Stagestack faces dead-end, source code release considered

Stagestack faces dead-end, source code release considered

Stagestack, a work-in-progress vector graphics editor is facing the dead-end after failing to become a financially self-supporting project. Developers are thinking about releasing the source code now.

In August last year we posted a coverage of the story behind Free FreeHand organization, their failed attempt to liberate source code of FreeHand, and the beginnings of work on Stagestack.

Here's a quick recap.

The background

After salivating over Altsys assets for a decade, Adobe acquired FreeHand source code along with the rest of Macromedia in 2005 and discontinued FreeHand in 2006, channeling customers to Adobe Illustrator.

A group of passionate Macromedia/Adobe FreeHand users tried to talk Adobe into revitalizing the project. They eventually filed a civil antitrust lawsuite and demanded releasing the source code.

After months of court procedures Free FreeHand and Adobe resolved the litigation, and the case was dismissed. The best FFH got out of it, is a discount for unspecified Adobe products. So they refocused on Stagestack, a new vector graphics editor by Quasado, a Nürnberg-based software company.

How Quasado tried to fund the development

The company appealed to FreeHand users who wanted a state-of-the-art vector graphics editor built with familiar UI paradigm in mind and support for legacy FH files:

We think that Macromedia's Freehand has been a great tool for print-, web- and much other design work. However, since Adobe bought Macromedia, no one takes care on Freehand any longer means it is not compatible with newer systems and not running well on most modern operating systems. Furthermore, Freehand requires some face lifting to keep up with the other players.

For us, it always has been our passion to build something easy to handle yet so powerful like Freehand. This is the reason why we've created Stagestack. We do not want to create yet-another-vector-editor but instead, try to mimic Freehand's efficient behavior though improve where necessary.

In order to get funded they started their own pledge, quite similar to ones at Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. They got 191 (the actual pledge stats imply 608, however) out of over 6.500 Free FreeHand members to financially back the development, but it only brought 12.500€ to the table.

While talking to potential investors, Quasado launched an additional fundraising campaign at IndieGoGo in September 2012 to get 6.500€, but only managed to get 1.126€ from 5 people. That doesn't seem too surprising as the company barely promoted the campaign.

In May 2012 the project looked very active: they team posted updates to the blog, uploaded screencasts. In June 2012 the abruptly stopped posting, then returned in July to post an update on a Mac port and notify about renaming of the project, but that's it.

By November they pretty much stopped talking about Stagestack, and they hadn't posted any video updates since July 2012.

By the time they published an open letter, which is January 9, 2013, they spent 6.5 man/years and 238.000€ on this project. The funds they managed to raise didn't make a dent in their total investment.

As Thomas Hürlimann wrote in the relevant Free FreeHand forum thread, the situation is much like their own:

Quasado is experiencing the same problem now like we did when we tried to sue Adobe. We had over 6000 members. They all had so much interest in FreeHand as to become part of our movement, and we heard so many voices complaining about FreeHands fate, so many people who set their hopes into our project, so many people writing how much they would be ready to pay Adobe for getting FH back – but very few, not even 0,5 % of them, was ready to support us with some money.

Which brings us to the next question.

How much work is actually done?

The open letter claims that “41% of the total work for a first release are done”. In a Twitter conversation the team confirmed that the milestones status table in the bottom of the homepage has up-to-date information. “We're pretty stuck on the GUI stuff at this point” — they added.

Milestones status

Judging by the status page, Stagestack is capable of drawing curves and few geometric primitives, selecting and moving objects across multiple pages, while using smart guides at that. It also supports both RGB and CMYK color spaces, ICC profiles, full- and halftones.

However, the vector graphics editor doesn't do much styling of objects, doesn't support cutting and pasting, has no layers and no text support, as well as a dozen of other important features. In fact it doesn't even save or load ist own files. Why?

As Bob Sander-Cederlof, a former engineer from the FreeHand development team, noted in the comments to the open letter, 6.5 man/years that Quasado spent on Stagestack isn't that much after all:

I was one of the software engineers on the FreeHand team first at Altsys, then Macromedia. For a total of almost 14 years.

