In January 2021, Dylan Field, the young co-founder of Figma, a popular UX design tool, said that “our goal is to be Figma, not Adobe” in a conversation in which some users, all of them dissatisfied with Adobe, speculated how long it would take for Figma to overthrow the Photoshop maker.
Almost two years later, in September 2022, Adobe bought Figma for USD 20 billion and Dylan, on the very same Twitter, seemed excited about the news that his company had just become Adobe.
Adobe is an industry titan, owner of apps that are benchmarks, almost standards in digital creative production, such as Photoshop, Premiere, and Illustrator. “Photoshopping” did not become a verb for nothing.
In parallel to developing its own tools to serve designers around the world, Adobe keeps an eye on the competition and spares no effort to neutralize threats — case in point: Figma.
Buying out smaller rivals with great potential is a common expedient for large companies. And Adobe, a USD 139 billion company, is huge by any standards and acts like one.
The risk that monopolies pose is common knowledge. The absorption of Figma by the largest company in its field has sounded the alarm in regulatory bodies and has been a cold shower for creative professionals who depend on Figma and other independent solutions that Adobe has yet to get its hands on.
Is there a way out? Or, put another way, is it possible to guarantee software independence in perpetuity, even more so in this (long) period when not only Adobe, but the entire technology sector seems to be heading towards consolidation?
The freedom of free (as in freedom) licenses
It is hard to predict the future, but one can state without fear of error that, yes, there are softwares that don’t risk being sold: those distributed under free licenses, such as GPL and MIT.
Without going into philosophical or legal details (which are many, varied, and complex), free (as in freedom) licenses guarantee universal access and bulletproof a project from hostile acquisitions. They can also contain provisions to prevent abuse, promote healthy development and, in extreme situations, allow dissatisfied users to split from the original project (the so-called “fork”) and continue working under their own terms, benefiting from everything that has been done so far.
Free software belongs to everyone and no one at the same time.
Anyone who has ever ventured into Linux on personal computers has come across a number of applications that look a lot like the more famous, commercial ones. Things like LibreOffice, which resembles Microsoft Office, or GIMP, often called the “Photoshop of Linux” (although it’s also available for macOS and Windows and, apart from being an image editor, in no way resembles Adobe’s Photoshop).
In digital design, there are alternatives to virtually all of the commercial/proprietary applications from Adobe and other large companies, such as Autodesk, owner of 3ds Max and AutoCAD.
Vector illustration? Inkscape. Desktop publishing? Scribus. Graphic editing? Besides GIMP, there’s also Krita. Video editing? Kdenlive, Shotcut, OpenShot. Audio editing? Audacity, Ardour.
The low popularity and different workflows and tools make many people reject the free ones, even if they are free as in free beer. Are they worse? Better? Maybe there is no basis for this kind of comparison. They are different indeed, and this scares those who grew up and learned to create with pirated versions of Photoshop and Illustrator or got used to them paying less as students, in the special plans and bundles for this demographic.
Nevertheless, news such as Adobe’s purchase of Figma may serve as motivation for deep changes. I spoke with two design studios that work exclusively with free software — Gunga in Brazil, and Freehive in the United States — to find out what it is like to offer design and digital communication services, in a competitive way, without depending on Adobe or any other commercial software.
Founded in 2008 by Farid Abdelnour and Nara Oliveira in Taguatinga, in the Federal District, Brazil’s federal capital, Gunga is proud to work only with free software. “One thing was very strong when we set up [the studio]: we wanted something consistent with our worldview,” explains Farid, who was born in Lebanon and immigrated to Brazil in 2003.
Farid and Nara met a year before Gunga was founded, when they both participated in the movement of “cultural points”, regular meetups attended by people interest in culture. He brought in a strong background in free software, the result of working with researcher Etienne Delacroix at the University of São Paulo. She was already a designer and involved in popular culture.
Prior to the foundation, the duo did some one-off work for external clients. “It was a combination of factors,” explains Nara. “Our jobs were finding each other and there was this need to have a CNPJ [register as a company in Brazil]. So we went down this path and we are still here.”
Gunga works on three fronts: web development, audiovisual, and graphic design. Farid is responsible for the first two, and Nara for the graphic arts. “On paper”, as they say, there are only the two of them at Gunga, but depending on the project, a network of collaborators aligned to the studio’s values is set in motion. The largest ones involve up to 20 people.
