Sunday, August 28, 2011

JFreeChart vs. JChart2D, a tale of two philosophies in Open Source Software

One of the greatest things about software development in the modern world is the amount of free, open-source software made available for anyone with the know-how and determination to use them.  With the popularization of cloud storage, easy version control systems like svn, cvs and git, and sites like sourceforge and github, one can easily host projects that are easily accessible and maintained.  With the popularization in open software comes a over-saturation in options to choose from.  It's with guidelines like that proposed by Philip Johnson's Three Prime Directives, that one can judge a project usable and truly open.

Here I will use the simple JChart2D in comparison with a much more complex JFreeChart to demonstrate the best ways to successfully produce a truly effective open-source program.

Could this ...

... be better than this?

Prime Directive 1: The system successfully accomplishes a useful task. 

The reason I chose graphing programs was my experience with trying to find a suitable graphing program for my needs in ICS 311. Along with deploying an applet, we were required to graph the ratio of Maximum Flow graphs. We had an option to use Third-party software but due to time constraints I was unable to find one that would suit my means. Both JFreeChart and JChart2D would have suited me fine in plotting out the data calculated, and so would've allowed me to pass the class.

Prime Directive 2: An external user can successfully install and use the system.

Here is where the philosophies of both softwares diverge. From a perspective of a cash-strapped college student, one can only successfully use a system if it's either intuitive to use or there exists free documentation provided to quickly help me achieve my goal. JFreeChart, despite the name, provides insufficient documentation through sourceforge and instead charges $65.00 per client. The system being so popular (4,747 downloads on the week of August 21st), I thought I would be able to use a powerful system that would help my code be presentable and sophisticated. I, however, was left dredging through undocumented source files and demos whose source code I could only purchase.

JChart2D, though being a less polished and unpopular charting system, has an intuitive, understandable usage page explaining the infrastructure involved and providing code samples for plotting and drawing a simple graph. The time it took from downloading the provided jars to building my own graphs was significantly less than it would take for me to understand and use JFreeChart without the documentation. While JFreeChart provides source code and allows for free usage, provided that you can decipher its infrastructure, JChart2D embodies the spirit of truly free open-source software in that it doesn't require its users to pay for its service.

Prime Directive 3: An external developer can successfully understand and enhance the system

Both system's source code is readily available through Sourceforge, JFreeChart provided directly from Sourceforge's Download page, and JFreeChart through CVS. Both systems are well-documented, using the Javadoc system to provide descriptions and guidelines for paramaters and return values for each method. The problem with JFreeChart, however, is that its system is never really clearly described (at least, without purchasing the Developer Guide) such that one can't figure out what to change. JFreeChart's source is fragmented, with one section regarding its charting functions and one section regarding its data management, with no clear explanations of its infrastructure (the provided documentation at the root of the data source, for example, reads "The base package for classes that represent various types of data.", with no instructions how to create a dataset for use with a JFreeChart object.

JChart2D on the other hand, has an advantage of having available documentation. One can easily understand the main components of JChart2D because of the simple pictoral representation of its architecture. Granted, its architecture isn't nearly as complex as JFreeChart, due to less functionality, but complexity could be easily solved by good documentation, something that is not available from JFreeChart by default.

In summary, JChart2D, through a comparison with a more popular, yet less intuitive JFreeChart, embodies the benefits of truly free open-source software. It is easily deployable through Sourceforge, provides straightforward explanations of its usage and architecture and invites people to both use it and modify it for free.

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