The Blender Foundation just posted news of two e-books issued by the government of Thailand, one covering the 3d content creation suite Blender and one covering the GNU Image Manipulation Program, aka GIMP. I have a special affection for both of these programs, for several reasons.
Nowadays open source seems so inevitable, so commonplace, that we are not surprised to find it running everything from the New York Stock Exchange to the White House website. Of course there was a time when the idea of sharing source code seemed radical, but there was a time, too, when ideas like electricity were literally demonized. Now open source is everywhere, and more importantly, the idea that open source can do anything is even more prevalent. The GIMP was one of the first programs to really break free software (and later open source) out of the conventional mindset that open source was just for geeks, and that no open source program would ever have end-user appeal or functionality.
By the time that Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis began hacking on GIMP, the company I founded (Cygnus Support) was headed toward double-digit millions in revenues and silicon valley venture capitalists were about to make their first (and one of their most profitable) investments in open source. Due to the success of Cygnus (which included appearing on the Inc 500 list (several times), the Software 500 list, and Fortune’s 25 Coolest Companies), those who had first denied that it would ever be possible to build a successful business based on free software had to revise their theory, which they did by saying “well, other than Cygnus, it’s impossible. You have been successful because of your niche, but there will never be free software that a non-technical end-user, like an artist, could ever use.” When I learned of the email from Peter Mattis, I contacted him, and he and Spencer Kimball made the trip to visit me in Mountain View.
My memory of that meeting was that Peter and Spencer wanted to know “could they ever do something like what I had done at Cygnus?” Yes, I told them: but they should protect themselves and use a good license, like the GNU General Public License. Remember that Peter and Spencer were students at UC Berkeley, home of the then-famous BSD license. I argued that the GPL would provide them, and their software, with stronger protections than BSD, should their programming project ever take flight. My name has been lost in the GIMP history files, but I believe that that conversation inspired them to make GIMP part of the GNU project rather than the Berkeley Standard Distribution, and the rest, as they say, is in fact history: GIMP has become a truly important end-user application, even becoming the basis for 2d animation workflow in Hollywood.
GIMP proved that open source is not limited to uber-geeks and embedded systems. But the skeptics continued, revising their theory to say that “well, GIMP is just 2D, and that’s really not very hard. You’ll never see a complete open source 3D suite offering fully professional capabilities.” And hence my special affection for Blender, which has done precisely this. GIMP and Blender (and let’s not forget Inkscape) have really proved the generality of open source as a way of empowering users and developers to work together, to break down barriers and to lift up hope. I am thrilled that the Thai government has seen the same virtues I saw in these two programs, and has seen fit to promote them to their own creative communities. I look forward to seeing the fruits of those newly planted seeds.