The Wrong End of the Paint Stick
By webmink on Aug 29, 2007
One of my better managers at Sun was John Loiacono - I worked for him around the start of the decade. Later, when I was working for then-CTO of software John Fowler, Loiacono was a figurehead for the release of OpenSolaris under the CDDL. By then he'd become way too busy to talk at any length to the likes of me, although he was as charming as ever on the odd occasions we met. And so, I never really got to discuss Free software with him before he left for Adobe.
Reading his recent blog posting, Innovate or Integrate, I start to wish I had. Despite claiming open source credentials, John explains why he thinks it has no place in Adobe's creative products business. From what the blog says - "Yes, clearly it's cheaper, but does it really save money in the end?" - it's clear this part of Adobe thinks of Free/Open Source software purely as a commodity and a way of cutting corners. That it's ultimately only about saving money. They seem to confuse Free with free, liberty with payment. In the process Adobe is missing a huge opportunity.
The thing is, the user-integrated/supplier-integrated distinction in the blog is a false dichotomy. The blog compares their products with existing Free graphics software - presumably things like The Gimp, Inkscape, Nvu and so on. It concludes their lack of integration makes them fatally inferior and thus the Free software from all open source communities is flawed. But that's missing the whole point.
As Stallman points out, software freedom is not about avoiding payment, it is about preserving and exercising liberty. I don't accept that pursuing profit and respecting software freedom are unrelated, much less that they run counter to each other. Profit and liberty are not orthogonal. I also profoundly believe that competing against software freedom provides (at best) a short-term advantage. For a company like Adobe, to compete against software freedom is to ignore the inexorable progress of disruptive technologies and the Innovator's Dilemma.
Those Free programs aren't integrated and offer lower function than Adobe's product today, but through Adobe's neglect that will change. They'll find each other, start to define interfaces and integrations with each other, begin to penetrate the "good-enough" band on the chart. Worse, being outside their domain, Adobe will refuse to use the integration they define. This happened while Sun was neglecting Free Java implementations, for example. The Java Libre communities agreed interfaces to make VMs and JITs pluggable and today can plug and play VMs with relative ease - apart from HotSpot.
So what could Adobe do? Well, by opening up their source code, licensing it under the GPL, they would team with the open source communities gathered around the various Free software commons. It's not impossible - they do it elsewhere in their business (albeit with a different motive and competitor). Instead of competing against Free graphics software, their programs would become the leading Free graphics suite. It would have the tight integration the blog speaks of, but it would also deliver the freedoms that the software world is coming to expect, stimulating a new developer community emboldened by the guarantees of freedom. And perhaps most importantly, their software would likely become available on platforms Adobe is currently unwilling to touch. They would take a leadership position that their main competitor would be unable to assail.
OK, there are plenty of difficult unanswered questions about business models, community governance and so on (which I'd love to explore, by the way, they are not insurmountable). But the point is, the dichotomy Adobe paints is of its own making. It is not inherent in either Free software or in the open source communities which create it. And by trying to protect their short-term revenue, Adobe avoid affinity with some high-energy developers while pushing their customer base to increasingly attractive Free - and free - alternatives.