December 22, 2006

Xara LX may be hibernating, but it's not dead

Author: Nathan Willis

Graphics software vendor Xara says its open source vector illustration project Xara LX is far from dead, even though work on it has slowed to a crawl in recent months.

In March 2006, the company launched a new commercial Windows-only midrange application called Xara Xtreme, along with an open source project, which it named Xara LX. The open source project focused on porting Xara's software to the Linux and Mac OS X platforms. The company provided source code packages and build instructions, and the result was a vector-drawing application on par with open source competitor Inkscape.

By the middle of October, however, work on Xara LX had slowed to a trickle. Updates to the download packages were rare, commits to the Subversion repository all but ceased, and traffic on the developer mailing list stopped entirely, except for the occasional query about whether the list was still alive. That turn of events left some wondering if Xara had given up on LX or was some sort of financial pinch.

Actually, according to Xara's Neil Howe, the company reassigned its LX programmers to help finalize the release of its high-end commercial product, Xara Xtreme Pro. For commercial reasons, he said, the company had to refocus on getting Xtreme Pro out the door -- and dividing its resources would have left the Xtreme Pro team spread too thin.

Howe says that the ramp-up to Xtreme Pro's next release will last into January, but that afterwards, work will resume on LX. The company's eventual goal is to have both LX and Xtreme Pro share a single code base, which should alleviate the need to pull programmers from one project and place them on the other.

The incident does shed light on one of Xara's disappointments with the open source LX project: how few outside developers are participating. "We've been disappointed that we've not had more external developers helping keep the project moving forward, both while we were active on the project and over the last few months when we haven't been," Howe says. "But we understand that people will be less willing to get involved while we're not active on the project ourselves."

Examining open source participation

The lack of involvement is not indicative of lack of interest, Howe thinks, but only a fraction of the people who express interest in joining the project end up making a contribution. From the feedback received, Howe sees a number of obstacles as responsible.

First and foremost, most people just do not have as much free time as they think they will before they get involved. "Perhaps the fact that Xara LX is a very large and established piece of software may be part of the problem, rather than a small project developers can grow with. Perhaps developers feel a little intimidated by it."

In addition, Howe notes, the overall number of software developers who are regular users of vector illustration software is no doubt small, so the pool of possible contributors is small to begin with.

Finally, there is the issue of the source code availability itself. Though almost all of Xara LX has been released under the GPL, one key library remains closed. Outside contributors say the cdraw library -- which is currently available in binary form only -- is the linchpin. Without it the remaining Xara LX code does not function, and open source developers are reluctant to commit their time.

"We know we won't get maximum support from the community until we release the remainder of the source code under GPL," Howe acknowledges. But Xara will release cdraw under GPL in due time, according to Howe. He points out that the license file that accompanies cdraw in the official Xara LX packages is titled the "temporary license for cdraw."

The company has no road map or timetable for this action. Likewise, it does not know with certainty when it will be able to refocus its developers full-time on Xara LX. But given its commitment to merging LX and Xtreme Pro into one GPL-licensed code base, it is a question of when, not if.

With that change and the relicensing of the final bits of Xara LX, Howe is confident that the project will pick up steam again. "I know many people are very keen to see Xara LX improve, and we look forward to their support."

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