On a daily basis, Nara uses apps such as Inkscape, GIMP, Krita, and Scribus on her computer running Manjaro. “I’m not that geeky,” she laughs, “but I’ve been gaining my independence [in using Linux]. Right, Farid? I hardly talk to you about it.”
His relationship with Kdenlive goes beyond use. Farid actively participates in development, helping to find bugs and fix them. “I realized that [in the beginning] it was a lot of pain to edit a video, and I started to be a part of it: if I saw a problem, I reported it, helped to debug it,” he says.
Gunga serves eight to ten clients a month and does about 60 projects a year. NGOs, cultural production companies, institutes, and even government agencies are on the client list. “We both have houses, I have children… We support ourselves with Gunga, we live well because of Gunga and using free software,” says Farid.
The fact that they use exclusively free software has rarely been a problem. With customers, it is usually a differential, as Nara explains: “Some don’t even know what [free software] means, and they learn about it when they work with us. Others seek us out because we work with free software.”
In the past, the duo had some headaches in projects involving third parties: proprietary file formats that don’t talk to the applications they use and a lack of standards in places that print their work.
The situation has improved because, even though such advances are not always tied to free software, the demand for independence from closed solutions is common to more people and has made a difference.
“The industry realizes it can’t be held hostage to the monopoly of one company,” Farid says. “There are formats emerging that are kind of general, that all programs can use and communicate, have interoperability. It’s getting easier and easier to work with free software.”
Freehive: From Blender to the free software-only
Ryan Gorley studied architecture as undergraduate in college, but instead of following that path, he went to work as a graphic designer for an online retail company. “I liked the opportunity to express creative ideas faster and with fewer physical constraints,” he says in an email interview.
At the retailer, he led the creative team and at one point became responsible for the entire marketing team of the company. During this period he took an MBA and learned all he could about marketing. This mix of practical and theoretical experience would become even more important after 2010, when Ryan quit his job to start his own business.
G86, the original name of his studio, started small and grew, but not by much. “I had worked with big teams and prefer smaller organizations with people who are self motivated and skilled at what they did,” he says.
Among small and local clients, in 2012 Ryan had the opportunity to work with Amazon on promoting a “secret project” called Dash. Until then, his agency used proprietary software only. In Dash project, all the animation was done in a free software, Blender.
“I had dabbled with Ubuntu when I started the business, but struggled to make the switch over to a Linux desktop because of my dependence upon Adobe software,” he says. In this scenario, Blender fit more easily into the workflow, and with the success in the Amazon Dash campaign, it started to be used in other projects in his studio.
Things were going well, but a frustration with Adobe was growing within Ryan. “When they started promoting their optional subscription plans, it was clear to me from my marketing training where things were going and that the point was not to make better software but to solidify their market dominance and to grow their profits,” he recalls.
The rest is history, and Ryan’s hunch proved accurate: subscriptions became mandatory and, given the financial success of Adobe’s turnaround, other companies, such as Autodesk, followed suit. This was the final straw that prompted Ryan to begin exploring a full migration to free software.
The idea, however, was poorly received by his team, who reacted with “complaints of a specific feature or two that is missing, and a general discomfort re-learning how to do certain tasks.” Having lost the battle, Ryan resigned himself to using his preferred applications for small tasks in the studio.
In late 2017, two of his longest and most trusted employees left — amicably and for other reasons. What at first seemed like a death sentence for his studio turned out to be an opportunity.
Ryan closed the physical office and became directly involved again with the creative process from his home in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time, he was already volunteering for the Inkscape project and was preparing to make his debut at free software events at the Southern California Linux Expo (SCaLE). There, he met with other professionals in the area who were also using free software and started hiring them as freelancers. “What bound us together wasn’t a creative space but a shared passion.”
Around this time, System76, an American computer manufacturer specializing in Linux, hired Ryan for the interactive launch campaign for the Thelios computer.
“This was the biggest single project I had ever undertaken,” he recalls, “amounting to over 500 hours of work in about 3 months. It was a true test of the new company and new way of working using only free software. It worked, and the company was renamed Freehive.”
