October 16, 2009

Why I think that IDEA going open source is not a good sign

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.

Posted by cedric at October 16, 2009 10:04 AM


"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?"

Does Netbeans actually count here ? :)

Posted by: Rémy at October 16, 2009 10:32 AM

My first thoughts were that now that IDEA's open source, their competitors will just take out all the interesting parts and incorporate it into their own applications. If that happens, there is even less reason to use IDEA.

Posted by: Jordi at October 16, 2009 10:33 AM

Very nice analyse of the situation, thanks ! but when you said : "one thing is clear about this move: it means less revenue for JetBrains for the foreseeable future" , I'm not sure about that, I don't know if people before that move was actually paying the licence for their own "open" source project or they apply to get a open-source free license (as I did), it's like illegal downloading of music, does people who download illegally music buy it ?

Posted by: Sebi at October 16, 2009 10:43 AM

This happened to JBuilder too, although instead of open sourcing they just gave away their trimmed down SE edition. In this case it was a direct attempt to regain lost market share from eclipse.

I always thought IntelliJ proved that people were willing to pay for a good product and JBuilder just missed the price point. It took about two years for JBuilder to effectively die, so it will be interesting to see what happens to IntelliJ over time.

Posted by: Justin at October 16, 2009 10:46 AM

Interesting post. While you make valid points, instead of signaling the imminent downfall of Jetbrains', their decision might just be the right decision to regain mind-share. For a more detailed argumesee my blog entry on IDEA being open sourced: http: ceki.blogspot.com/2009/10/idea-open-sourced.html

Posted by: Cek Gulcu at October 16, 2009 11:23 AM

I used intelliJ for quite a while. It's pretty much as good as eclipse, maybe a tad better.

These days I think netbeans probably passed them both in usability and features and has caught up in performance.

I know that people get addicted to what they know, I still know a lot of people who swear by VI or Emacs, so I'm not really surprised people like IntelliJ, but I think once it's out for free it will be noticed that it's not really better than what people are already using, so those using Eclipse will stick with it, those picking up a new one will probably go with the known biggest name (Eclipse), and those who evaluate all three will go with Netbeans or maybe IntelliJ.

I'm a little worried about the future of NB anyway, sun was supporting it so heavily, without them it will probably struggle a lot more.

Posted by: Bill K at October 16, 2009 11:41 AM

First, I disagree that Eclipse is "of equally high quality". I used Eclipse for years before switching to IntelliJ.

Learning an IDE is a huge investment. If anything, now that IntelliJ is open source, users will feel more confident in even considering this investment. If they decide based on quality, most of those users will pick IntelliJ.

Increased adoption will lead to increased demand for other JetBrains projects like TeamCity. More developers will want to use IntelliJ at work. You may be able to argue in favor of Eclipse, but you can't argue that WSAD is better than IntelliJ Ultimate Edition, and tons of companies pay $6k/seat for WSAD.

Companies like Google will certainly make significant contributions to the open source project.

Terracotta seems to be doing a lot better since they went open source. I can't think of any other comparable companies that have open sourced and succeeded, but I also can't think of comparable companies that have open sourced and failed.

If the open source project is run well, and they don't just throw code over the wall, I suspect we'll see IntelliJ take off. In any case, I feel a lot more comfortable in my commitment to the tool than I did two days ago.

Posted by: Bob Lee at October 16, 2009 11:42 AM

If less competition means less innovation, this might eventually lead to a stagnating innovation at Eclipse.

Posted by: Peter Friese at October 16, 2009 11:46 AM

First, off not knocking your post Cedric. I do wonder if people wondering are forgetting about corporate licenses which are far more expensive than the personal license. I'm also wondering if people are forgetting that the Community edition of IntelliJ IDEA is really just an SE IDE. It has no support of web or EE development (by exactly what they mean by "support" I'm not sure. They have said there will be no web / EE plugins [and no, the plugins from Ultimate will not work on Community according to them]). I imagine most Java development being done with IntelliJ IDEA (by people other than Open Source projects) is done in these sectors (web / EE). Your options are still the same: Eclipse, purchased copy of IntelliJ IDEA or Netbeans (being the Big Three).

