October 14, 2005

Xara leaps into open source community

Author: Stephen Feller

After nearly 25 years as a proprietary software company, Xara is throwing itself headfirst into the open source community with two announcements that could have a significant impact on the vector graphics software landscape.

Xara announced in late September that it was sponsoring the development of an open source Uber-Converter -- a universal vector graphics translator that is designed to overcome longstanding issues in converting vector graphics files from format to format.

Xara went a step further this week, and announced that along with the release of its new Xara Extreme for Microsoft Windows, the company is developing versions for Linux and Mac OS X and will, at some point in the future, release the source to the product under the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Charles Moir, chief executive officer of Xara, said he had been looking at ways to continue growing the company and its market share, especially in light of Adobe's recent purchase of Macromedia, which combined two of the world's largest graphics companies. After that acquisition, Moir said Xara becomes the third most popular graphics company behind Corel, a position that makes him less than comfortable.

"For the last six months we've been looking at ways in which we can address the potential competitive issues that are coming along," Moir said. "This is an enormous gamble for us, we've never done anything like this. But we think that the whole industry is going through a sort of consolidation -- quite an interesting time at the moment."

Moir said the gamble is actually an opportunity, because of what he called the "incredible evolution" of Linux in the last few years. Moir said that Linux "is becoming, I think, a real potential threat to Microsoft. So, just from a business sense, it makes sense for us to be looking at it."

The first part of that gamble was reaching out to Inkscape, one of the most popular open source vector graphics projects, which also has a large, dedicated community.

Moir emailed Inkscape founder Bryce Harrington, and shared his ideas for "profound changes to Xara," and said he was looking to work more closely with the project. Quickly, they got around to talking about file format issues.

"Charles was interested in what could be done to help the community," Harrington said. "Xara Extreme has an openly published file format, which is great, but did not have support for .svg [Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG)]. Since .svg is the core format for Inkscape, and since it's becoming the standard for two-dimensional vector graphics in the open source realm, this seemed like a really important feature for Xara to gain."

Harrington met Scratch Computing Founder Eric Wilhelm this summer through a student working with Inkscape as part of the Google Summer of Code program. Wilhelm has spent a number of years working with Computer-Aided Design (CAD) files and grappling with file format conversion issues, drawing him to discuss the student's work on a conversion program for DXF Format, the dominant CAD file format.

After looking at the Xar format, which Corel used in the Xara Studio software it licensed from Xara, Harrington said Wilhelm felt it was within the scope of an "uber-converter" he had been working on for about a year for CAD software file formats. Harrington put Wilhelm in touch with Moir in hopes of solving the Inkscape-to-Xara conversion problems.

"It's been one of our perennial problems converting files from other vector applications that are out there," Moir said. "This guy seemed to have quite a good idea that made a lot of sense, so we just got to talking and we decided to put some money his way." Xara committed $10,000 to Wilhelm's universal vector graphics translator.

Wilhelm said the idea for the translator came out of a discussion on the CAD-Linux mailing list where one member had created a prototype to use a text-based format to break entities down into individual files.

The Uber-Converter, Wilhelm said, is built on the concept of hubs. The hub connects formats that are similar to each other, and translates them into a new format that is able to express all the particular formats in that hub. While there will be plenty of benefits for programmers, it is end-users that he said would benefit the most.

"For end users, I think what you're going to see in graphical software, such as Inkscape, it's going to look like any other import/export," Wilhelm said. "If you only use the graphical interface of the software that has included in it a wrapper for the Uber-Converter, you're just going to see something on the File menu."

The translator's connectors are all open source, and Wilhelm said he sees proprietary software employing his development the same way Inkscape and Xara could for conversions. He added, though, that he'd hope to see proprietary software contribute back to the project rather than just plugging it in and walking away.

Wilhelm said he is hopeful that within the next couple of months a stable, useable translator for Xar to SVG, as well as some DXF, will be available at the Scratch Computing Website.

As the Uber-Converter is being worked on, Xara is working, with the help and guidance of Harrington, to create a Linux version of Xara Extreme and to ready the open source offering of the software, as well as get the Mac OS X edition moving.

Moir said Xara is working in stages, based on advice he's received about just doing "one big code dump" on the community. He said he'd rather get the software itself out and then slowly let the rest out, with the help of Harrington and the Inkscape community.

"We can't do this alone," Moir said. "And so we are looking to community people." While he noted that it could take as long as nine months for the Linux community to see Xara Extreme for Linux, Moir said the addition of a "really slick vector graphics application" would be worth the wait.

Harrington, who admits that Inkscape has been brought in because it is a model example of a successful open source application and community, said he understands the worries of the community and doesn't think the announcements will mean much until people actually see the code.

"I have seen many examples of this working out for the better," Harrington said. "Xara seems to have their head screwed on straight. The fact that they've open sourced their own code base speaks volumes."

Not sure exactly what his role will be in the partnership, Harrington has a vision of the best possible scenario: Xara and Inkscape somehow combine forces, so that developers are not splitting time or choosing one over the other, and create a fast-moving, top-tier product.

Windows has an office suite and Web browser included in the package that is easy for users to find, and yet OpenOffice.org and Firefox have "demonstrated to Windows users that open source is feasible and a good option," Harrington said. The difference, he said, is that most people don't already have graphics applications installed on their computer.

"Inkscape's success has demonstrated that a graphics application can exist successfully as an open source application," Harrington said. "I think that our success has probably enabled the decision to open source Xara."

In the long run, Harrington said he is "hopeful that this whole endeavor will result in success and show a model for application development for companies to work with the open source community."

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