GIMP is 20 Years Old, What’s Next?

GIMP is 20 Years Old, What’s Next?

This week GIMP celebrates its 20th anniversary. There has been a lot of excitement, but there are also some concerns about the project. Some reasonable, difficult questions have to be addressed. The main one is how the project's going to deal with challenges it's been facing for a while. Let's take a look at some of them.

Obligatory disclaimer: I'm affiliated with the project, so you should always treat whatever I write on GIMP with reasonable suspicion.

If you've been following GIMP's progress over recent years, you couldn't help yourself noticing the decreasing activity in terms of both commits (a rather lousy metric) and amount of participants (a more sensible one).

"GIMP is dying", say some. "GIMP developers are slacking", say others. "You've got to go for crowdfunding" is yet another popular notion. And no matter what, there's always a few whitebearded folks who would blame the team for not going with changes from the FilmGIMP branch.

So what's actually going on and what's the outlook for the project?

Project Activity and Features

Here's something you might like to consider before you arrive at any conclusions: the major roadblock is the GEGL port.

That's right: the very thing that is designed to right all wrongs and bring high bit depth precision, non-destructive editing, access to more color spaces etc. is the reason why the vast majority of the work is done by Michael Natterer these days.

Here's what an interested contributor figures out after a bit of investigation:

  • Most cool new features need to based on GEGL, anything based on the old core is verboten.
  • A few features can only be released along with GIMP 2.10 at best. Noone knows when it's out.
  • Nothing new is likely to be added to GIMP 3.0, because it will focus on just GTK+3 port to bring back Wacom support to Windows/Mac users. It also doesn't have a release date.
  • Realistically, most exciting features would be part of GIMP 3.2 or later releases. There's no timeline for those either.

What your average contributor takes from this picture is that he/she shouldn't bother working on something exciting for GIMP, because it's likely to be years before it reaches actual users.

Needless to say, there is not much love in contributing to the GEGL port: it's technically challenging, as it requires getting a grasp of three codebases at once: GIMP, GEGL (the new engine), and babl (a little color format conversion library).

The exception here is porting existing GIMP filters to GEGL operations. It's a documented process, there are examples to learn from, there's a status page to follow the progress. So there have been over a dozen of contributors to this subproject, including coding superstar Thomas Manni. Thanks to their effort a lot of filters available in upcoming GIMP 2.9.2 are actually GEGL operations with on-canvas preview.

What's the solution?

The good news is that GEGL port is actually nearing completion. Once v2.9.2 is out, the team is likely to start wrapping things up and polishing what's already there. Features that aren't complete are cunningly hidden on the Playground page in the Preferences dialog.

The next major milestone is likely to be improving performance (write first, optimize later) which isn't at its best at the moment.

Realistically we could be looking at yet another year of development. How bad is that?

In my experience, development version has been rather stable for daily use for quite a while, but some operations take a lot of time to render. Which basically means that some users are going to be happy with unstable versions as long as releases keep coming, and some — less so.

To Windows/Mac users specifically it means more time with subpar Wacom support.

So for most of us who lack coding skills the solution is to sit tight and encourage developers to complete skinning the mammoth called GEGL.

Crowdfunding

Getting community's money to pay for full-time development of GIMP sounds like a sensible solution to increase project's activity, as witnessed by e.g. Krita users.

There's, however, one thing that crowdfunding cannot fix: human resources.

If you don't have a person to organize everything, you cannot have a successful crowdfunding campaign. It's very nearly a full-time occupation: ask Boudewijn Rempt (Krita) or Konstantin Dmitriev (Synfig). GIMP doesn't currently have someone to do it.

If you don't have an actual developer to work full-time on the project, you can't have a campaign at all. So far no existing contributor has volunteered to work on the project full-time.

