Surprise! Your Favorite Application Is Now Open Source
How would you react if Adobe or Quark decided to make an application that you relied on for your graphics or publishing work open source? To start, the entire code base would be released under the GPL (GNU General Public License), which would not only place the code in public hands, but make ongoing development completely transparent. While there's little chance Adobe or Quark will ever go this route, that's exactly what Xara Corp., a small British developer, has decided to do with its Xara illustration application.
Xara can trace its personal computer software origins back to the early 80s, with the initial release of its Wordwise wordprocessor, followed by the Impression desktop publishing software and graphics products in the '90s for the Acorn RISC computer. Xara Studio, a Windows-based vector illustration application, was marketed by Corel Corp. as CorelXARA in the late 90s, with the rights later reverting to Xara Corp., which went on to release the more advanced Xara X and the recent Xara Xtreme.
Xara has always been a Windows application, to the extent that significant parts of it were written in assembly language (!) to ensure it was as fast and compact as possible. Being a vector guy myself, I have always been impressed with the program, since beyond being fast and tiny (always a good combo), it introduced many of the capabilities we now take for granted in current illustration applications, such as anti-aliasing and bitmap transparencies. In 1998 it was the first product I sold via electronic download on the i/us graphics community site that I co-owned and operated at the time, and the enthusiasm of its small but loyal user base gave it a cult status that seems to have continued to this day. Or at least until last Sunday.
I was attending the first Libre Graphics meeting in Lyon, France, when Xara CEO Charles Moir made it official during his presentation—that after preparing the source code over the last few months, the first release of Xara LX (the open source version of Xara Xtreme) was now posted for public download. While small software firms abandon commercial projects from time to time and make them open source to give them a chance to survive and grow (Blender is a notable example), making a graphics product with a long track record of success available under GPL is, I believe, a first. It's an audacious move, that as Moir indicated during his presentation involved "putting the company on the line."
It's risky, because Xara developers are now focused on the open source code (goodbye assembler), with the hope that the project will catch the imagination of the development community. The involvement of dozens (ideally hundreds) of developers will be essential to ensure that the application continues to evolve. Moir sees this as one of the main benefits of the initiative—to leapfrog the limitations inherent in being a small firm and increase the capabilities of Xara faster than the majors (Adobe, Microsoft and, to a lesser extent, Corel, which doesn't seem to know quite what to do with the once-mighty CorelDRAW.) To get new developers up to speed, Xara has made all its internal development email of the past six months available online, as it will be doing with all ongoing dev email. That takes nerve.
In discussion with Moir after the presentation, I was told that beyond the ability to add functionality and squash bugs quickly, another major opportunity is to finally be able to deliver a Mac version of Xara. Corel tried this with CorelDRAW and soon gave it up, but Xara just might catch the imagination of the Mac graphics crowd, thanks to the firm's independent, quirky history, the app's speed and functionality, and the cool open source nature of the project. The single code base will also be used to generate future Windows versions.
Which brings us back to the question I posed at the beginning and raises the biggest risk of all—how will current Xara users feel about their application going open source? Will they see this, as Xara hopes, as a positive move that will speed the arrival of new, feature-laden versions? Will having the app be available cross-platform be a real benefit to them? Moir emphasized that the open source route could ensure the very survival of the .XAR file format itself, no matter what the eventual fate of Xara Corp. Will this give current users a warm, fuzzy feeling? Current discussion on TalkGraphics.com, Xara's graphics forums, seems to indicate that opinion is divided.
Xara has a lot of work ahead of it, to build a large, effective open source development project that meshes with its own team. It also has to convince its current user base to stick around for the ride and eventually move to new versions generated from the open source code. And to opt for the Pro versions that Xara is counting on to monetize all this time and effort.
Can Xara zig when its competitors are zagging? It will be fascinating to watch the answer to that question unfold in the coming months, as the firm tries to shift its flagship application from cult favorite to the mainstream via open source.