It may be a good thing for them. Like you said, we'll just have to wait and see.

Posted by: Jason Porter at October 16, 2009 11:47 AM

"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?"

The only one I can think of that seems to have done well after this kind of shift is Terracotta.

Posted by: Matt at October 16, 2009 12:04 PM

Cedric, jetbrains is a company of 120 people (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JetBrains) and has been adding new products steadily. That means they have a solid revenue stream and can invest on new products. They don't seem like a company trying desperately to stay alive. I think their decision to open source IDEA is based on the analysis that they could get mind share and attract attention. For example, there's now better reasons for third-parties or commercial companies to develop plugins for IDEA, as they do for Eclipse.


Posted by: Ara Abrahamian at October 16, 2009 01:04 PM

Ara, I never said anything about the future of JetBrains (the company), much less that they are struggling to stay alive.

This post is entirely about the future of IDEA (the IDE).


Posted by: Cedric at October 16, 2009 01:08 PM

Good analysis. I don't disagree, but I'll add some other perspective.

I suspect jetbrains is (has been) focusing more and more on diversifying its product portfolio, increasing its ability to deal with the revenue erosion due to the commoditization of java IDEs and the ever-increasing drift towards free IDEs.

I suspect its also quite true active development of IDEA itself will decrease (and probably has been decreasing for a while, after all jetbrains built all those other products!).

I don't see less IDEA development as a particularly bad thing medium term - the last few features added to idea that I really cared about were provided as plugins first (maven support, git support, ...), and I imagine that the same will continue to happen.

Finally, consider that having their flagship product open source for jetbrains might provide good marketing for their server-side plays (teamcity, youtrack) where they might believe they can become quite profitable.

Me, I'm just happy I can now point people around me that say "I'd like to use an IDE more but I'm confused by eclipse" at my long-time favorite IDE.

Posted by: Leo Simons at October 16, 2009 02:16 PM

I really don't know how many people will really use this edition of the IDE. Some will for sure but the fact that it doesn't have a JSP editor for one will make it much harder for those of us that do web development.

I agree, however, that most of the time when companies open source or create a community edition of their software they are doing so because sales are lagging. I can't really see this helping them other than being some really nice free publicity within the developer community.

Posted by: Mike Bosch at October 16, 2009 02:26 PM

Cedric, I think jetbrains make more than 80% of their revenue from IDEA. So you can hardly separate IDEA's future from the rest of the company. I think IDEA has hit a growth wall. They can't sell more copies of it. So logically they diversify, they put out new products.

Also, most of new java coders use Eclipse, but old time IDEA coders stick to it forever and renew their licenses with every release. They rarely switch to Eclipse. So there's no fear of any financial disaster by open sourcing IDEA. It looks to me a low-risk bet. And so they did it.


Posted by: Ara Abrahamian at October 16, 2009 06:07 PM

No, I think this is great.

As a consultant, I end up poking my nose into a variety of different companies. A lot of people who might use IDEA are put off by the fact that it costs actual money, because Eclipse is free.

This will make it much easier for me to get people to try it out. I'd expect a net gain in revenue for them, plus a richer ecosystem as people write more plugins.

Posted by: William Pietri at October 16, 2009 07:29 PM

What about education and training? One of the advantages of Eclipse over IDEA - until now - has been that you could teach beginning Java programmers on it, then give them a copy to use at home. I imagine a lot of people must form their permanent preferences based on initial experience.

Posted by: Maurice Naftalin at October 17, 2009 12:09 AM

From my rebuttal (with pretty venn diagrams):
"This free/premium model is also used by Flickr and Flickr Pro: give away community editions (which cost nothing) to sell premium editions."


Posted by: Jesse Wilson at October 17, 2009 12:22 AM

BEA was slightly different - JetBrains does still produce fine good quality software.