Interestingly, it doesn't mean there's no crowdfunding for GIMP at all. The team has been encouraging private campaigns for quite a while, and there have been two cases that could be called a mixed success:

  • In 2012, Nicolas Robidoux launched a campaign on FreedomSponsors to fund his own work on new and better interpolation methods for downscaling and upscaling. Both proposed downscaling samplers have been implemented and available in GEGL for a couple of years, as well as exposed in upcoming GIMP 2.9.2. I've been exclusively using them for downscaling screenshots ever since the code made its way to GIMP in December 2012.
  • In 2013, Jehan Pagès launched a campaign to fund his work on symmetry painting mode. The feature is now complete and waiting to be merged into the main development branch.

Both campaigns were promoted by the GIMP team which explicitly encourages more developers to do this kind of fundraising.

The Usability Quest

The news post on the anniversary graciously says:

Since its public release the project has been evolving in many ways as a testbed for new ideas, which was considerably assisted by adding plug-in architecture.

It's really a fancy way of saying "we added a bunch of features, because why the hell not". Obviously, it couldn't automagically lead to beautiful interfaces. Or, as some users would point out, this lead to one mess of a user interface. Granted, this has been publicly admitted by the team numerous times.

In 2006, through OpenUsability program GIMP got hooked up to Peter Sikking, usability architect currently residing in Germany. A painfully meticulous person, Peter led the team through the whole process:

  1. Defining product vision
  2. Identifying key areas to focus on
  3. Interviewing professional users and analyzing their input
  4. Writing specs and designing interaction.
  5. Writing actual code.

Most proposals coming from Peter have proven to work just fine for everybody, with two exceptions, both of which caused quite a stir:

  • Removing menu from the toolbox and creating a blank image window.
  • The great Save/Export divide that still causes short-living outbreaks of rage every now and then.

Despite overall fruitful collaboration, around 2012 the relationship between Peter and the GIMP team started cooling off, and in early 2015 Peter officially resigned.

Earlier this year, Jehan Pagès decided to reboot the GUI project. He took over gui.gimp.org and launched a new mailing list where existing usability issues could be tackled in a structured manner.

This hasn't lead to any actual changes in code so far, but the structured approach roughly follows that of Peter's team. The main issue here is that Jehan is currently busy with ZeMarmot animation movie which leaves him little time to work on user experience issues in GIMP.

There is no simple solution here either. Usability experts don't appear out of thin air to work on free software for free (Peter was actually paying real world salary to his team out of his pocket to work on GIMP). Given that, it remains to be seen how much the team has learnt from Peter, and how much of that is applicable in further work.

I'm Really Bored Now, What's Your TL;DR?

Like many free software projects, GIMP is facing some challenges that cannot be easily worked around.

Both decreasing activity, lack of centralized crowdfunding efforts, and little work on usability are mostly the result of lacking human resources. The latter can be eventually helped by releasing GIMP 2.10 that is completely GEGL-based (the port is nearly done) and GIMP 3.0 (GTK+3 based), which should encourage developers to contribute new features.

While all this sounds somewhat discouraging, upcoming GIMP 2.9.2 is bringing a lot of much anticipated features that will keep you busy while wrapping up the 2.9.x series proceeds.

Finally, to answer the question, what non-coding contributors could do for the project, allow me to quote the new FAQ section on gimp.org:

  • Post awesome art online and tell people you made it with GIMP.
  • Help new GIMP users in an online forum you visit.
  • Write a great tutorial on getting something done with GIMP and post it online or submit to GIMP Magazine.
  • Do a GIMP workshop in your local community.
  • Improve translation of GIMP and/or its user manual into your native language.

Simply put, the only way to make it right is to get busy.

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25 Comments

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  1. Thanks for this overview of the current state of Gimp. I can’t say that things are better than I imagined… 

    How many “main” contributors are currently working on the project?

    I wish the best for this project.

  2. maybe the process of creating the fundraiser could be externalized. (:

  3. Alexandre Prokoudine 23 November 2015 at 3:22 pm

    @1ko, you can get a more or less reasonable picture from https://www.openhub.net/p/gimp/contributors?sort=latest_commit&time_span=12+months I’m n.ot sure if it reads what’s going on in branches, and it doesn’t separate programmers from translators, but there it is :)

  4. Creating a fundraiser is the least effort (you probably get this thrown for free by one of the many sites that offer to collect money). But what do you do then?

