Case study: choosing open source versus proprietary software

Why I chose ImageMagick - and not an alternative - to change an image's background to transparent

Case study: choosing open source versus proprietary software

In our last post, we learned how to change a image's background to transparent using ImageMagick.

We started here:
Blue diamonds with white background

And we ended here:
Blue diamonds with transparent background

Hundreds of software programs could have done this. Why did we choose ImageMagick?

Why ImageMagick?

In short, we chose ImageMagick because it seemed to fit the objective. First, it can do the job: ImageMagick is able to make an image's background transparent (see above). Second, few image manipulation programs are more empowering than ImageMagick, and this blog is about self-relization and empowerment. ImageMagick gives users massive amounts of freedom and power.

Not only is ImageMagick among the world's most versatile and accessible pieces of image manipulation software, but it is also free, open source, and cross-platform. Learn ImageMagick, and you have a portable skill that you can use anywhere, essentially forever, for free. Download a free copy of ImageMagick, anywhere, and you can use your skills.

ImageMagick may not have been right for everyone, and that is OK. That is how the world works. Some readers may have been unwilling or unable to use it. ImageMagick is a tool, and no tool right for everyone in all cases.

Generally speaking, it is wrong to value a tool more than people, or even the job we are trying to do. We have to respect one another. To use a landscaping metaphor, one person might prefer to plant a tree with a back hoe, and other might prefer a spade. We all face constraints, and stakeholders like the gardener and the actual job of planting of tree are what matters.

What other tools could have done this job? Let us look explore the wider universe of image manipulation software, both open source and paid/proprietary, that can change a image's background to transparent.

Proprietary Options

Among paid options, Microsoft Office is worth mentioning. Many people already have it, and it can do the job if you are patient. Within the Microsoft Office Suite, Microsoft Publisher is one option, but Publisher only runs on PC. There is also a self-described "hack" involving Paint, PowerPoint, and Save As. (Unfortunately, Paint cannot do the job by itself. It can only make a selection transparent.) These are two Microsoft Office workarounds, and there may be others as well.

If you do not have Microsoft Office or prefer not to use it, other paid/proprietary options abound. Snagit is one that I have used personally and successfully. Certainly there are various Adobe products. If you do not mind paying money, there are a vast number of solutions available to you. Search, and you will find.

If you do choose to use paid/proprietary software, beware the most serious hidden cost: lock-in. When you start to learn to use a piece of software, it takes time and alters your work patterns. The more you learn it, the more it becomes ingrained into your work processes, and the harder it will becomes to switch to another solution later. This phenomena (lock-in) applies to all software products but is especially relevant for software you pay for because it incurs direct costs.

How direct are the costs? Imagine you get really good at using a $2,000 piece of software at your school or workplace, then you leave because you want to become an entrepreneur. Now that you are on your own, you can pay $2,000 or dozens of hours to regain access to the software, forget your skills and learn new software, or forget your entrepreneurial dreams and go work for another school/organization that has already purchased the software. All these options are potentially dream-crushing. Any one of them could deny the world your greater creativity, productivity, and innovation.

Sometimes the cost/benefit really is in the user's favor, and it is a good idea to buy software. Maybe the software costs $25 instead of $2,000, and maybe it turns you into Superman or Wonder Woman.

That said, $25 is still $25. Think before you buy. You owe it to yourself to make a conscious decision.

Open Source Options

Open source is the alternative to paid/proprietary software. It comes with no fees, readable source code, and more freedom, but also more responsibility on the user and often a higher learning curve.

GIMP is basically an open source Photoshop replacement. It has been around for years and can certainly do the job. Here are crowdsourced instructions to create transparent image background GIMP.

ImageMagick also happens to be open source. As mentioned earlier, it is a popular, versatile open source software program that programmers use to edit images from the command line, primarily. It has a long history, and there are versions for Unix, Mac OS X, iOS, and Windows. ImageMagick can do a lot more than just convert an image background: see ImageMagick's Command-line Tools page.

For many users, open-source solutions like GIMP or ImageMagick may be more appropriate. You will save money and learn a portable skill to take with you to your next job or entrepreneurial endeavor. On the other hand, you may have to endure a higher learning curve, smaller user communities, and an increased risk that that the program will become deprecated and lose its support. While these downsides cannot be elimited, they can be reduced by choosing popular, highly-rated software.

Parting Thoughts

One quick note before you choose a software product: be sure to read and understand the legal agreements. Whether you choose paid/proprietary or open source software, the Terms of Service will tell you whether or not you may use the software for your intended purpose, legally.

Terms of Service are not always hard to understand. Traditionally, Terms of Service have been chock-full of labyrinthian and opaque legalese. While that is still often the case, these days you may often find an easily human-readable summary of the terms at the top of the page, which may be ough for your purposes. Meanwhile, many open source software products use one of the same set of seven or so licenses, which you can read about at Understand those seven licenses, and you will start to build a useful font of background knowledge.

When choosing a software product, you cannot account for all factors. Risk is irreducible to zero, and "unknown unknowns" are by definition impossible to comprehensively enumerate. But that is okay. If you know your stakeholders and your situation well enough - including goals, assumptions, and constraints - then you can give yourself a decent chance at a successful outcome. Stay flexible in inverse proportion to your level of certainty, and you should be able to change course if you need to.

Whatever software you choose, use it and thrive.