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Saturday, December 25th, 2010, 3:40 pm

GNU Octave a Compatible Drop-in Replacement for MATLAB

Over the past couple of months I have been assessing the combination of Octave with some other free/libre software such as Scilab and QtOctave. I did this as part of my existing job in research, as my blog posts ought to have revealed on occasions. I’ve been using MATLAB for the best part of a decade and was at one time ranked #1 in the world for my contributions to MATLAB Central. That, however, changed several years ago when I came to grips with the fact that my free/libre code for MATLAB only helped promote the underlying stack which included MATLAB, a nasty piece of highly expensive proprietary software with BSA bullies behind it. MathWorks is exploiting free labour of many people to sell its non-free software. I can vividly recall Slashdot comments stressing this point, which profoundly changed my attitude towards MATLAB. So I turned to Octave, as I did half a decade ago, but this time it was a lot more mature. People recommended to me programs other than Octave, too. I checked these under different distributions of GNU/Linux and even Windows, which many people out there continue to use, especially on their desktop. I helped some people dump MATLAB. I saw how easy it was.

MATLAB is used extensively in research and in the industry, sometimes even in hospitals (when I was 22 I was asked to help a professor with that). In many cases, it boasts more features than anyone would ever need*. Does a university student really ever use more than the basic functions? Are companies really willing to spend thousands of dollars per year just ‘renting’ a licence for one or two copies of MATLAB, which keeps nagging them for it assumes they are so-called ‘pirates’ (and the BSA comes knocking to ensure there are up-to-date licensing instances)? The answer is usually “no”, but users of MATLAB may not know that software already exists to offer them an alternative, just as Firefox helps replace Internet Explorer and also outperform it in many technical ways. Since MATLAB and Octave are mostly compatible, moving from one to the other is not hard and this reduces risk of being too dependent on one single company, especially if one switches over to Octave and then uses the no-cost redistribution rights to just expand operations to as many machines as are available. Octave runs exceptionally well on GNU/Linux, so no licence of Windows is required, either. In the coming days I’ll continue to post examples of what can be achieved with the more advanced functionality of Octave, including 3-D and video. It’s impressive and it by far exceeds my expectations given what I found in it around 5 years ago.
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* There is a famous saying that goes like, “80% of the users of Microsoft Office only ever use 20% of its features.”

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