Bringing the Libre: An Interview with Free Software Developer Jon Phillips

On: July 12, 2010
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About John Haltiwanger
An underliner. An intensifier. A meanderer. A walker in betweens. The gross product of the souls of forebears sliced into ribbons and blown into a clay him. A poetic impulse. An open source advocate. A master of ceremonies. A writer of codes. An interface fiend philandering among operating sytems. Creative nonfiction research artist. Textual mystic. Frequently explicit Function 'popular education' enumerated 03.03-12.6 TESC (Evergreen) WA NW US. Political economics, systems administration, cultural studies, writing, ethnomusicology, computer programming, web design, etc. All part of a balanced liberal arts degree. Socialist high school founded by feminists with a farm (Putney) 01-02 VT NE US. Deserter of West Chester PA. 16 year old proto Perl monger. 26 year old Ruby excavator. New new media student, old new media sponge. Mondo minded year 2000 Millenial Generation American. Of a rare form. Eagerly chewing electronic book reviews, ctheories, and autonomedias independent of any formal Media scholastics. Before the field had a name in my mind. Chasing a thing called 'software studies' through the tubes, across the Atlantic, and into a Nederlands classroom. Playfully aware that this bio, like the medium it exists in, like the life it describes, remains malleable. Yet static in its own right.


As I posted previously, I had the privilege to attend my first Libre Graphics Meeting in Brussels this past May. This conference was an incredible experience for me. Though I’ve been running GNU/Linux for over 12 years, I’ve never had such a serendipitous moment as to observe a conference room full of computers booted into obviously FLoSS operating systems and interfaces. But that is just a scratch on the surface compared to the level and diversity of the presentations (all of which are recorded and available online courtesy of River Valley Technologies, and which I’ve presented some highlights from recently on this blog).

There I also had the lucky pleasure of meeting Jon Phillips, a man with seemingly as many projects in a given moment as he has fingers and toes. Just a few of his notable involvements include: vector graphics application Inkscape, the Open Clipart Library, the innovative web application stack Aiki Framework, the fully-federated Twitter replacement (which powers, and the projects (palm-top computer, video camera, and portable VJ station) being developed at Qi Hardware. All of these projects are free in the ontological imperative sense. For even more updates on what he is update, check out and his company/collective’s site, Fabricatorz.

So without further adieu I’d like to introduce Jon Phillips, hero of the free world:

> 1) how did you end up involved in inkscape? can you explain your life
> and times prior to that? were you already using open source? were you
> doing design in proprietary programs?

Big question. I’ve always had my eye on the ball on what I wanted to
do. I started working at a production studio and a cool guy Steve
Twitchell paid for me to learn the first Avid Media Composer systems.
I started doing commercial production work and commercials at age 14
for large accounts like State Farm. So, I went through various
production gigs until I got deep into art by meeting another mentor,
Patrick Clancy, who guided me towards focusing on the concepts and not
just the noise of production and software upgrades. He introduced me
to the concepts of Free Software first, and I began tinkering. With
design, I got super bored and realized through another mentor, Brian
McKeever, that I could automate production processes. Thus, my goal
shifted from design to automating design, and I spent all of my time
learned how to program web applications. I definitely used the adobe
software from photoshop 1.0 onward, the first after effects and all of
that jazz. When I started learning software, I realized how crappy
closed apps were in doing automation.

After all of this, when I went to graduate school at UCSD to study
with Sheldon Brown and new media theorist Lev Manovich. I shifted to
focusing on theory and conceptual art because I realized I needed to
make more powerful impact in society with all that I had learned. My
life involved attempting community projects through building sound
systems, staying in my art studio trying to get involved by being a
heroic hacker. After I realized this #FAIL, and because my sister was
ill with cancer, I took time off to be with her and my family in
Missouri. When she was taking massive rests, the rest of my life had
faded away, so I literally had time to spend on my computer and build
Inkscape out of the ashes of another failed project with others.

My state of mind at the time really was conducive to being a part of
something greater, as you can imagine, because my sister was dying. I
rapidly learned the principles of what I know and who I am now,
building free and open source projects. The core of my creativity and
production since then has involved these techniques which I have
grafted onto many communities, companies, and movements.

> 2) how would you honestly rank the feature set of inkscape against
> illustrator? feature bloat aside (meaning half the shit in ill. is
> probably made for the press release), what are the literal constraints
> in these softwares?

Illustrator is very hard for many people to learn. There is a constant
pressure as well from the corporate side to sell the software, and a
rampant form of acknowledged piracy by students. Thus, Adobe purely
focuses on the creative shops and companies that can pay $1000+ for
each part of the Creative Suite. Thus, with no incentive to help the
most creative people work, and because many developers aren’t happy
with the simple tools really needed for daily activity, Inkscape and
other apps excel.

