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23 October 2009, 12:09

Why Adobe likes open source

by Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe

He’s the man who brought open source to Silicon Graphics and NEC and advisor to Warburg Pincus on how to make money investing in open source. "At one point I got the title of open source's undercover agent," recalls Dave McAllister. He was recruited by Adobe as Director of open source and standards with a specific mission: "I was hired to, a) start an open source process and, b) get PDF approved as an ISO standard." So: mission accomplished?

Zoom The face of open source at Adobe: Dave McAllister
Hidden in plain sight

Adobe may not spring to mind when you think of open source and McAllister jokes that "We have what I call a hidden aggressive open source strategy; no-one knows about us!" More seriously, he emphasises that to Adobe, Source is only one of the four kinds of Open – the others being Standards, Specifications and Community. "Adobe is an open company," he maintains. "We deal with the community. We run the gamut of multiple places where we deal in open. But open for us is not about code. On the productivity side they're heavily into standards, if you look at CS they have pieces in the standards side, but they're heavily into the specifications. It is slowly being incorporated into Adobe's DNA. Am I done yet? No – there’s still efforts to go."

So what’s the point of open source for a company that makes its money selling software like Photoshop? "It drives different business practices. Allowing for open source to exist reduces the chances of failure; it's easier to try new things based on open source. I think we see new innovation happening, not because the source is open, but because the risk is less." The obvious questions recur internally. "The thing I still get asked is ‘how do you expect us to make money if we give everything away for free?’ and that's where I talk about business processes and business models."

And in hard-nosed business terms, as Adobe open sources technologies, it attracts more developers to its tools. The Flex SDK (for building Flash applications in the Flex language) has always been free, but when Adobe made it open source as well developer downloads doubled in a year; the SDK is now downloaded around 15,000 times a month and Blaze DS, the open source technology that provides push data services for Flash and powers LiveCycle is downloaded around 8,000 times a month. Since Adobe open sourced ActionScript 3, SourceForce recorded over 350 active ActionScript 3 projects.

"Developers", claims McAllister, "drive product adoption. The tools we produce that power these platforms are attractive to this community. Can I do a direct correlation between open sourcing Flex and selling more tools? I cannot. But can I say we have doubled downloads over that time? Yes I can. I do believe that having more developers means we sell more tools."

Of course he has a much wider view of the advantages of open source than developer numbers or even reaching more platforms than Adobe could support alone. "Innovation and adoption are key to any company’s support of open source by releasing its own technology. For Adobe, adoption of technologies, in any of the open categories - source, standards, specifications, community - drives innovation not so much to marginal platforms, but rather to emerging markets and concepts. In general, we see amazing results from such interactions, even beginning with the open specification for PDF. More recently, such technologies as PaperVision3D and FLAR (Flash Augmented Reality) are leading the next wave."

Another common question internally is ‘I decided to open source this thing; what do I do next?’ Whether or not Adobe decides to move forward has less to do with the fact that there are only five people in McAllister’s division and more to do with open sourcing making sense. "When Adobe decides to open source something we have a substantial set of questions we lead people through. First of all, ‘who cares?’ Does anybody in the world care? If not, the answer is ‘sorry, no’." McAllister agrees that he’s pragmatic. "There is no ‘free’ in open source; there is no ‘free’ in free software - for Adobe, our expenses go up."

Next: Can Flash be free?

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