Unlike Farid and Nara, Ryan started using free software for a very pragmatic, non-philosophical reason: the software he needed to do 3D modeling, sold by Autodesk, was too expensive. On the website next door was a free alternative called Blender.
“Blender is fantastic and every creative professional on the planet, regardless of the other software they use, should learn Blender and incorporate it into their work,” he says enthusiastically.
What came next was more of a response to the business practices of the big companies. In a prescient comment (we spoke in August, about a month before Adobe announced the purchase of Figma), Ryan explained that while he knows of smaller apps from other companies with fairer business models, “any of these competitors could be bought up by Adobe or Autodesk the moment it became too expensive to compete with them.”
“The only software that cannot be bought out is freely licensed software. It has become my mission to prove that creative professionals can use this software.”
Like Gunga, Freehive has never lost customers because it uses GIMP instead of Photoshop or Inkscape instead of Illustrator, but transient pains emerge when external collaborators are involved in projects and incompatible file formats enter the picture.
Ryan raises another issue that is a bit bothersome to him: the presentation of these apps to clients. Often, their websites don’t reflect the professional quality that the software is capable of. “We’re looking for ways to work around that because we want to convince some clients to try these alternatives instead of the proprietary software they’re using,” he says.
Free software activism, on the other hand, has yielded contracts. In addition to System76, Freehive has done work for other heavyweights in the area, such as Canonical (from Ubuntu), Gnome, Elementary, and Recon InfoSec.
The road to free software in design
Some works from Gunga.
The beauty of free software is that the choice for it transcends purely objective criteria. Is it possible to use apps of this kind and remain unaware of the licensing and development model? Yes, but a big part of the appeal is, precisely, not to stay oblivious; it is to get involved.
For Nara, “it’s a bit of looking for where you want to be,” because the choice to work with free software implies other choices and connections. She thinks that the technical part, or the difficulties and differences of the tooling, are less important:
“We are much more mind, idea, knowledge, and ability to translate concepts into visual things, and that is much more a mental knowledge, ours, that we acquire with experience, with study, than software.”
Ryan comments, when he remembers his former team’s resistance to different apps, to free software, that Adobe and other large companies offer discounted or even free plans for students. It’s an investment that pays off because it conditions expensive software on people who are in their formative years, when they are open-minded and able to absorb knowledge. When they leave college, they want to use the software they are used to.
Not that it is an impossibility to change later. Gunga has had trainees who fell in love and took free software for life. “The first step may be a little steeper when choosing free software, but afterwards it’s very fluid and the person can have more autonomy,” says Farid.
For those who already work with closed/proprietary solutions and want to migrate to the free side, Ryan recommends starting slowly. “We made the decision to go all in with free software, it is possible to do so, and we’d love for everyone to do so, but you may not have the confidence yet,” he acknowledges.
He suggests starting small. “Perhaps learn Blender and start to incorporate some 3D into your work. Consider using Inkscape for creating SVG graphics instead of Illustrator. Have some fun sketching in Krita as part of your early creative process.”
With some regret, he recalls that he paid for Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription for two years after switching to free software for fear of having to open old client projects. “That is one reason why I have no interest in going back to proprietary software and proprietary file formats,” he vents.
And just as Farid got involved in the development of Kdenlive, Ryan urges users to get involved as well — beyond money donations:
“The only request is that where you take, give back as best as you can, and not just in donations. If you stumble upon a bug, report it. If you see a specific way to make the software better, share it. Say thank you when possible. These applications are maintained by small teams of people, and your small contribution can go a long way. When that day comes, like it did for me, that you’re fed up with proprietary software, you’ll be ready to be part of a free future for yourself and those that follow.”
Discuss @ Hacker News.
Pix is an undeniable success. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Launched in October 2020, Pix is Brazil’s instant payment system based on phone apps and Internet Banking, largely adopted by the majority of Brazilians since then.
Brazil’s Central Bank, the “father of Pix”, maintains an updated page on its website showing the Pix evolution according to lots of metrics.
It is an impressive sight:
- In less than two years, almost 130 million (>50%) people and just over 11 million companies have made at least one transaction with Pix.
- This audience has created more than 500 million “Pix keys” — shortcuts to facilitate Pix transfers. A Pix key can be a phone number, an email, a national ID (and its equivalent for companies), or a random number.
