearly related to DrawSwf is a very powerful shareware program for microsoft windows, Drawing Hand ArtStudio, which has a very substantial set of painting tools and is capable of animating very complex works. If animating your drawings is something that you really like, then it's definitely worth a look. A companion program, Drawing Hand ScreenSaver, can be used to make screensavers from your paintings. At $40, ArtStudio is not unreasonable if this is something you enjoy. ArtStudio can create stand alone executables, but not flash animations, so that can make it harder to give drawings as greetings to friends who might rightfully be wary of running executables sent to them through the mail. You can also use activex to put an animation on a web page, but you're going to have a similar problem in that people are probably wary of enabling arbitrary activex components.
There is also a fun simple free online multiplayer game called isketch which is similar to the game pictionary; you draw and your teammates try to guess what you are drawing. Can be quite fun and funny. isketch is also made with Macromedia Flash.
There are no doubt other online sketching and drawing flash sites on the web - if you find one, post it in the forum associated with this review.