Suppose someone decided to create a graphic image manipulation program (similar to Photoshop) ”. Petter Mattis sent this message on different mailing lists on July 29, 1995. The then student at the University of California at Berkeley took the opportunity to ask for opinions on the type of functions that such a program should have and the formats it would support. At the end of the same year Mattis and his project partner, Spencer Kimball, presented GIMP. “We just wanted to know if we were capable of creating something like that,” recalls Kimball during a video call with EL PAÍS. “And we definitely weren’t,” laughs Mattis, who is now his brother-in-law, interrupts him.
They both left GIMP in 1998 to focus on their respective professional careers. And they got off the ship without saying goodbye or naming heirs. “We left them a bit high and dry when we got a job,” explains Kimball. His farewell could have been the coup de grace for the still young man software, but twenty-five years later, that surly and bugs —Schedule glitches— still alive. Moreover, he is in good health thanks to the maintenance of generations of volunteers They keep updating and improving their features. “GIMP will stay alive as long as there are people with enough passion to continue working on it. And we have been fortunate to have some extremely passionate people ”, say sources from the team of developers that today leads the way.
Although Photoshop continues to be the software Dominant when it comes to image editing, GIMP is the ideal alternative for those who cannot or do not want to pay the expensive subscriptions of this program. “We suffered as high school students interested in computer science. You couldn’t download anything you wanted, it wasn’t free. You needed money that a student doesn’t have. And if you got the software, it was very difficult to understand why something was wrong. You couldn’t snoop around and see if you could fix it, ”explains Kimball.
The tool was born focused on UNIX-like operating systems, aimed at users with a more technical profile, but over time it was opened to the general public. “Linux became more user-friendly and GIMP became available for Windows and macOS. Today our community is probably less technical, but much, much more artistic ”, point out the current managers of the new developments of this software.
On a gift horse look at his tooth
But not all are advantages: since the last millennium, this free program has been subject to constant criticism for its stability problems and, above all, for the complexities involved in its use. Both the original developers and their heirs agree that part of the problem may lie with Adobe’s dominance of the market, but there is also a question of identity. “Photoshop and GIMP are old projects with a lot of baggage that is difficult to get rid of. People who complain that GIMP isn’t a Photoshop clone grapple with Photoshop’s inconsistencies on a daily basis. And those who have gotten used to the quirks of GIMP won’t admit that there are better ways to implement one or the other. It is something human, nothing to be ashamed of ”, they explain from the current team.
“I don’t think there is a single line of the code that we wrote in GIMP,” says Kimball, who has continued to download new versions of the program. However, he and Mattis admit that some of those problems are surely inherited from the decisions they made when they were two “naive” students. “Never underestimate the persistence of a bad design decision. You create a pattern, and after a lot of rewriting and evolution, it’s still there. We weren’t the right ones to create an interface for a graphics editing program, and twenty years later, it still shows. “
At the dawn of GIMP, no one expected the show to live that long. “I’m still in shock”Says Mattis. Their ambition as students was not higher than that of someone who decides to assemble an Ikea furniture without looking at the instructions. “We end up spending more time with GIMP than we spend going to class,” recalls Kimball. “We had no idea what work was going to take us, but learning along the way was an important part of the experience. And I would recommend it to more people: if you’re going to run a marathon, it’s less exciting when you know you can do it, ”adds Mattis.
So, a community of volunteer collaborators took over. But survival was still not assured. “We have a habit of trying to make too many changes at once instead of focusing on just a few things,” admit the current architects of GIMP. This ambition began to hold back the releases of new versions, to the point that six years passed between 2.8 and 2.6. “To a casual observer, it might appear that the project was dying,” they acknowledge. But the team was still working at full capacity.
Until now at least 350 people have contributed to the project, possibly many more. “We do not have only programmers, there are collaborators who translate the program, write manuals, review the reports on bugs, they run social networks, maintain the web, offer support to other users … ”, they explain. To avoid giving a feeling of abandonment, they try to keep releasing small updates. “What really matters is that you put new things in the hands of your users.”
Out of that commitment of hundreds has come a tool that continues to allow anyone with a computer to access a reasonably powerful editing program at no cost. “We can assure that GIMP continues to grow. Even at 25 years of age, his future is exciting, ”say the engineers. Will it still be with us in another quarter century? Kimball and Mattis don’t rule it out. Those currently responsible for making it happen are content that the world does not collapse. “Whatever the GIMP challenges, they pale in comparison to global challenges. What we want for people is security and tranquility: food on their tables, health, access to education, privacy or being able to have the tools they need to work and entertain themselves. If there is room for that 25 years from now, it doesn’t matter much whether GIMP is there or not. “