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To Be or Not To Be Open Source

Posted by Sravan | January 8, 2009 .

Today I read a three-week-old article on The Register about the challenges Adobe has been facing by keeping its software open for the past two years. I’m still thinking about it.

The gist of the article is:

1. Most/All Flex committers are Adobe employees.
2. Sharing ideas without exposing the commercial ones is a tight-rope walk.
3. Everyone being a critic makes even picking a license a nightmare.
4. Major cost of going open source is employee hours spent in working through all submitted fixes.
5. Tons of fixes and few ideas are coming from the community.
6. Adobe should have spent more time researching how other open-source projects work.

There aren’t many committers outside because becoming a committer is a long process. But if being open source may have contributed to the community’s vibrance, why are very few ideas being submitted compared to all the patches? How many people using Flex have you heard of who contribute their code to the Flex SDK?

In a cynic’s perspective, the Adobe employee working on (not with) the Flex SDK is getting paid while the outsider doing the same is not. This works against all corporations that support the open source movement including Sun, the biggest of the kind.

I respect open source as a software development philosophy but don’t entirely understand it. Can’t they keep the source open but be closed (more or less) to code submissions from outsiders? For a non-profit organization, wouldn’t keeping the source closed as well be more profitable? Let us not forget that Adobe, all said and done, would like to earn more money than less money in the long run.

Does it matter to you as a Flex developer whether the Flex SDK is open source or not? Adobe Flash is not, right?

Read the article on The Register here.

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11 Comments so far
  1. Txema  January 8, 2009 10:09 am

    I agree with your post almost completely. It is not that important (to me at least) wether Flex SDK is open source or not. The most important thing is how good the platform is, and how much can improve our work, but, let´s face it, open-source sounds cool, even if you have no intentions to look the code. Open source gives some kind of security feeling to customers and it is very common around here (Spain/Europe) seeing companies that have adopted open source as their unique strategy for IT projects. I think that releasing Flex SDK as open source is a smart move if it causes more companies to adopt the platform.

  2. Emanuele Cipolloni  January 8, 2009 11:04 am

    Never really understood this move from Adobe. Opened Flex SDK, but then kept closed its solely addressable runtime (Flash Player). Probably more a move to appear “open” rather than effectively being it. Another “open” project is (was?) the Tamarin VM, which basically received no attention from community for the very same reasons.

  3. Sravan  January 8, 2009 11:29 am

    I agree, Txema. I always “install” Java source packages along with the SDK but rarely check them out, much less think about contributing. I only see them, if at all, to see some function implementation in a library file. But don’t you think it is a high cost to pay, to check out multiple patches to the same bugs and check-in something from them?
    Didn’t know that open source strategies are common in Spain/Europe. The Flex Magazine looks very interesting. I’m now an RSS subscriber. :)

    The Register article also mentions Tamarin VM and a couple of similar projects, Emanuele. Interesting ones that didn’t click.

  4. Ariel Sommeria  January 9, 2009 1:23 am

    It matters to me that when the documentation is inadequate or there is a bug in flex, I have access to the code. However, I do not feel like contributing to the Flex SDK, because:
    – The code is too complicated. Small is beautiful, remember
    – a lot of the code is not made with extensability in mind. If you take a look inside, you find the source pepeered with mx_internal and the like, private variables instead of protected, etc. Not exactly encouraging, right?

  5. Sravan  January 9, 2009 3:04 am

    I understand exactly what you mean, Ariel. That is what I had in mind by “keeping the source open and still be closed” to code submissions from outside.

  6. Jensa  January 9, 2009 4:00 am

    To me – Open Source has become an important part of any sales pitch. I find it easier to sell clients a complex solution based on Open Source rather than Close Source. The reason? If a closed source company goes out of business, you’re screwed. If an Open Source project “dies” you still have all the code and every chance to extend it yourself.

    So – while few actually contribute – anything being open is important in itself. Then again, there are things happening in Gumbo that the community is involved in. I’ve understood that FXG was partially inspired by Degrafa? Another thing is that to be a valuable contributor, you’ll need to know a lot about the Flex Framework in itself. Learning that isn’t very easy. All you have is the source code itself (the docs suck badly) and learning what triggers what things is time consuming…

    J

  7. mihai corlan  January 9, 2009 9:54 am

    I think there is at least one big benefit for having the Flex SDK open source from a Flex developer point of view: you can see the source code of any class from the SDK (thus you can learn, change, find bug more easily).

    Secondly, you can see what are the changes for the upcoming version before the release.

    Disclaimer: I work for Adobe.

  8. Sravan  January 9, 2009 11:20 am

    Makes sense, Jens. People get away with bad documentation all the time by sharing code.

    Mihai, welcome. Can you tell us what the general feeling among the Adobe employees you know about this issue? Just your feeling. Thanks.

  9. mihai corlan  January 9, 2009 2:13 pm

    @Emanuele Cipolloni

    Tamarin project still exists, and actually is useful :) Remember Tamarin Tracing Nanojit and TraceMonkey?
    As an Adobe employee I would be probably happier than you to see the Flash Player open source. Unfortunately, there is not an easy thing to do because parts of it are licensed from third parties.
    On the other hand the SWF format is open, and anyone can create it’s own player.

    @Sravan
    Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here :)

    From my point of view, everybody at Adobe is happy with our Open Source movement. And as you can see if you look back to 2006, we’ve came a long way (Tamarin Project, Flex SDK, open up SWF format, open up AMF specification, BlazeDS).
    Before being an evangelist, I was a Flex Builder engineer. And I can tell you that if the Flex Builder was an open source project, my life would have been easier and happier. Being able to share the product in the early stages with our users, get validation and harness the ideas from the community it would have been invaluable…So in this light, I am kinda envy and I am happy at the same time for Flex SDK team.

  10. Charles  January 9, 2009 3:07 pm

    This type of discussion is getting more and more relevant, especially more chimerical elements are going different direction in the open source space. Oracle bought opensource DB, Sun bought MySQL and opensourced other software they bought (Seebeyond), Microsoft “bought” into JQuery, the list went on longer over time. In other hand, opensource is becoming a strategy to compete for some software vendors such as Adobe. Realistic how many people are having time to contribute or are capable of contributing any way?

  11. Josh McDonald  January 27, 2009 11:58 pm

    I’m not an SDK committer, but I’ve contributed a bunch of fixes, some of which made it into 3.1 and 3.2. One was simply because I labelled it “10 minutes work” on FlexCoders and Alex H called me on it, but the rest were things that I needed fixed. I definitely think it takes far too long for patches to get accepted, but having it open-source at least means you *can* fix it and submit a patch, no matter how low priority the issue may be with Adobe, and also that you can monkey-patch your changes into your apps while you wait for it to be official. There’s still a couple of bugs I want to get around to fixing within Flex’s SOAP stack, but I’m not butting up against them daily so I haven’t yet.

    Frankly there needs to be more open-source for these sort of things. There’s several features that a lot of developers would love to have, that for whatever reason just aren’t a priority for Adobe, such as run-time proxies. That could probably be whipped up in a month if we had access to the Player source, but without it we’ve simply got to vote and hope in Jira.

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