- Close to BRL 1 trillion (~USD 200 billion) was moved in 2.2 billion transactions — the majority, 68%, between individuals (P2P).
Financial institutions adhered to Pix unconditionally, even though they lost the (little) revenue they had with similar, more archaic methods of electronic money transfer, such as “TED” and “DOC”. Today, almost 800 of them support Pix.
And despite the magnitude of the system, Pix has shown itself to be agile in implementing new features, such as withdrawals, changes and recurring payments, and to make adjustments due to unforeseen events, such as flexible value ceilings to inhibit nighttime robberies.
Is it perfect? No, but it is way better than anything that existed before and that showed up later, such as WhatsApp Payments. More than that, Pix is an example to the world. Bank for International Settlements (BIS), which is developing a similar system for cross-border payments, praises the Brazilian Pix.
Pix began to be developed by the Brazil Central Bank in 2014 with an open model for dialogue, consisting of a discussion forum, working groups and even an open source repository on Github.
It is true that Brazilian banks, despite all the power they have, shrink next to the biggest companies in Silicon Valley, such as Meta, Apple, and Google. Even so, they are really powerful and yet were all in. For all these reasons, Pix can be a reference to another conundrum that we face on a daily basis: the multiplicity of messaging applications.
In the first half of this year, the European Union advanced the Digital Markets Act (DMA), a new law created to curb the unbridled power of American big tech and restore competition in the sectors in which these companies operate.
Among other requirements, the DMA demands for interoperability between messaging apps made by big companies. iMessage will have to talk to WhatsApp, and both will have to talk to… whatever Google’s messaging app is at the moment.
It seems as unlikely as it was in Brazil until 2020 to transfer a few bucks, free of charge and instantaneously, between rival banks accounts on a Sunday night. Difficult? Certainly, but not impossible.
And although difficult, it is not unprecedented. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Apple and Google teamed up to create an API for tracking contagions. On Tuesday (4), the Matter standard, which creates a “common language” for Internet of Things devices and has Apple, Google, Amazon and Samsung among its members, was finalized.
For messaging, we need a “common language” that understands the basic functionality of this kind of app, such as exchanging messages, creating groups, and making calls. The rest — stickers, reactions, mini-apps, etc. — is up to each application. These would be the differentiators.
A common base for messaging apps would approximate the functioning of this market to that of music streaming, but without the commercial barrier (the agreements with the record labels that allows them to stream millions of popular songs). Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music, and Tidal compete not in catalog/content, but in features, apps, and integrations.
There are already open protocols that enable interoperability between messaging applications, such as XMPP and Matrix. What is lacking is good will, which it seems we will only get from the big companies thanks to a little push from state regulation in Europe. May this path lead to a result as good as our Pix.
Discuss @ Hacker News.
I tried to stop myself, but I couldn’t: over the past few days, I have spent way more time than would be healthy reading the comments on the post in which the US tech website The Verge announced its latest radical redesign.
With a bold new look, bright colors, and notes that link out, the goal, according to editor-in-chief Nilay Patel, is to “revolutionize the media with blog posts.”
A very noble cause and one that has my full support, but it seems that its new fancy look have not been well received by Verge’s most voracious readers.
Nilay states in the announcement that “sometimes you just have to blow things up and start over.” Perhaps this was not the case for The Verge, a reference site in consumer technology, the source which almost all sites covering this area drink from.
The Verge’s home page, the most widely read of the Vox Media conglomerate, has become quite… different. Besides their original reporting and takes, it now has little boxes with links to other sites and bits of social networks (Twitter, Reddit, TikTok) embedded. They are grouped in a thing (?) called the StoryStream.
It’s a quirky layout. Sometimes the content is on the left, sometimes on the right, the original reporting mixed with the little notes with external links; more than once, I noticed a story both in the StoryStream and published as an original post. And it’s heavy. Each Tweet or TikTok video is an entire extra page loaded inside the one you are on. The people there can’t help themselves either. A couple days ago Nilay posted an 11 MB animated GIF on The Verge’s home page.
To Axios, the editor-in-chief said that the new Verge is the result of the idea that, today, it doesn’t compete with other publications, such as Wired or the New York Times. “Our competition is Twitter and other aggregators of audience.”
