[R] The hidden costs of GPL software?

Philippe Grosjean phgrosjean at sciviews.org
Wed Nov 17 10:53:28 CET 2004


In the latest 'Scientific Computing World' magazine (issue 78, p. 22), there
is a review on free statistical software by Felix Grant ("doesn't have to
pay good money to obtain good statistics software"). As far as I know, this
is the first time that R is even mentioned in this magazine, given that it
usually discuss commercial products.

In this article, the analysis of R is interesting. It is admitted that R is
a great software with lots of potentials, but: "All in all, R was a good
lesson in the price that may have to be paid for free software: I spent many
hours relearning some quite basic things taken for granted in the commercial
package." Those basic things are releated with data import, obtention of
basic plots, etc... with a claim for a missing more intuitive GUI in order
to smooth a little bit the learning curve.

There are several R GUI projects ongoing, but these are progressing very
slowly. The main reason is, I believe, that a relatively low number of
programmers working on R are interested by this field. Most people wanting
such a GUI are basic user that do not (cannot) contribute... And if they
eventually become more knowledgeable, they tend to have other interests.

So, is this analysis correct: are there hidden costs for free software like
R in the time required to learn it? At least currently, for the people I
know (biologists, ecologists, oceanographers, ...), this is perfectly true.
This is even an insurmountable barrier for many of them I know, and they
have given up (they come back to Statistica, Systat, or S-PLUS using
exclusively functions they can reach through menus/dialog boxes).

Of course, the solution is to have a decent GUI for R, but this is a lot of
work, and I wonder if the intrinsic mechanism of GPL is not working against
such a development (leading to a very low pool of programmers actively
involved in the elaboration of such a GUI, in comparison to the very large
pool of competent developers working on R itself).

Do not misunderstand me: I don't give up with my GUI project, I am just
wondering if there is a general, ineluctable mechanism that leads to the
current R / R GUI situation as it stands,... and consequently to a "general
rule" that there are indeed most of the time "hidden costs" in free
software, due to the larger time required to learn it. I am sure there are
counter-examples, however, my feeling is that, for Linux, Apache, etc... the
GUI (if there is one) is often a way back in comparison to the potentials in
the software, leading to a steep learning curve in order to use all these

I would be interested by your impressions and ideas on this topic.

Best regards,

Philippe Grosjean  

 ) ) ) ) )
( ( ( ( (    Prof. Philippe Grosjean
 ) ) ) ) )
( ( ( ( (    Numerical Ecology of Aquatic Systems
 ) ) ) ) )   Mons-Hainaut University, Pentagone
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 ) ) ) ) )   6, av du Champ de Mars, 7000 Mons, Belgium  
( ( ( ( (       
 ) ) ) ) )   phone: +, fax: +
( ( ( ( (    email: Philippe.Grosjean at umh.ac.be
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