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Web Development on a Shoestring: Free Alternatives to Proprietary Software

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that an aspiring web developer in need of a career will end up spending lots of money on software. Dreamweaver? A minimum of Ksh19,000 if all you want is an upgrade, otherwise pony up for Ksh41,500. Photoshop? You’d better have Ksh65,000 available if you’re not upgrading. And if you want the whole Creative Suite? Take your bank manager hostage. The Master Collection retails at an eye-watering Ksh268,000*. No, this is not an attack on Adobe; they just happen to be ubiquitous.

Of course, as a developer in a developing nation with a very limited budget you could always be very pragmatic naughty and pirate the software, but you have no way of knowing if you’ve voluntarily downloaded any malware, and you’ll also miss out on patches and upgrades. Besides, the software houses are getting increasingly sophisticated with their licencing these days.

Happily, there are now some free alternatives available.While they may not offer all of the bells and whistles of the proprietaries, the finished job is just as good. Here’s a brief gallop through the best of what’s on offer.

First, pimp your browser, specifically Firefox. There are two add-ons available available that make design less of a chore: the Web Developer Toolbar and Firebug. These integrate a host of development tools into the browser, allowing you to validate and alter code as you go. They are invaluable time-savers and I struggle to remember what life was like before them.

Next, for all your hand-coding needs, I cannot recommend Notepad++ highly enough. I’ve already sung its praises on this blog, but it bears repeating: it is truly magnificent for writing your own code, in whatever language, and it can be extended with various plugins to fit with your requirements.

For those who like a WYSiWYG editor, you can cut Adobe’s apron strings and move into the world of open-source web authoring software. The player used to be NVu, but it has now been superceded by Kompozer which is far less buggy. As a hand-coding zealot, I can’t say that I have used either of these programs very much, although I do keep Kompozer on my hard drive for when I am having a “slow” day and can’t understand why my code isn’t working. Both do pretty much everything you’d expect, but without monopolising your CPU and RAM as some proprietary software has been known to.

Next up, if you’re an inveterate tinkerer who can’t stand anything not being just so, I’d like to cheer for the CSS Toolbox, which I found very useful when I was learning CSS, because I could download themes from the web and see how they were put together. Today, I mostly use it for validation and cleaning up stylesheets. It’s not completely necessary, but if you do need to view a stylesheet separately from the rest of your web project, it’s a nifty little tool to have.

For those of you who would like to use Flash animations: why? might I suggest using AJAX with a canvas element instead? No? Well, in that case I’d like to refer you to Ajax Animator, an open-source alternative to Adobe’s offerings.Alternatively you have a choice between SWF Mill, SWF Tools and MTASC, which can provide all your animation needs. I don’t work with Flash, as I have healthy disregard for the end results I have seen, but I understand that there are some people who are fond of its swishy ways. For you crazy cats out there that want to do entire websites in Flash, there is always Flash to Go, which I’m sure you can have bags of fun with.

For graphics and an alternative to Photoshop, the best-known options are GIMP and Paint.NET. Having experimented on friends who are not that web savvy, if you’re not happy fiddling with gubbins and learning a completely new program, I would go for Paint.NET. The UI is similar to old Photoshop and you can call up most of the tools that you would need for graphics manipulation. I can’t guarantee that the end results will good enough to blow up and hang in a gallery, but they will certainly be good enough for the web. GIMP is a little more complicated, but if you don’t mind getting to grips with it, it will come good in the end.

All of these programs are free to download and use, including updates. If you’re feeling generous, you can always donate to the developers on their webpages, where a number also host forums where you can ask questions and have them answered by other users. I know that this isn’t a comprehensive list, so feel free to make any suggestions or ask for other alternatives to the software listed in the comments.

* Currency conversions (based on UK retail prices) correct at time of posting

[Image by Aussie Gall]

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