It looks like I shocked quite a few people with my recent prediction of doom for IDEA, so I thought I’d take some time to elaborate.

Here is what I said:

cbeust: JetBrains deserves the utmost respect for what they have created and pioneered, but IDEA going opensource means that it will now slowly die

cbeust: About IDEA: commercial software that goes open source never ends well, even for products that don’t suck

First of all, I’d like to make it crystal clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for the guys at JetBrains, who possess three very rare qualities:

  • They are innovators. It’s not exactly easy to come up with new ideas, whatever your field is, but these guys have come up with a lot of concepts that are now part of every developer’s daily life.
  • They know how to write a great application. Who would have imagined that it would be possible to create not only such a snappy Swing application but also one that just seems to read your thoughts?
  • They managed to sell their product while competing against a free product that is of equally high quality (Eclipse) and funded by a very rich company (IBM).

About that last point: there is a saying that claims that if you are trying to sell software that competes against free products, you should change business. I don’t buy that, and it’s not just because I used to work for a company that was doing exactly that (BEA). A lot of companies are doing fine selling products that compete with free software, and they all have one thing in common: their product doesn’t suck. JetBrains can certainly be counted as one of them.

Having said all this, I still see the move from commercial to open source as a sign that the business is struggling. A lot of companies have gone down that path in the past and all of them have tried to make it pass as a selfless action meant to help the community, but the truth is that they were just having a harder time selling their software, so making it open source is usually a last ditch effort to regain mindshare while trying to make money somewhere else.

I can’t think of a single example where a struggling commercial software suddenly started regaining market share when they went open source. Can you?

I have no insight on how well JetBrains is doing, so it’s quite possible that they are one of these rare exceptions. Maybe they were making tons of money with IDEA licenses and they really decided to suddenly give the product away out of kindness for the Java community. Even with these parameters, it still doesn’t really sound like a good idea to me, but well.

Whatever side of the fence you stand on, one thing is clear about this move: it means less revenue for JetBrains for the foreseeable future. And what this means is that they will have less means to compete against Eclipse and less power to add features to either of the editions (the Community one or the Ultimate one).

And this is where a lot of companies make a fatal mistake: they think that making their software open source will automatically generate a ground swell of patches and additions from the community that will float them back to the top.

And in my experience, this never happens.

Oh patches will be sent and I’m sure a few isolated developers will come up with very cool additions to IDEA, but without a committee of JetBrains employees at the receiving end to sort through these patches and act as a strong steward (“reject this one”, “accept this one as is”, “accept this one but it needs more work”, “accept this one but we need to integrate it with XXX”, etc…), these patches will just start piling up and they won’t be processed.

The challenge here is not just technical, it’s about product management, and open source communities are just not good at that. Hackers scratch their itch and when they’re done, they move on to the next itch with very little interest in how buggy their code is or how well it integrates with the rest of the platform. They leave that up to others.

So I’m pretty pessimistic about IDEA’s future. I think the community edition will soon start stagnating and in one year, it will have made little progress. The Ultimate edition might fare well for a little while, as long as fans help support it by paying the $249, but I’m skeptical that this revenue will be enough to keep such an ambitious product alive.

And of course, Eclipse’s apparently unstoppable momentum isn’t helping. These guys just don’t seem to rest and the amount of features and directions that they keep expanding on is just mindboggling.

I wish the best to IDEA. I really do. I think Eclipse wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is right now if IDEA wasn’t around and IDEA’s disappearance from the landscape would mean that Eclipse risks stagnation as well. Competition is good for users. I really hope that I’m wrong with my predictions.

Let’s meet again here in one year.