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User exchanges: It's good to share

Open-source idealism meets commercial software in the shrinking world of code-swapping user exchanges.

"Zeke" was generally happy with the professional Web authoring application he used, but he didn't like the way some of the buttons looked when he added "click here" links on a page.

So he grabbed a few development tools, created some shiny new buttons of his own and published them free of charge for anyone who wanted to use or improve them.

That might sound like another feel-good story from the open-source community, but the application in question is Dreamweaver, the leading professional Web authoring package and one of the main products from Macromedia, a 100 percent proprietary software publisher.


What's new:
User exchanges let customers share improvements to proprietary software in an open-source style, but most software manufactures shy away from allowing them.

Bottom line:
While application makers worry about liability, support costs and other details, they may be missing an easy way to improve their products and build customer loyalty.

More stories on
software development

But Macromedia also is one of a shrinking number of software makers that support user exchanges, in which customers can swap free or shareware software add-ons they've created using freely available development tools. While many software publishers have abandoned such forums for a variety of legal and business concerns, Macromedia, Adobe Systems and a few others have persisted, creating an interesting middle ground between closed, proprietary development models and collaborative open-source methods.

"I think the exchange allows us to harness some of the good things you see in the open-source movement," said Jeff Whatcott, vice president of product management for Macromedia. "The whole idea is to harness the community to add value to our product, and that's good for everybody."

The benefits, Whatcott said, include making products more useful, which serves Macromedia's business objectives in the long term, and giving customers an easy way to customize the environments in which they spend their workdays.

Jeffrey Tarter, editor of software industry newsletter Softletter, said user exchanges used to be common but have dwindled as big software makers fret about expense, legal risk and other perceived liabilities.

Microsoft, the world's largest software maker, generally restricts creation of software add-ons to licensed professional developers for major products such as Office and Windows. Tarter says that's a shame.

"It's a great model," Tarter said. "I'm constantly amazed at the number of software companies who don't do it. It just seems like common sense."

Some do?
Besides Macromedia, prominent supporters of user exchanges include Adobe, whose Adobe Studio Exchange includes hundred of free filters, brushes and other add-ons for Photoshop and other popular applications.

Karl J. Sneath, a multimedia designer for Mid America Productions, a video production company in Salina, Kansas, has contributed more than 75 Photoshop "actions"--scripts that automate specialized tasks--to the Adobe exchange. He says a communal sense of altruism makes the exchange work for him and other Photoshop users.

"It's a community of very talented people from all over the world, freely sharing their knowledge and expertise," he said. "The exchange is not about making money...Everything there is free, and thus it encourages new users to learn more about their software and expand their abilities. It also challenges old hands to continue being creative and improve the quality of their work."

Canadian graphics artist and Adobe Studio Exchange contributor Trevor Morris enjoys being part of an online community and giving back. "I guess there is nothing in it for me besides that satisfaction of helping others," he added.

Other prominent supporters of customers exchanges include Salesforce.com, whose sforce site offers dozens of extensions and customizations for its sales management software.

IBM has offered its Sandbox site for many years, allowing customers using its Lotus office software to swap add-ons and customizations.

"We really want to encourage that kind of open-source feel."
--IBM's Craig Lordan
on the Sandbox site
for Lotus users

Craig Lordan, a lead developer for IBM's Lotus Workplace division, said the site started as a promotional vehicle but has turned into more of a community venue.

"It's a neat way to show how Lotus customers are doing things," he said. "A lot of the things there are offshoots from discussions between users" about what kind of new functionality they want. "They put something together and share it with everyone else," Lordan said. "We really want to encourage that kind of open-source feel."

IBM segregates free, user-created extensions from material created by paid developers looking to sell their wares. There's no evidence, Lordan said, that the presence of free stuff has affected demand for commercial add-ons, a concern many software publishers cite for skipping user exchanges.

"It's really intended to not be competing with commerce," he said. "In the sandbox, you're getting handy little stuff, like a template that helps you keep track of your CDs, little bits of code that help you make better use of the applications. Our commercial developers focus on bigger things."

The Macromedia Exchange is about a 50-50 mix of free and commercial add-ons for the company's applications. Scott Fegette, community manager for Macromedia, said the presence of free material hasn't distracted from Macromedia's efforts to recruit professional developers.

"We found the people who were really serious about making a business out of development haven't had a problem at all," he said, "This just creates more options. There are commercial products, and there are smaller things have an open-sourcelike movement around them."

...and some don't
Most software makers have decided it's too risky and expensive to provide the extensibility tools and online services to support a user exchange, Tarter said.

"To do this kind of third-party, open-source world takes a lot of effort," he said. "It takes a lot of support resources, marketing, recruiting, handholding, and there isn't always an obvious, measurable payback."

"Software companies...seem to have this notion that only their own developers can create good stuff, which is stupid."
-- Jeffrey Tarter,
editor, Softletter

And big-time software publishers tend to underestimate the value of user-created code, Tarter said. "Software companies are run like anal compulsives--they seem to have this notion that only their own developers can create good stuff, which is stupid," he said. "Then their lawyers come in and say, 'If you're going to somehow endorse this thing and it somehow breaks somebody's PC, you're the one who's going to be sued,' and they get terrified."

But software makers who skip user exchanges miss valuable opportunities for boosting customer loyalty and improving product development, Macromedia's Whatcott said. Items contributed to the exchange give Macromedia an early sense of what customers want changed or added in an application, he said, and sometimes appear in later versions of the product.

"If somebody comes up with something they like and it gets passed around to each other, then we think maybe that's something we need to look at folding into a future version of the product," he said. "It' a really efficient feedback mechanism, and it allows us to leverage a community of millions of developers to make the products better."

Josh Fallon, a Los Angeles-area graphics designer and contributor to Adobe Studio Exchange, said support for user exchanges simply make an application more valuable.

"I think that the easier it is for designers and developers to customize and extend their tools, the more valuable their tools are," he said. "You can only do so much with the default set of tools in any given application, so it's important to be able to adapt to accommodate your specific needs."