Xtreme Illustrations

Not only is Xara Extreme a Linux-compatible alternative to Inkscape, but now it even has its roots into the Open Source community as well.

If you really, really need Adobe Illustrator, you can use Wine or CrossOver. If you don't, a number of options are available, the most popular among them being Inkscape, which I've used as needed for a couple years now. It's a good program, and among the available open-source vector graphics apps, it's right up near the top of the heap for feature completeness, quality of implementation and lack of bugs, but it's not without its problems.

First, it's slow. The memory footprint—especially when a large illustration is loaded—is heftier than The GIMP's, an app that is not noted for its modest memory usage and speedy response when editing complicated projects. The slowness quickly becomes apparent when using Inkscape to work at the coffee shop on my less-than-top-of-the-line laptop instead of at home on my holy-crap-it's-HAL graphics workstation. When you're in a groove trying to create and polish something, having to wait for the program to catch up really, really sucks.

My second beef with Inkscape (and really, I only have the two), is the interface. Now, I'm willing to go a long way to learn an interface, and in theory, I like Inkscape's two-fisted approach. After all, I'm the guy who prefers Blender over other the legal, licensed commercial 3-D and compositing systems I have in my shop because of its two-fisted approach—relying on hotkeys for the commands and the mouse for manipulation makes the work flow fast. The problem I've always had working with Inkscape though, is that its command map is about four miles long, and most of the common functions still require two key combinations. Although I like the concept, the implementation takes a long time to learn, and the keystrokes aren't organized in a manner that lends itself to deducing different functions easily by experimentation.

The ideal situation would be to get a program that's just as well thought out as Inkscape, just as bugless, but that has a faster work flow and a smaller footprint. A fuller feature set would be nice too, but I don't begrudge a project at 0.46 for not yet having all its features in place. Still, a few extra tools to take it up into the class of high-end professional illustration software would be nice.

Enter Xara Xtreme, which almost does this very thing. Until last year, Xara X was a professional, closed-source, Windows-only commercial app that garnered excellent reviews in PC World and won a number of awards both for its performance and its habit of underselling the rest of the market. However, when Adobe bought up Macromedia and then Microsoft announced its intention to enter the graphics market in a signature Microsoftian way (that is, with the intention of squeezing out all the small players, marginalizing Adobe and capturing the market using substandard products with ultra-slick marketing and ubiquitous sales placement), Xara saw the writing on the wall and figured it needed a way to stay in the game. Somehow it needed to cut costs, turn out a superior product and capture market space being neglected or deliberately marginalized by the two big kids fighting over the playground.

Companies like MySQL and SugarCRM have used the open-source development model to great effect—maintaining a freely accessible GPL tree and then offering value-added packages with proprietary code, support and other goodies as the mainstay of their businesses. It's a strategy that, when conducted properly, results in everyone winning—the people the company employs get to keep their jobs, the community developers get a fun challenge and a hell of a résumé entry, the broader community gets to use the free version of the product, the clients that need the value-added services can purchase it for far less than the competition, and the company gets to continue existing and (hopefully) turning a profit.

Xara decided to pursue the same strategy, with only a modest change in terms of its goals. It wants to take over the world—it says so right on its Web site. It correctly notes that there are a dearth of pro-level graphics apps for Linux and Mac, and that the few goodies there are for Mac actually may go away, depending on which way the bricks blow off the Adobe building, and Xara thinks it can do something about it. So, Xara pulled the GPL judo and is hoping it sends it to the top of the stack, at least where artists are concerned.

Because of this, Xara has an excellent incentive to play nice, and that's exactly what it seems to be doing. Xara has positioned itself well strategically with regards to the GPL—both to protect its business model and to protect it from the kind of trolling that SCO recently engaged in against, well, everyone. As such, Xara will accept code only from developers who explicitly (and in writing) permit this arrangement, thus covering everyone's backside.