After WebLogic 8.1, the BEA products all had bad quality and were slower and bigger.

Posted by: Lars Fischer at October 17, 2009 01:58 AM

Joining the list of responses to the most controversial assertion in this post:

"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?"

Mozilla Firefox and OpenOffice.

Posted by: Nacho Coloma at October 17, 2009 02:41 AM


I can think of one shining example of a struggling software product that went open source and turned things around and that is Eclipse.

Cedric, what about Terracotta? Everyone said they were toast when they went "open source" yet I saw no external signs that this was true and today they are still with us.

In an IDE shootout we held at the Koln JUG about 2 years ago it became crystal clear (if it wasn't clear before then) that the IDE had been successfully commoditized. Everyone wanted the same keybinding and the same features. In that vanilla landscape it was clear that companies relying on just the IDE for revenue were going to be in trouble.

Posted by: Kirk at October 17, 2009 03:09 AM

I also have no knowledge of the inner working of Jetbrains, but here is my speculation.

I would be a lot of their money now is coming from ReSharper (great product!), TeamCity (also excellent), and DotTrace. Although, I'd really love to hear that they are making a mint off of RubyMine.

So, as their product offerings have expanded, it could be the return on investment has favored their other products over IntelliJ. So from a pure business standpoint, the move could be to focus more on the other products that are more financially sound.

Posted by: Chris Brandsma at October 17, 2009 02:44 PM

This is slightly troubling. I spend so much time any given day using just this one app in the machine that if it dies it will be akin to a personal loss. Got to invest more time in diversifying my IDE interests.

Posted by: Prabin deka at October 17, 2009 03:46 PM

Perhaps this might be their way of saying that at this point the Java (SE) IDE is feature complete. At the margins there may be static analyses or refactorings that can be added, but there are no remaining major features whose benefits would outweigh the costs in terms end-user complexity.

Given that there is nothing more to do there, it's reasonable to keep charging where the innovation is being done and give away the one that's done for free.

Which, I suppose, agrees largely with what Cedric said, but my take is far more positive. There had to come a time where the innovation had to slow down.

After listening to the Java Posse podcast, my guess is that they're seriously looking at Haskell, Erlang and maybe F#.

Posted by: Steve Q at October 18, 2009 07:41 AM

I had job interview for Jetbrains. Those guys are realy top. Just a few notes:

1) While SE edition is very comparable to Eclipse, J2EE (spring, JPA apod) tools are way, way , way better and more stable.

2) Netbeans future is unclear, it is well timed

3) Version 9 does not bring much new features. It is very reasonable to lower price tag.

4) Netbeans plugin API is way, way, way better then Eclipse or Netbeans

Posted by: Bubak at October 18, 2009 08:10 AM

My guess that IDEA going open source is a direct response to Netbeans' going to Oracle. They hope that Oracle, split between two IDE's will somehow fumble and IDEA will replace Netbeans as a plugin platform.

Posted by: florin at October 18, 2009 10:58 AM

The communauty Edition does not include j2ee features. In fact, did JetBrains ever sold by the past any product with so few features?

Posted by: Gabriel K. at October 18, 2009 12:21 PM

I could be mistaken, but wasnt eclipse itself a paid ide?

The amount of different ides in tha java landscape was never a good thing, in my opinion, for the sake of frameworks integration.

Nothing really was complete, all the basic stuff were there but thats it, its like nothing talks to each other, for example, when microsoft releases a new feature to the framework, they put a very usable plugin in theirs ide, and thats been changing only recently in the java side.

Posted by: Oziel Jose at October 18, 2009 01:17 PM

Thanks for the well-thought out story. JetBrains is a good company and as a longtime Eclipse user, I can tell you that IntelliJ IDEA is a breath of fresh air. It's a pity that users of Eclipse or NetBeans (or JDeveloper) think that the license fees are enough to keep them loyal to their chosen IDEs. It's like eating a daily buffet of stale bread, grimy butter and rotten potatoes at a free charity dinner and then returning to the buffet over and over again without even thinking that $10 can buy you a respectable and enjoyable meal elsewhere.

