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Sa'ar Feldman faced a difficult problem. As a digital arts instructor, he was supposed to teach students how to work with Photoshop. However, the Nadav Democratic School in Modi'in did not have the budget for the software - not even for one computer.

"In the first year we managed to work something out with a trial version of Photoshop. But in the second year, the annual budget for my four classes totaled no more than a few hundred shekels. I had to find some other program for processing pictures, which I could teach without a budget. Then the option of using Gimp, an open-code program, surfaced," says Feldman.

Those who have downloaded the latest version of Photoshop may prefer to ignore the free program that provides everything that Photoshop offers for over $900. Gimp, the GNU Image Manipulation Program (www.gimp.org), is not new software.

The open-code image editing program actually first appeared in the 1990s. Yet even today, after the launch of version 2.4, which improved the software's user interface, many users are unaware of the breadth of its capabilities.

Feldman: "I downloaded Gimp at home, learned how to use it, and today students grades one to nine study Gimp at what the Democratic School calls the 'Photoshop Center.' Every child at the center brings his world. I have a student who created an image that looks like a Pokemon ball, others play with pictures of famous people from [the TV show] 'A Star is Born.'

"They also use Gimp in animation lessons - the software has a supplement, Gap, for animation. Slowly I guide them and their use of the tools becomes more and more refined."

For years, the government as a whole, and the Education Ministry, in particular, have had an ambivalent attitude toward open-code software. The Finance Ministry supported using Open Office, an alternative to Microsoft's Office software.

However, declarations of a switch to open-code software in government ministries have so far served primarily to influence negotiations with Microsoft to reduce the price on packages sold to the government.

Photoshop is also sold for a relatively inexpensive price to the education system ($275 per license).

Why does the education system have a hard time adapting to open-code software despite the possible savings?

Rimon Levy, the chairman of the Israel Internet Association, explains: "Education system officials are not always aware of the cultural possibilities and of the value of using open codes. Such use is part of the culture of transparency, involvement and transforming people from passive consumers into creative partners in developing content.

"Another difficulty lies in the lack of understanding of models in operating open-code environments. People are very familiar with the model of using purchased software and service providers, whereas the model of an economic cooperative model is foreign to them. They are afraid that if there is no service provider with a support model, then there won't be any support at all."

An added obstacle, he says, stems from the lack of Hebrew support for many open-code programs; the association is meanwhile trying to encourage their use.

But the real financial and educational advantage of Gimp and other open-code programs is evident not in school, but at home.

Ram-On Agmon, an open-code activist, says: "When a student comes home and wants to apply the knowledge acquired in class in the Photoshop lesson, he has to download the software illegally or pay for it. In the end, using Gimp saves a lot of money primarily for the students."

"For the non-professional user, whose profession is not connected to graphic design or photography, Gimp fulfills all the requirements," says Feldman.

"Technically, I've noticed that so far Gimp doesn't know how to open 'raw' files from digital cameras. As for the students, beyond the brand name, there is no difference between Gimp and Photoshop."

Sofia Mintz, the director of the Education Ministry's communications and information systems department, says the ministry worked to obtain an agreement with Microsoft on all matters concerning office software and operating systems: "For all the other software, we did not work to obtain prices for the entire education system, and there are companies that are offering reduced prices."

Dorit Bechar, the national supervisor of information, ethics and information sciences at the Education Ministry, says that there are actually several open-code programs at various schools across the country, such as the Blich High School in Ramat Gan.

There is also a concerted effort to expose teachers to open-code software. However, she says, the ministry has experienced tech-support problems.

"When there is a technical problem, you have to bring in someone from the outside who understands software. There is support, but it costs money, and the school chooses the support company that the system offers and the system offers what it has at the moment," she says.

So how do you use Gimp?

Feldman: "When there was Photoshop, it was very easy for me, because there are many manuals in Hebrew. There are fewer for Gimp."

Users can start with the manual on the Zulo site (http://www.zulo.org.il/doc/gimp), and then move on to the video manuals such as: http://tinyurl.com/22dvn6.

Gimp does has several problems, mostly related to the lack of support for programs such as Pantone, a color-coordination system.

It is mainly used in professional print jobs. Another disadvantage: Gimp only offers partial tech-support for the color model CMYK, which is also used in printing.

To partly resolve the problem, one can use an external supplementary program, Separate+ (http://snipurl.com/1uyal).

The option of using color management (through the "preferences" option) will somewhat facilitate color-coordination.

Feldman stresses that, for most users, these are negligible problems.

"A few times, it happened that we sent photos to a printer and discovered we had to set the dots-per-inch precisely."

Doron Shiner, a graphic artist for the Haaretz Web site who was asked to test the software, also noted "the software works excellently - if you don't need professional printing."

Shiner received Gimp enthusiastically and related that after becoming acquainted with the software, he started using other open-code programs such as the vectoral graphics program Inkscape (http://www.inkscape.org). He says Gimp's filters match all of the Photoshop program standards.

He also commended the external supplements that expand the tool options (a nice package is available at: http://snipurl.com/1uybc).

Those used to Photoshop will at first have a hard time getting used to Gimp's new interface.

The program opens the toolbox and each of the pictures in separate windows, something that makes for difficult maneauvering. However, there is a version called Gimpshop (www.gimpshop.com) that opens everything in the same window.

However, Shiner says it has proven unstable.

Feldman notes that the interface was difficult for him to use initially, but the program allows you to change all the shortcuts, so he was able to adapt the tools to the shortcuts he used in Photoshop.

In the end, you just have to learn a slightly different language to use Gimp easily. Feldman recommends "learning to work with keyboard shortcuts. It makes the software interface more efficient."

He also suggests increasing the resolution on the screen and avoiding expanding the windows to the maximum size.