James Governor's Monkchips

Adobe: Open Sourcing The Future. HeadFirst into Flex

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My theme for thinking about Adobe’s decision to open source the Flex SDK is open sourcing the future. I tried to explain my thoughts to Erica Morphy at Linux insider last evening, but I am not sure I explained myself very well.

The point I wanted to make was that Adobe is outsourcing crown jewels, not from a position of weakness but from one of relative strength. Adobe is putting a huge amount of its resources behind Flex, and developers are already responding, but that’s where its open sourcing. I don’t want to get too carried away with the theme- I will do that when Adobe starts open sourcing Creative Suite! – but I think the Flex SDK OSS decision says something interesting about the status of the industry in 2007. Why do we open source? To save money? No- to attract developers. So many developers in the RedMonk community had avoided Adobe before because they didn’t perceive it in OSS terms and say they now need to rethink their position. Yet nothing much has changed since the day before yesterday other than the licensing model.

Why do companies open source their technology? A host of reasons. But its still quite rare for a commercial company to open source next year’s big thing. Usually its last years.

Solaris was in danger of becoming irrelevant until Sun made the decision to open source the operating system.

Oracle open-sourced Toplink because other, newer technologies, were making the running in O/R mapping.

IBM VisualAge was hardly taking the market by storm before IBM took the Eclipse decision.

CA spun off Ingres as a separate open source company as it slid towards irrelevance

Now please understand me. I am NOT saying open source is where old technology goes to die. Thus Sun also open sourced Dtrace and ZFS, which are very much next year’s news. But I am saying vendors have a natural hesitation about open sourcing the future. Take IBM, for example. Is it going to open source its Eclipse-based Lotus tooling. Not in a hurry. That said, I also need to caveat the fact Adobe has only open sourced the SDK so far. But. its. not. finished. yet.

Jim Benson thinks the move will deepen relationships with developers. Worth tracking the blog given his firm plans to develop simultaneously using both Flex and Microsoft Silverlight, and document experiences.

Our very own Cote has some thoughts and a video about Adobe’s move, interviewing Jeff Whatcott. As Cote points out:

I was actually surprised and enthused to see how quickly they explored the topic, decided, and then delivered.

Especially surprising given:

“Fear is always the major driver here: when open sourcing, you’re always fearful of loosing control such that your enemies can use your open sourcing against you (here, obviously, Microsoft, old habits die hard and enterprise scares are forever). I’m not sure there’s much valid in that fretting (like I said, I’m a BSD-man). But, come on, if you’re open sourcing a previously closed source piece of software, your existing world-view will cause you to worry about vendor-sports and your existing revenue moels, making escaping The Fear of Open-sourcing tough.”

In the end Adobe’s self-confidence allowed it to overcome the fear which might have held it back. Why does an organisation need self-confidence? According to Sig:

Without it the corporation cannot trust me, the customer / supplier / employee, and thus I cannot trust the corporation.

Without it the corporation would be hard pressed to risk innovation and deliver a long term value even if they have the technical/creative ability.

To put the story in broader context John Dowdell has a great link roundup here.

Jay Fortner of Read/Write Web agrees that Adobe seems to be going full bore to open: “Adobe is certainly going “all in” with its software. Often times, big corporations will aim to emulate the openness and idealism of the new Internet economy, but fall short in the execution.”

John Newton, CEO of Alfresco may not know just how influential he was in getting Adobe to take this step [10k per CPU for open source software. let’s do that!], but its got to be nice for Adobe to already have its first open source partner around OpenFlex right off the mark. I can see Alfresco becoming the first non-Adobe committer. John says this:

“Things that couldn’t really be done is a web application can now be done – or at least now in open source. This will have a profound impact on business intelligence, charting, real-time monitoring, rich graphical navigation, dynamic content, any sort of drill down, mashed up video and a host of other capabilities that we have really only seen in fat clients. Now that Flex is open source, it releases the creativity of an exponentially larger set of developers to explore and innovate.”

Some people don’t seem willing to place any bets on what the firm will or won’t do next but Adobe’s Mark Anders makes it abundantly clear that external committers is only a matter of time.

Adobe plans to sponsor and host the Flex SDK project infrastructure. This includes the open bug database, source repository and project planning forums. The initial committers will be the Adobe Flex engineering team. Members of the current Flex SDK development, QA, and product teams will become full-time contributors to this open source project. Adobe expects to add external committers to the project as we roll out the infrastructure and governance process for the Flex SDK project.

I am really happy about this. At Adobe, we have been working hard to improve how we work with developers. In many ways, our initial release of Flex 2 was the first major step in this direction, by creating a framework and tools that really appeal to developers. Open sourcing Flex is the next big step and I think will accomplish a number of important things. First, it should help us reach a new set of developers. More importantly, it will give the community a bigger voice in how we move Flex forward and allow them to directly contribute to its evolution.

And so to wrap up with a disclosure. RedMonk is proud to announce that Adobe is now a customer. Evidently its not a secret that we helped the company with the open source strategy, so you have to parse that in reading our analysis. But RedMonk would have said good things about Adobe’s decision whether or not we helped. We’re consistent like that. Frankly they had me onside with the Tamarin move.

Oracle and CA are not currently clients, but its just matter of time. IBM and Sun are patrons. Adobe and Eclipse are sponsors. Our client list is here.


  1. James:

    What you said “The point I wanted to make was that Adobe is outsourcing crown jewels” needs clarification. I don’t think they are open sourcing “crown jewels”. If you really look into what is going to be open sourced, the part of Flex that is announced to be open sourced does not have revenue attached anyway (It is already free of charge). The parts of Flex that’s not going to be open sourced are those parts that have revenue attached to.

    I think the “crown jewels” are these “revenue generating” parts, not the parts that are not generating revenue.

    This is definitely a smart move from Adobe – annoucing open sourcing some stuff that does not generate revenue makes even smart people think it is the “crown jewels” getting open sourced.

  2. great point Ian. I guess it depends whether you think Adobe is going to immediately hit the brakes. Watching open source as long as I have I know that community effects can take on a life, and momentum of their own. Has Adobe got total free software religion? No it certainly hasn’t. Nor should it. But has Adobe come a long way in a short time? I believe it has. I would encourage Adobe to go further. But as someone that has seen Adobe go for de jure PDF standardisation, open source Tamarin, its VM through Mozilla, and now do this, all in space of a few months, I have to call it like i see it. Adobe is opening up. I did point out that CS3 is the real crown jewels. Enterprise is still only 8% of Adobe revenues, so its crown jewels of a smaller base, its true. Perhaps i should not has used that word. Perhaps “strategic asset” would have been more appropriate.

  3. […] Governor made it even more clear in his post talking about his customer’s vision: [..] I think the Flex SDK OSS decision says something […]

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