What else really does Illustrator need now? Why can’t Adobe just focus
on making the core technology and functionality better rather than
adding more and more uselessness?

At the same time, if you look at Inkscape, it doesn’t have the more
advanced color controls and print functionality, because this requires
individuals to pay for print projects which is less likely to happen
in the free software universe.

So, in terms of the most basic and solid drawing tools, Inkscape is
well advanced and far better than Illustrator. In terms of advanced
features and constant push by a corporation, Illustrator bests

My theory right now is that I would like to see a commercial entity
support Inkscape and think rallying around a web-based (non-flash)
Inkscape, would be a serious competitor against Illustrator. I spend
my time talking and working towards this now. The first piece really
though is the project I’m working on in
Singapore and globally. Its the same software that powers

> 3) [some designers i know have] shat all over the experience of
> producing within adobe products. interfaces are the shape of our
> tools. the shape of our tools necessarily shapes what we do with those
> tools. can you give any insights into the kinds of debates that have
> occurred within the Inkscape coommunity about the design and direction
> of the applications interface?

I agree somewhat. If you are good, you master your concepts and ideas.
The best designers and artists I know, can get loose off orange juice.
(That is a Tribe Called Quest reference).

Seriously, the best artists and designers can roll in with crayons and
constructio paper and kick it. Of course, if you are that lame guy who
only does Maya, you are are constrained to the version numbers and
command of the company who owns it.

The ultimate artists and designers will build their interfaces and
toolchain around their demand and not be Adobe or anyone elses’ bitch.

Of course, in the music space, I would argue that most of the music
you hear with Max/MSP sounds the same and same with Ableton Live ;)

When I look at the bookstore from an abstract level at the doorway, I
don’t sit there think, geez, this all looks like its made with Adobe
Illustrator. Rather, I go in an buy a book, or rather, go read a stack
for free at the cafe if I have time :) I don’t buy books either

So, I think some people who are starting out are constrained a bit by
the examples they learn, but for the hardcore amongst us, tools are
used by their masters and not vice-versa.

> 4) how do you feel about ¨software time¨ in relation to free software?
> considering the amount of change that i´ve seen in my twelve years of
> experience, and the fact that Inkscape began just five years ago, i
> can personally vouch that things go both slower and faster than
> expected. is there a distinction of pace between proprietary and free
> software development environments? how do you feel about the pace of
> Inkscape in terms of fulfilling your wishes as a designer? and other
> projects you are involved in?

I have a special place in my heart, of course, for Inkscape and Free
Software. The corporate pace is driven by corporate sales cycles,
simple. Thus, corporations are going to be driven a lot harder on a
roadmap and finding ways to solve customer demand to sell more

Inkscape’s development demand is about time of developers, how much
time developers have and if someone really has invested in learning
how to do free software development and get access.

So, free software done by a community is majorly slowfi and in a
clustered fashion. Corporate development is useful for line of sight,
direct hacking towards a goal militarily. Both are super necessary.

Your question for me comes down to goals. If ones goal is to get out
Inkscape 1.0 before January 1, 2011, which we have talked about for
years, then I would say, build up a company around Inkscape, hire some
of the core developers who would be placed in a military structure,
and start hacking.

If one’s goal is to learn Inkscape, start fixing bugs, hacking on
features and go for it, but I don’t think and have never seen this
type of cluster activity hitting a deadline on time. In fact, setting
a deadline for this type of action and community, will kill the
learning fun which is what most random free software hackers are into.
Most free software hackers work on free software in their spare time
because they want to learn.

For me, if someone said, “Hey Jon, lets make Inkscape 1.0 with X, Y
and Z features in a year.” I’m going to send them a one-line email
with the bank account number for my company

> 5) do you have any idealistic dream
> statements/requests/admonitions/expectations you´d make about the
> future of free software, if given the opportunity?

Yes, Free Software powers the Internet. We did that, great! Right now,
there is literally one project and company working on freeing up the
network services, Status.Net (one of my primary projects). We need to
keep our slowfi lifestyle and keep our current apps working, but the
demand right now is to build free network services to replace and/or
innovate over Facebook, Twitter, Google and more. So, if the current
free software developers want to keep working on their desktop apps,
go for it! Keep those stable!

For the young, motivated and excited developers, join me and the
growing numbers of hackers who are working to free the network!
Without this, we are going to be stuck in a shareware app store hell,
locked into iPads we can’t install our desktop software on, and phones
we have to pay for on a monthly basis.

This is very serious! The good news is there is investment money to
work on these problems, and I’m actively recruiting on the community
and business sides! Lets free ourselves! and keep working hard to stay

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