We spent at least 9 man years per version on programmers, and at least another 9 man years of QA and designer people. We did 11 major versions. And, we had the support of a larger organization for publicity, packaging, customer support, et cetera.

I am NOT surprised that you cannot reproduce FreeHand in only 6.5 man years. I think at the most you might be at version 0.5 by now.

Bob also suggested that Quasado might start an open source project. Interestingly enough, this is exactly what the Quasado team is now considering.

Open source as the last resort

History, as they say, goes in circles. All the more reasons to study it and avoid mistakes done by others in the past.

In late 2000s Xara Xtreme for Linux failed due to lack of participants from free software community on the one side, and on the other — due to unwillingness of the Xara team to release the source code of the app's core. All in all, it was a mutual failure.

It seems that Quasado either learnt from that story, or had the right gut feeling. Alexander Adam states in his open letter:

At the end, we can see only one possibility and that is making the project OpenSource to give people back what we have so far. Of course, for us that'd mean to loose all money we've been investing the past two years but that's the way it is. As we cannot fund the project this way, we'd need to find some volunteers first before opensourcing it.

I am not going to trick you into thinking that Stagestack as an open source project would succeed or fail for sure. In fact, I don't have a simple answer for you at all.

As much as is possible to guess from Twitter/Facebook and blog posts by Quasado, it appears that Stagestack has a nice core and features threaded rendering. The application could become a neat fast vector graphics editor (after few more years of development).

However things like CMYK support in the core don't mean a lot unless you have dedicated programmers who know much about PDF and its internals. If there is an army of such professionals in the free software community, archaeologists should keep digging deeper.

And with 180.000 lines of code for newbies to grok, best we can expect in the short/mid term is a (better) user interface on top of existing features implemented in the core.

Of course, there's always a chance that all those people claiming that Inkscape would have a larger following, was it not for GTK+ user interface and SVG as the file format, are actually all experienced Qt programmers with strong desktop publishing background, waiting for their chance. It's also possible that cows habitually jump over the moon.

Making Stagestack a successful open source project would prove to be a serious challenge in terms of both technical implementation, project management and PR. It would also demand a jolly good supply of faith and patience from the team and the community.

For now Quasado is looking for your input on the possible future of the project.

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28 Comments

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  1. Quoting myself from the internal documentation of my still-in-the-works Free/Libre-only fundraising platform:

    “If a project asks for community patronage, it is fair for the community to expect unrestricted access.”

  2. Of course, there’s always a chance that all those people claiming that Inkscape would have a larger following, was it not for GTK+ user interface and SVG as the file format, are actually all experienced Qt programmers with strong desktop publishing background, waiting for their chance. It’s also possible that cows habitually jump over the moon.

    Oh, how I laughed out loud at this one! Thanks for making me smile today Alexandre :)

    Ah, how I wish that more people would get involved in Inkscape, revitalize its development and cleanup its user interface!

  3. “Ah, how I wish that more people would get involved in Inkscape, revitalize its development and cleanup its user interface!”

    I agree. However, I’m happy to confess that after consciously putting effort into learning my ways around Inkscape’s UI for 2 work days, I’ve now been a very satisfied daily as a UI designer in Inkscape for the last 1.5 years.

    Sure, Inkscape has its shortcomings in the UI with, for example, export of png-slices for web graphics, it’s much faster than Fireworks on big files. I also had to set up proper shortcuts that doesn’t interfere with OS-specific shortcuts (I’m looking at you, F1). Nowadays, whenever I occasionally have to pop up Fireworks for a quick fix, it just dawns on me how glad I am for not having to use only that application all the time. It’s also got a good Win 7 integration with a proper file dialog that works almost exactly like the default.

    Inkscape has truly been a refreshment for me in my UI work. I’m now considering contributing financially or otherwise to the project to help further streamline the workflow for screen-based designers.