Maybe the problem is that they have drawn too much inspiration from these new competitors. Let’s face it, Twitter is not a design paradigm for anyone, much less for an editorial site.
A comment that resonated a lot among readers, aside from complaints of ruined pupils and the feeling of disorientation on the home page, is that if they wanted to read Twitter posts, they would go to Twitter.
Redesigns of this kind interest me for several reasons: I love the web, I have a product that I subject to similar redesigns once in a while, and on a deeper level I like to think about information flows and the best ways to communicate in text.
The new The Verge looks like something out of the mind of Joshua Topolsky, one of the co-founders who long ago went down other paths and now heads the equally confusing Input Magazine. It is form over function, aesthetics drawing attention where it should be transparent.
It’s been in my mind that this problem has been solved for a good few years, maybe decades, especially within the premise presented by Nilay that the new Verge wants to “revolutionize the media with blog posts.”
What is a blog if not a long list of posts displayed in reverse chronological order?
The Verge’s redesign must have been driven by something else. In his post, Nilay declines to debate this, saying that such work attracts questions about conversion metrics and KPIs and “other extremely boring vocabulary words.” Instead, he goes on, the only goal here is that The Verge should be fun to read, every time you open it.
I disagree somewhat with his statement, particularly when it comes to “a giant site that makes a bunch of money” (his words). The fact that we are drowned in trackers and intrusive and abusive ads on the web, which makes it toxic if you are not behind a good ad blocker, is because of the direct influence of these “extremely boring vocabulary words.”
Were it not for this, we would have more editorial/content sites like my Manual do Usuário (Portuguese) or the “lite” version of CNN — I mean, less flashy, yes, but way more readable, organized, and really lightweight.
Topolsky, the former editor-in-chief of The Verge with a penchant for lysergic layouts, had a brief stint at the traditional Bloomberg. It’s been said that his bold ideas were met with resistance from the publication’s management, which led to an inevitable clash, and ultimately to his premature departure before completing a year in the job.
In every publication, the comment space represents a tiny slice of the audience, not infrequently with loud but distinct opinions from the majority. This perhaps hides a better reception of The Verge’s new look. Or maybe it doesn’t. From the volume and intensity of complaints, which I’ve been eagerly reading since new layout’s day one, I’d bet on at least some changes to the home page, to something softer and more traditional.
On Twitter, Nilay Patel boasted that they “made everyone talk about a open web redesign in 2022.” True, see us here, still talking about it. He also said, in the same post and as if it were a testament to quality, that The Verge’s home page had double the average traffic on the launch day. True too, but I don’t know if this is positive. Every catastrophe attracts a lot of curious eyes.
Discuss @ Hacker News.
After presenting us to the medical terrorism, once again reinforced at its “Far Out” event earlier this week with another batch of Apple Watch users saved by their watches from heart attacks and… bears (?), Apple’s marketing has expanded the types of terrorism it subjects consumers to in its eagerness to sell more phones and watches.
Let’s start with existential terrorism. Priced from USD 799, the newly announced iPhone 14 is capable of sending SOS messages to satellites, even in places where there is no carrier signal or any Wi-Fi network nearby.
Without an iPhone 14, Apple threatens, what will you do when you find yourself lost in the middle of nowhere?
Later on, Apple introduced us to car terrorism. The new Apple Watch and iPhones have a unique feature that can detect car crashes and call emergency automatically.
The company claims that many accidents happen in remote areas and involve only one car, which means that if you don’t have the latest iGadget, you are in danger of dying alone, agonizing inside your car.
There is something different on Apple’s storytelling. Their classic ideal consumer, that happy person who takes pictures of their friends at fancy parties and goes on vacations in heavenly landscapes, has given way to a myriad of personas, from the paranoid who think they will die around the next corner if they don’t have an Apple Watch on their wrist to those who aspire to be something “Pro” without going to the hassle that is generally expected of someone considered “Pro”.
Take the Apple Watch Ultra, the new version of the company’s watch focused on adventurers, an audience that until now was better served by rival Garmin. With a more robust finish, a larger battery, and features designed for extreme situations, the Ultra is, as someone jokingly commented, an Apple Watch for ten people in the world — those who participate in Iron Man, who climb the Mount Everest, who cross the Sahara on foot.
