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.