I've used Eclipse for a number of years and can tell you from personal experience that it was built with a "one size fits all" philosophy. It's incredibly frustrating building an enterprise Java or Grails application with the pure Eclipse stack. When I last used it over a year ago, Maven 2 support was still spotty. The best you could do was buy a professional version of MyEclipseIDE from Genuitec which mostly worked reasonably well. Genuitec itself has a dizzying and confusing array of products for enterprise Java development.

Being a huge fan of IDEA, I can only wish JetBrains the best and hope that the move to open source the SE part of the IDE (not the enterprise part) will elicit some curiosity amongst IDE fans and will eventually increase their user base. Lets hear it for the JetBrains guys (and gals) for a brilliant IDE that hugely benefits the Java enterprise community.

Posted by: Viraf Karai at October 18, 2009 02:56 PM

Actually, according to the Eclipse Scala plugin developerps the JDT team has spent very little effort on the core Java IDE lately - so maybe core Eclipse development has stalled on the IDE side, and Jetbrains wants to overtake them at a high speed now - having an open source platform makes it easier to integrate tool makers along the way. And according to the JavaPosse interview, they don't plan to compete with the RCP part of Eclipse, but rather focus on IDE development.

Posted by: BobL at October 19, 2009 01:06 AM

Generally speaking, I tend to agree with Cedric that this step is not a sign that sales have been going fabulously for IDEA. JetBrains may have a plan, however, so I wouldn't go so far as to say the IDE will stagnate or die. The JetBrains team is consistently deliberate, so this has to have been a purposeful step.

There's a key difference between IBM and JetBrains. IBM can provide numerous full-time staffers to Eclipse projects, earning kudos for its valuable support of FOSS, and then they recoup their investment several times over selling Rational tools to Big Enterprise customers.

Afaik, JetBrains doesn't yet have a channel to sell IDEA under a different brand like this. Few companies besides IBM really could. It's almost like a Seinfeld "double-dip" for IBM, they get goodwill as a reward for supporting FOSS, then make money hand-over-fist selling basically the same stuff.

Posted by: Rick Ross at October 19, 2009 05:51 AM

Speaking of double dip, how many people who've replied to this blog actually do serious C# / .net development?

It would not surprise me in the least if Resharper was their top selling product. Why?
- It is highly regarded...just like most of Jetbrains other tools. I've seen many a prominent blogger saying it's a must have addin for Visual Studio
- Traditionally, .net development teams are comfortable + given budget to buy software, as opposed to the java world. The concept of open source in the .net world is a fairly recent phenomenon

Posted by: javaguy44 at October 19, 2009 06:17 AM

The way I see it, that nobody was paying for Idea just to do J2SE development. And we all know, how hard it is to switch the development environment, it becomes a second nature to you.

I see it as a ploy to catch them young. If you get guys starting on Java, doing some J2SE development, may be at a collage course, when these guys go in real world. They will ask for Idea and may convince their management that $800 were worth spending on the IDE.

Basically, the market segment that was not gonna pay you anyway and might not have been on your possible customer list because of price, gets turned into a possible future customers.

That what I think. Will it work? May be. It's not a bad call to be on the radar than being ruled out for not being free.

Posted by: Prashant at October 19, 2009 01:28 PM

> 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.

Maybe they do not think that. Maybe they just want to release source to look 'good'. They can continue working as before. And part of the source has been always open though their plugin package.

Posted by: igor spasic at October 20, 2009 12:11 AM

Resharper is the only IntelliJ product I have ever purchased. Netbeans 6.x is much better than either Eclipse or IntelliJ.

Posted by: Mark Stahler at October 20, 2009 06:40 AM

To Blog Owner,

Might be a good idea to remove our email addresses from the page or you may find that fewer people will ever comment on your blog again. Wish I would have noticed the emails before I posted originally.