  4. Inkscape is great, but it’s functonality will always be restricted by svg specification. And I’d like to see vector app which combines the functionality of Illustrator and Fireworks that allows to create UI or responsive web design with pleasure without looking for workarounds. That’s why I’m waiting for Stagestack.
    OpenSource projects are great but looking at the speed of development of Inkscape or GIMP I prefer to pay for app I’d use for work if it guarantees rapid development.
    I’d just like to see real competiton for Adobe products for Linux. And looking at problems with libreDWG in OpenSource community e.g., I don’t see bright future for Stagestack at the moment.
    Last thing - competiton creates better apps, so if you want only one app for vector graphic then you restrict freedom of choice for people that don’t like inkscape or they don’t see it as competiton for Illustrator and like to use vector graphic app for work on linux. And by doing that you do the same work Adobe is doing.

  5. Alexandre Prokoudine 11 January 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Jimmy, alternative shortcuts for tools (without F-key) have been available since dawn of times :) Check http://inkscape.org/doc/keys.html

  6. @Aaron Wolf

    I don’t agree with that statement. You may be a patron at a bar, but you don’t get unrestricted access to the beer pumps ;-)

    In the case of kickstarter-like community-funded projects, you’re just exchanging one thing (money) for the possibility of a reward for supporting an idea/project that may never come to fruition

    Unless it’s spelled out in plain/legal terms, expect nothing other than what is offered.

  7. @Antonio,

    I mean “patron” here in the most traditional sense. I do not mean customer. You are not a patron of the bar in the way I mean when you just go and buy drinks there. You are a patron if you pay for the creation of the bar without expecting a financial return on your investment. Think “patron” like the way artists had patrons from nobility in olden times.

    My point is quite simple: regardless of whether people can be convinced to do otherwise, the community OUGHT, in my opinion, to only be patrons (i.e. donate openly) to projects that are Free/Libre. It is, in my opinion, not honorable to ask the community for open-ended donations and then restrict them with proprietary licenses.

    In other words, I think the Kickstarter system is problematic, and I’m working on what I feel is a more ethical alternative. And I believe that even if they don’t intellectually realize it, lots of people have misgivings about Kickstarter anyway. The main excitement from the community for Kickstarter comes from the idea of working together and making wonderful things happen. This is only enhanced further if the projects we support are Free/Linre.

  8. I think what is better in this app should intergrate into Inkscape. I don’t want 100 average app, I want a good one.

  9. Alexandre Prokoudine 12 January 2013 at 8:42 pm

    @Kreaninw

    Most likely that wouldn’t be technically feasible.

  10. its gonna be tough for this app to compete with inkscape.

    I am getting the impression that this has fundamentally different design approach internaly and externally. So the developers will likely never integarte any features int o inkscape.

    Personally I would put some money into it if the developers open sourced it.
    Being open is like a guarantee that the project is unlikely to die the way adobe killed it.

    Why dont they just do what the blender foundation did. Raise money to open source it and then use the money to pay the core team to write good documentation on the code that makes it more inviting to other devs.

  11. they could also form a business model around it’s open source nature - selling learning videos, assets(brushes,patterns,etc), selling plug ins or subscription for support (like lightworks)

    Right now I think, people are not going to donate to it and it will gradually become less known as an initiative, because the business model is VERY much proprietary. You are essentially buying a license and it’s not even guaranteed that you will ever get your money’s worth.

  12. @Todor Imreorov You don’t seem to be remembering correctly about Blender. While it was being developed NaN (Not a Number), as a proprietary product in a closed-source environment, it had gained a loyal following because of how well it worked. People were actually using it to pay the bills. When NaN was acquired, the Blender Foundation was then set up to liberate the code from its new owners so that it could become open sourced.

    Stackstage isn’t currently usable software. There wouldn’t be any desire to support a foundation for it. Like so many other well-intentioned efforts it will probably rot on the vine. Their best chance of salvaging the their work, and knowledge of vector drawing, is to find a successful project like Inkscape or the Gimp and contribute what they can there.