    If you go for a bounty-driven approach for individual features, there has to be someone who decides “ok, this is a good approach” and “nah, this is not viable” - this is especially true for those sites there each and every bug (including meta bugs) get turned into bounties.

    If you go for a “collect money to hire a developer”, then you want someone who has experience with the organizational and legal aspects of recruitment and project management - and this is the part no one has stepped up for yet.

  5. GIMP deserved better than that. I hope for this Kickstarter thing to start before GIMP (slowly) dies. Would donate for that.

    Is there any developer from GNOME Project who could handle this?

  6. I think https://www.patreon.com/ is a better funding tool in this case, where people are donating towards a $/month pay for a developer, and the developer is donating the fruits of their labor.

    Like others said, it seems the issue is that there is no developer who could step up to be the project lead even if it was a paid position.  I’m not sure that that is true, but that’s what I gather from the article.

  7. Gtk3? Oh, GIMP is dead, then.

  8. Great article to read. Its absolutly a difficult thing to do a kickstarter kickoff without any fulltime programmer around I watch blender how they proceed in funding maybe a collective project can help to focus on a target and take gimp with this development. Force it together. A very large usergroup is behind both projects but not all interest in one of them. Still a lot are think on that. Overall this big gimp step to 2.10 brings us to profeesional happyness, the step is small really and a lot of pros will get to GIMP.

    HAPPY Gimper Digidio

  9. Lawrence D’Oliveiro 24 November 2015 at 3:17 am

    You are always going to have trouble with UI designers. The trick is to decide what part of what they say to take seriously, and what to ignore. Look at all the successful software on all the platforms (particularly Apple’s ones), and you will see that they pay only partial attention to UI guidelines.

  10. Regarding the GUI thing,

    I do think that Gimp is at a point where Blender was before its 2.5 (i believe) releases.

    For me the use of Blender and Gimp go hand in hand, i also believe that the freedom Blender gives the user in its layout, colour schemes etc. would fit very well to Gimp.

    I like Gimp, very much. To me, Gimp is in certein aspects just more practical than Photoshop (take the colour to alpha feature) It has been the first graphic program i’ve ever used, and i want it to be with me for so much longer.

  11. Lawrence D’Oliveiro 25 November 2015 at 6:23 am

    Blender, Gimp, Inkscape ... they’re all part of Team Open Source. People who point to proprietary application X and ask why open-source application Y isn’t that powerful are missing the fact that, with open source, you get the power from using a whole bunch of applications, not just one.

    Try that with proprietary apps, and the mounting licence costs will bring tears to your eyes.

  12. a> Change the name from GIMP - ImagePaint, OpenPaint, GNUImp, LibrePaint - anything that saves someone having to ask ‘Are you a gimp user’ lol

    b> Find someone who knows how to use a computer based art package ( Photoshop? ) to design a cool logo for the new name.

  13. Alexandre Prokoudine 26 November 2015 at 4:09 pm

    @gimp_lover, are you gnuimp_lover then? :)

  14. I respect the people who develop open source software and I love Gimp, I recommend it in every circle for photo treatment, but .... but after 9 years I have to say, the spartan ui is a awful reception card. Everything look so painful to do, but I still love the Gimp, he is the best and the quick solution for photo treatment for me and the plugins, ohhhhh man, the plugins is my favorite thing. Good luck and GIMP FOREVER!!!!

    PS: sorry for any example of poor english :D

  15. I imagine it’s dead last on the list of priorities, but there’s an element of serious truth to gimp_lover’s comment. The name itself is a bit of a stumbling block when introducing the product to prospective converts (given the rather hilarious connotations the word has). There would obviously be massive disruption and time spent on rebranding a project with 20 years of heritage, but all the same it’s something worth considering at some stage, IMO.

  16. The name is never going to change.

    I’d be surprised if they were even willing to accept code that made it easier to change the name. (Firefox makes it easy to change the name, and you probably know groups like Debian are required to change the name and branding of their build.)

    I’d love to see a branch/fork like GimpShop only with a less terrible name.