Of course, Apple doesn’t expect to sell just ten units of the Apple Watch Ultra. It has equal or more appeal to a much larger audience — those who would like to be more adventurous, who plan or even go for longer walks from time to time, who aspire to be like the characters in the top-notch commercial Apple prepared to sell a USD 799 watch that will be outdated next year.
The new super camera of the iPhone 14 Pro/Pro Max, with 48 megapixels and several “cinema” features, is another example of aspirational functionality.
No matter how good a phone camera is — and I truly believe they are the best for most people —, it is hard to imagine a professional photographer or movie studio discarding their huge and expensive cameras to use an iPhone, even a “Pro” iPhone. For those for whom camera quality makes a difference, any iPhone released in the last five years makes good enough pictures.
It is no longer enough to just flaunt an iPhone, an indictment of ~haters that has been made since forever, a claim theorized by Thorstein Veblen, who christened this behavior “conspicuous consumption” in the late 19th century, long before Steve Jobs took the stage to announce the first iPhone in 2007.
The real upgrade of the iPhone is its transformation from a status symbol into a (supposed) lifesaver and a prism that reflects multiple aspirations of its owner: someone concerned about health, someone adventurous, a person sensitive enough to notice insignificant aesthetic subtleties and value photography as art.
Even the purchase itself imbues an aspirational element, of someone who cares about the climate emergency. For each new product it announces, Apple throws on the screen a bunch of data and promises to “decarbonize” its production line by 2030, a fallacy that justifies greedy and hostile attitudes to the consumer, such as removing the wall charger from the iPhone box, and sweeps under the rug practices much more aggressive to the environment as hindering the reuse of components (another terrorism, this one commercial), discontinuing support for perfectly capable products and preventing the rescue of discarded equipment.
In Apple’s eyes, the ideal owner of an Apple Watch Ultra and/or an iPhone 14 Pro is like that driver who thinks he needs a huge pickup truck or SUV, even if he only drives from home to office, office to home, and never hits a dirt road. (Related note: the ranking of best-selling cars in the United States is dominated by huge pickup trucks and SUVs.)
While justifying its annual release cycle with complex craziness of extremely limited use, Apple has to deal with more pressing and mundane issues, such as the global recession and the stagnant phone market that threaten its market value. These things are closely related.
iPhone prices have risen everywhere except in the United States. The end of the “mini” version and the arrival of the iPhone 14 Plus increase the average selling price of the line and concentrate it even more in the top range market, which is immune to any crisis and has always had fat margins, and that still growing, Apple in the lead.
The strongest sign of Apple’s effort to sell more of its most expensive iPhones is the unprecedented distinctions between the Pro and regular iPhone 14 lines.
For the first time, the new iPhones use different chips. The new one, the A16 Bionic, was reserved for the Pro line. The regular iPhone 14 reused the same 2021 A15 Bionic used in the iPhone 13. For all intents and purposes, except for the Plus model’s huge screen, the iPhone 14 is almost indistinguishable from the iPhone 13.
Nothing better represents this Apple effort, however, than the “Dynamic Island”, the marketing name for the interactive animations that play with the new cutout in the screen that houses the Face ID sensors and front camera.
The same notifications displayed on “Dynamic Island” exist on every iPhone in use, but only on the iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max are they so pleasing, so “creative,” a show apart.
Instead of hiding it, Apple rubs the cutout in the user’s face. Is it cool? Yes, very. And genius too, a testament to Apple’s unparalleled mastery of the art of making cool phones.
Android manufacturers have spent years using the same kind of cutout in the screen for the front camera. They had plenty of time to come up with something cool like this. The best they came up with? A few static Galaxy S10 wallpapers that incorporate the cutout. That you don’t remember this is no accident.
Nonetheless, Dynamic Island is — I repeat — a preciosity that helps to justify phones that cost USD 1,000 or more in the face of other devices, including some from the same company, that do the same things and cost up to 70% less.
The various terrorisms of Apple’s marketing, the new products’ features that serve tiny groups of consumers treated as essential, even the smoke signal, I mean, the satellite signal available in the very rare event that you get lost in the woods, all this hides an inconvenient truth for the industry, for Apple: our phones, the ones we already have, already in use, are very, very good.
Discuss @ Hacker News.