  13. I think spending 6.5 man years for applications targeted towards consumers before releasing anything at all is crazy, and a recipe for failure. Working this way you:
    1. Don’t know if people are actually willing to pay for your software.
    2. Don’t know which of the features you’re planning/making matters to your users and which ones are just a waste of time, effort and money.

  14. @Jon I agree with point 1. but 2. was pretty much clear: FH direct replacement.

    Now I’ll sing my tune:
    Please implement swatches in inkscape, please

  15. Alexandre Prokoudine 08 June 2013 at 12:18 pm

    @n3storm, you surely mean better swatches, right? :)

  16. @n3storm: Even when emulating existing software, you should have priorities. Probably there were large pieces of functionality in FH which people would have been willing to live without in a first Stagestack version, and maybe some that they could live without forever.

    The 80/20 rule is often applicable to software functionality.

  17. @Prokoudine You are right :) but adding “much”, so it’s “much better swatches”. At this moment you can see a fixed palette of plain colors you can’t edit while working. And you have hidden in the Fill and Border Window, the gradients and patterns you made. It’s a mess and very impractical.


    @Jon Nordby: Just as there are programming pattern there are also usability patterns. Having an editable palette of swatches that reflects all kind of fills and patterns used in the drawing is not only emulating X software. Is a pattern for “Provide user with a space to see all swatches available and created by him/herself and let the user apply them to selected object” which is a must for a design software.

    Even some stock color picker widgets show latest colors choosen by the user. This one is from geany, a Code editor:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/30401670@N02/3328605368/

    As a start, I think more cataloguing utilities should be added to Inkscape much similarly to the object tree:
    - fonts used
    - colors used
    - patterns used
    - effects used

    Anyway, kudos to Inkscape development team and to those pro users (publishers and artists) that take it’s name everywhere, from a Sodipodi ages user ;)

  18. @n3storm: I never argued against having swatches.

    I just argued against waiting several man-years before releasing the software, instead arguing that one should determine what the most critical functionality is; develop and release that, then do the next set of functionality.
    This lets users can decide when its good enough for them, instead of the company trying to make that decision for them.
    I would not make the increments larger than one man year.

  19. More concretely, the first milestone should always be working software, ready for users (unless it is a research project). Other milestone definitions are useless and worse, decieving.

  20. My point is quite simple: regardless of whether people can be convinced to do otherwise, the community OUGHT, in my opinion, to only be patrons (i.e. donate openly) to projects that are Free/Libre. It is, in my opinion, not honorable to ask the community for open-ended donations and then restrict them with proprietary licenses.

  21. Since this article, Stagestack has now become GRAVIT—a web-based app that uses the technology from the Stagestack development. For us FreeHand users, the end of litigation with Adobe has moved the community to keeping the application working into the future while looking into alternatives that offer the same ease and intuitive nature that FreeHand is known for. It could be open projects like LibreOffice and Inkscape variations to bring in those qualities. As part of the old FreeFreeHand team, I know the hurdles we faced and still amazed how far we got despite huge obstacles.

  22. Even when emulating existing software, you should have priorities. Probably there were large pieces of functionality in FH which people would have been willing to live without in a first Stagestack version, and maybe some that they could live without forever.

  23. Thanks good information.

  24. Thanks for the info! Looking forward to forward to better vector image editing capabilities.

  25. I think all the issues happening regarding the FreeHand source code is due to communication problems. Its difficult to solve in this kind of situation. But at the end, users must get the best result.

  26. This was posted almost two years ago. Is there any update on Stagestack?

  27. “Kevin Sweet: This was posted almost two years ago. Is there any update on Stagestack?”


    Yes, Stagestack has been renamed to Gravit and has been opensourced. See LGW article:

    Quasado Opensources Gravit, Web-Based Design Tool
    http://libregraphicsworld.org/blog/entry/quasado-opensources-gravit-web-based-design-tool

    —————————————
    twitter.com/FreeFreeHand

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