  17. #1) The name NEEDS to change. This is what most adults think of first (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSnTw1mAVzg) while everyone else thinks “GIMP” sounds like “WIMP” or “PIMP.” Change the name. Probably the easiest, cheapest, simplest change to make to refresh a stagnate project among contributors’/givers’ eyes.

    Heck, LibreImage is generic and 100% fine.

    #2) Non destructive editing NEEDS to be done NEXT, not 2-3+ years from now. I don’t care if you say it needs to wait on other stuff. Screw the other stuff. Non-destructive editing needs to be #1 priority, over everything else.

    #3) Next thing after non destructive editing needs to be typography controls on par with Photoshop’s. Needs to be ON PAR. EXACTLY. Even if you don’t wanna support OpenType fonts, the actual controls and way text works in LibreImage should be 100% the same as in Photoshop.

    #4) Like typography controls, change the way selection tools work so that magic wand, lasso, polygon, etc. selection tools work EXACTLY the same as they do in Photoshop.

    ======================

    Do those things first, and you’ll convert Photoshop users over instantly. Even if the program is slower/more sluggish than you like, it doesn’t matter. People will put up w/ non-optimized stuff if it means they can get work done. At this point in time, Photoshop professionals cannot get work done in GIMP. But with LibreImage, they can. And once those things listed above are in place, you can spend all the time in the world optimizing and converting and doing whatever you want code-wise on the back end.

  18. Lawrence D’Oliveiro 11 December 2015 at 1:36 am

    Wow, what a lot of silly hand-wringing over the name. When a well-known company in this business is named after a soil-based building material, for gosh sakes!

    Get a grip.

  19. Scott OpenSource 12 December 2015 at 12:34 am

    Lawrence, Adobe is the name of the company.

    Photoshop is the name of the product.

    O_o

    If GIMP wants to be the name of the organization that creates LibreImage or whatever, that’s fine.

    But YES, the product name itself NEEDS TO CHANGE.

  20. The Gimp project is dead, at least to anyone with any ability in art, design or photography. Its development is so slow it’s completely stagnant. It is so slow it’s like it’s going in reverse.

    After all these years it’s incredible that someone hasn’t been able to take over the project, especially as it’s such an important piece of software for everyone – anyone that needs a free alternative to the commercial offerings to edit photos and images.

    This is also so incredibly important for the whole of the Linux community, where there is no alternative, either Open Source, or commercial that touches on anything like Photoshop, or even a basic image editor. But typically Linux’s failings is usually down to the white elephant in the room, simply put, no leadership – No captain at the ship means the ship sails everywhere except in any real purposed direction.

    It’s inconceivable, (and I’ve had this debate so many times online about the name, even with a developer of Gimp), who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to use a sexual innuendo to name a product, whether free or not? Immature, childish and something that’s probably hindered any serious development over these years by anyone worth their salt.

    I’ve also heard that excuse that changing the name would be difficult as everyone is aware of the name and the branding – this is exactly why it needs changing! I’m sure people would still remember the name after the change if looking for a tutorial that dates back to 2006.

    It’s so incredibly unprofessional. But wait, it’s not all in the name, the amateurish Wilber character that looks like it was drawn by a 5 year old (great advertisement for image editing software), he wields a paintbrush?? When the programs abbreviation states “Image manipulation”. It’s not a painting app is it? It’s certainly not its strength by far.

    It really annoys me that something with so much potential, so many possibilities and needed by so many is ruined by the community that would rather give themselves a paper cut under the finger nails than admin Gimp is going nowhere and has been like this for 10 years – additionally that somehow GEGL is going to save it, when it arrives, like maybe in 1 year, 2, or 5, who knows, nobody does. Then we’ll have to wait for the new UI, then the plugins and the next feature that should have been there a long, long time ago…

  21. ...continued

    You can’t even compare it to Photoshop CS2, which had 16bit editing, none destructive adjustment layers, great selections and a decent modern consistent interface designed by, oh I don’t know, anyone who knew just the slightest thing about UI design – forget professional UI designers, even a complete noob would see how cramped, busy, white and out of date Gimp’s UI is, not to mention how it doesn’t follow any consistency in any art/design/photo software out there, never did.