Posted by: Mark Stahler at October 20, 2009 06:42 AM

Thanks for your valuable opinion, Cedric, and your kind words about our track record. Indeed, innovation is a fundamental value of ours and the main reason we're in this business. We believe it will help us continue to thrive. And here's how open-sourcing IntelliJ IDEA fits into that vision.

JetBrains is enjoying a very solid revenue stream and, to our great pleasure, IntelliJ IDEA has been growing steadily since day one. We are growing as a company as well (shameless plug - we're hiring!).

Talking about growing, open-sourcing IntelliJ IDEA is a growth strategy, not an exit strategy for us. IntelliJ IDEA is known for its passionate end-user community, which we don't think is going to change anytime soon. On the contrary, open-sourcing is just the right move to bring many new members to our community. As the community expands, this will drive further sales of the Ultimate Edition and other JetBrains products.

IntelliJ IDEA is used in many Top 100 and 500 companies, banks and other businesses. With a strong customer base like that, we don't expect the marketshare of
IntelliJ IDEA to shrink any time soon.

From the get-go, we never expected that releasing IntelliJ IDEA Community Edition would automatically generate a ground swell of patches and additions from the community. Although we welcome community participation and think it
will steadily increase, we do not plan to rely heavily on external contributions to drive our products further. As such, there is no reason for
the quality of our software to decline or stagnate.

As we all know, actions speak louder than words. Let's look back on this a year from now and draw our conclusions then.

Again, thank you for your comments and an interesting discussion!

Posted by: Roman Strobl at October 22, 2009 09:02 AM

I think this is another sign of time for Java. IntelliJ is open-sourcing its flagship product, Sun is laying off 3000 employees.

Posted by: Andy M at October 28, 2009 10:51 AM

Jetbrains opensourced something before, remember Omea anyone? Good luck Intellij!

Posted by: mzehrer at November 1, 2009 04:34 AM

Considering the JSP, Javascript, HTML etc plugins are not present in the "free" version, why would anyone bother when they know they already exist ? And waht if i created a HTML plugin, what happens to the original ? It all seems very fragmented and silly.

Posted by: MP at November 15, 2009 08:37 PM

"I can't think of a single example ..."

Don't know if this counts, but:


Posted by: miracle at November 17, 2009 03:38 AM

On that cheery note, is there any chance of seeing an upgraded TestNG plugin for IDEA soon? The ones out there are looking pretty stale. I'd love to use a feature or two from 5.10, but I'm skittish about using them if it means I can't really run this test suite in an IDE anymore.

Posted by: OrigamiMarie at November 20, 2009 06:17 PM

How I like the mysql's open-source strategy!!

Posted by: Arzvi at November 26, 2009 03:19 AM

I don't think IDEA being opensource will affect it much either way by itself.. I mean, the other IDE's already borrow from it's feature set regardless. Being open-source does better allow a community to develop around it. However the current problem with IDEA is still it's limited accessibility.

Everywhere you look when people ask questions like "Which Java IDE is the Best?" You'll get varied responses.. Some say netbeans, some eclipse, other IDEA.. At this point things degrade a little, and in my opinion it becomes a little clearer which one actually is the best.. You start hearing people say, no Netbeans sucks.. I like Eclipse and Vice Versa.. Occassionally someone say's I used to like Eclipse/Netbeans, but then I tried IDEA... But NO ONE EVER says IDEA sucks, I like Netbeans. Or I switched from IDEA to Eclipse and now I'm happier..

This tells me the people who try IDEA generally stick with it.. And even if they don't, they still recognize it's the superior product and are switching because of either cost or workplace necessity.

IDEA needs to realize what they're lacking most of all is Marketing. IDEA needs to become more easily accessible. Instead of solely focusing on luring developers already entrenched with another IDE. They need to strive to capture them out the door whilst they're just learning Java/moving to an IDE. In my opinion what they're really lacking is Newbie friendly documentation and Marketing.

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