Wallpapers can have source code too

I’ve commented in the past about Ubuntu’s wallpapers – in particular that I thought the Hardy Heron wallpaper was a high point. Now I do like it as an image in its own right, but I finally realised the other day that actually there’s another reason why it makes a great image for a FOSS wallpaper: its source code is available.

“Source code” usually refers to the underlying instructions that programmers use to create software programs. Those instructions are the building blocks with which the programmer creates his software. With the exception of some sort of algorithmic art, we don’t usually think of images as having “source code”. But they do have underlying building blocks.

A programmer starts with a blank text file and an idea. Line by line he adds code to his creation, tweaking it here, altering it there, completely obliterating bits of it elsewhere, until he ends up with a finished application (or more commonly, a point at which the application gets released, even if it’s not completely finished). An artist starts with a blank canvas and an idea. Stroke by stroke he adds paint to his creation, tweaking it here, altering it there, completely obliterating parts of it elsewhere, until he ends up with a finished painting (or more commonly, a point at which the painting gets put to one side, even if it’s not completely finished).

The difference between these two forms of creation aren’t so great – other than the fact that the programmer’s lines can subsequently be modified and edited by other people. This is the key feature at the heart of FOSS, that anyone can modify the code to suit their needs. The painting, on the other hand, can’t be so easily changed. There’s no way to go back in time and modify the artist’s original strokes. All you can do is cover them with new paint.

Let’s get back to wallpapers. Often these are pretty or impressive photographic scenes. But photographic scenes suffer from a similar problem to the painting above. It’s not possible to go back in time and modify the original conditions under which the photograph was taken. You can’t tweak the position of the sun, the leaf cover of the trees, or the direction of the breeze. All you can do is cover the original picture with “new paint” by tweaking it in The GIMP or Photoshop.

Sometimes a bitmap graphic is created as the source for a desktop image. This has the potential to be halfway between painting and code: like a painting, information about the individual strokes and pixel changes is lost, but by using layers it’s possible to tweak one part of the image without affecting all the others. The “new paint” in this case only covers part of the image at a time.

The Hardy Heron wallpaper, however, was an SVG image originally. This is a vector graphic format, so every part of the image can be individually tweaked and modified. Want it a bit less orange, or a bit more swirly? You can change it to suit your needs – and, in fact, several people did exactly that. Even though it’s “just” a wallpaper image, it was made using FOSS principles: someone created the original artwork and released the SVG source to the community, various other people modified the source, and the final result was greater than any one person’s contributions.

Open Source is all about egalitarian ideals. It’s about giving everyone the tools to create great code. But it should also be about giving them the tools to create all the sundry parts that go with great code: the great documentation, great translations and great artwork.

Photographic wallpapers show off the skill (or luck) of the photographer, but don’t really offer much scope for the user to tweak and modify the result. Layered images from The GIMP go a step further, but still don’t give the user complete control. SVG images (plus a copy of Inkscape, or some other editor) provide the user with a fully editable image that they can dissect, inspect or modify in any way they choose. They are the artistic equivalent of source code.

There is a call for user-contributed artwork for the next release of Ubuntu, “Karmic Koala”. Although many of the contributed images are very impressive, they’re almost all photographs.

Ubuntu is supposed to be the poster child for Open Source. Don’t just show the user a pretty picture – give them the source, and the tools, to create their own.