    Photoshop CS2 which is now considered redundant came out in April 2005, that’s 11 years ago! Yet we’re supposed to celebrate 20 years of Gimp, come on, really?

    Like many others I’ve created themes, it takes like a few hours to put together (apart from the icons) and change the layout to something better compared to how it is out of the box – why hasn’t this even been added over all this time? You’re knocking, but nobody is in to answer!

    Even if you can help and wish to get involved like many of us, it always feels like a closed club, it’s a door that just isn’t available – you’re not welcome unless your part of the click, whoever they are. Oh and don’t criticize it to anyone who does develop for gimp or uses it, because that’s just not allowed. You might as well be poking people directly in the eye with a pencil and then attempting to sharpen said pencil by twisting it around.

    If there is such a short supply of developers, then why isn’t this knowledge out there for us all to see? Why isn’t everyone in Open Source land up to date on where things are? Even if you’re not a developer, an artist, or even a user, why aren’t you included in helping? You’d think that Gimp was a commercial project, run by men in suits with too many cuff-links between them.

    Surely if the Open Source community is as good as everyone thinks, all banding together for a greater cause, why isn’t Gimp (‘Scuse the name), the best, finest piece of art/design/photography software in the world?

    Knock knock, someone, whoever you are, please give us all a chance to help before it is totally gone.

  22. Alexandre Prokoudine 11 March 2016 at 7:06 pm

    @Jay,

    “If theere is such a short supply of developers, then why isn’t this knowledge out there for us all to see?”

    Every project report I write specificaly mentions that the team needs more contributors. I personally update the Roadmap (linked from every gimp.org page) and other related wiki pages. Could it be my fault that you choose to ignore it all? I don’t know. You tell me.

  23. Really? CS2?? The one that won’t even install properly on anything newer than Windows XP? A piece of software so bad Adobe doesn’t even want to talk about it any more? And you are seriously trying to compare that to a modern, powerful Free software team like Gimp, Inkscape and Blender?

    Please, don’t make us laugh. Microsoft is already managing that perfectly well with Windows 10.

  24. Maybe you should get your facts straight, CS2 does work and install fine on Windows 7, 8 and 10. Support was cancelled by Apple because of two reasons, one it doesn’t work on modern Intel based Macs, it was designed for Power Macs, and second Adobe retired their license server for CS2, meaning they have no idea who owns what so they gave away an open licence to help users install without needing to register.

    A typical fanboy reaction. I use open source myself, including Blender and have for 10 years. I have no problem with software that has direction, where devs listen to their users.

    Users have been asking for a decade to have the simplest things changed in Gimp, the name, the logo and the UI. All of which could have been done over a weekend. But it’s never been up for discussion, they don’t want our input, otherwise they would have listened by now.

    Blender is lead by people who listen, the same with Krita. Totally continents appart.

  25. Alexandre Prokoudine 14 March 2016 at 11:15 am

    Sorry, I accidentally removed some of the comments while removing actual spam.

    @Jay,

    An important thing to understand here is that people who contact the team directly get things done. Whereas people who don’t do that and expect the team to magically discover their work barely ever get their contribution to the upstream.

    Case in point: the guys who patched GIMP to allow for icon themes, as well as the guys who made new (symbolic) icons and new (dark/darker) themes contacted the team directly. Their work is already in Git master and will be available in 2.9.4/2.10. It was also advertised in the news and on many social channels. You never contacted the team directly, so the results of your work aren’t in the upstream.

    The gimp-gui mailing list for UI/UX discussion is open for everyone to join and provide sensible feedback. So is every other GIMP’s mailing list (the code of conduct applies to all of them, and I urge you to read it). It’s a public information available to anyone who considers him/herself an interested GIMP user and hence visits the website.

    Whether you prefer getting involved in heated discussions on 3rd party websites rather than contacting the team directly is entirely up to you. How much that says about “team not listening to users” is anyone’s guess.

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