Sexy Software [SFW]

If only the rest of the software world were as competitive and exciting as the 3D software market. Off the top of my head, there are three outstandingly functional free (as in source and beer) 3d programs available (Wings3D, Blender, and PoVRay), and an absolute horde of cheap ones (e.g. Cheetah 3D, Silo 3D, Hash Animation Master).

Furthermore, the big guns have taken to reducing their prices (e.g. Lightwave can be obtained for $495 as a crossgrade from Photoshop, SideFX’s Apprentice HD, which is essentially a non-commercial Houdini, is selling for $99, and Softimage is selling XSI Essentials for $495) or giving away free learner editions (Maya, Houdini).

A large number of independent developers are successfully introducing niche products, such as high-end modelers (modo, Rhino), sculpting tools (zBrush, Mudbox), terrain renderers (Vue 3D), rendering engines, and so forth. And then there’s the interactive 3D tool market, which is also an embarrassment of riches, ranging from Microsoft’s free XNA, to the impressive but expensive Quest 3D, to the astounding Unity 3D, and Blender’s free game engine.

It’s amazing that all this activity is occurring in a consumer space with a relatively tiny number of users while we struggle with a single dominant player in the word-processing market which can’t properly handle something as simple as copying a paragraph from point A to point B without screwing up styles. (Guess what triggered this rant?) Part of the problem is that writing word-processors is not glamorous, but a bigger problem is dealing with legacy documents from the installed base. The problem is that if you want to sell a word-processor that can’t seamlessly deal with Word documents, you might as well give up, and Word documents are infamously opaque and complex.

So far, I’ve only found two word-processors that make more than a half-hearted attempt to import from Word, and they are OpenOffice.org and Pages. The former is one of those gigantic corporate-backed commercial projects that crashed, burned, played the open source card, and is once again backed by a multi-billion dollar company with an axe to grind. It’s a program written by a committee of committees. The latter is a brilliant, attractive, and highly usable program, albeit infuriatingly incomplete.

Aside: oddly enough, a different example of a gigantic corporate-backed commercial project that crashed, burned, played the open source card, but turned into something wonderful, is NetScape. What saved NetScape was a little project called Camino, which took the good bit of NetScape (the Gecko rendering engine) and wrapped it in a lean interface to make a small, fast, platform-friendly web-browser. (FireFox grew up as the cross-platform version of Camino.) Perhaps what OO.o needs is some maverick developers to rip components of it out and turn them into lean, well-implemented programs with just a subset of OO.o’s kitchen sink functionality.

Excel is even more unchallenged. Apple’s Numbers isn’t a credible replacement (but it’s still only version 1.0) and neither is OO.o’s spreadsheet module. And then there’s that blight on society: PowerPoint.

It astonishes me that even today there isn’t a simple PHP + MySQL tool that does everything Filemaker does, only for free. And by “everything” I mean define forms and tables interactively.) It seems like this would make Ruby on Rails redundant for a large number of applications (it would certainly make the typical “gosh wow” RoR demos look like sad jokes, since you wouldn’t need to type magic command sequences to make the important stuff happen. I can build a blog or guestbook a heck of a lot quicker in FileMaker than anyone can in Ruby, but of course it would be in FileMaker, making it kind of useless. For that matter, if RoR is so great, why isn’t there an RoR-based web IDE available that hides the magic command line stuff? (If there is, please let me know!)

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but the free / open source / alternative software movement is an economy of sexiness. I.e. since money isn’t the driving factor, what attracts people to work for free on a project is its sexiness. Game development is the ultimate example of this — game development is the geek equivalent of starting your own rock band. (Of course people who think game development is sexy already have social limitations.) 3D stuff is way sexier than word-processors, spreadsheets, presentations, or databases, so there’s a huge number of programmers willing to work for free or cheap on it, while there’s money just lying around waiting to be made addressing the myriad problems with unsexy, boring stuff, like why Word can’t copy and paste text without screwing up the styles every time.