Sustainable model or profit maximisation?

ActiveState on JetBrains’ subscription model community backlash

Tom Radcliffe
jetbrains subscription
Protest image via Shutterstock

Community outrage against the new JetBrains subscription model shows that the IntelliJ IDE creators are not aligning their business with customer needs, says Tom Radcliffe, Director of Engineering at ActiveState, the company behind polyglot IDE Komodo.

As the new Director of Engineering at ActiveState, I’ve had the opportunity in the past few weeks to engage in some interesting discussions about software licensing. This was of course triggered by the recent announcement of a big change in licensing for one of Komodo IDE’s competitors, JetBrains. When faced with a barrage of angry replies on their blog and reddit, they told the audience they were listening. And although they did relent on some points, they did not, in our view, bend as much as they could have.

When asked if JetBrains users are “Exposed to the whims of [JetBrains’] profit margins”, Hadi Hariri of JetBrains has stated that it is not about profit, but that:

“The current model of a high entry cost and then lower upgrade rates would not be sustainable once the number of new customers starts to decrease, and given we are in a somewhat finite pool, this will eventually happen.”

“It’s obvious what JetBrains is trying to do.”

Although it was stated that this was not about profit margins, we understand, relate to, and think it’s obvious what JetBrains is trying to do – what every business does: maximize profit. And no one can fault them for trying to make money. It’s any company’s raison d’être (and the reason we can afford to keep building more products for the development community, whether the products are paid or open source). Although their reasons for switching to a subscription-based model for their products make sense from a business perspective, we don’t feel it makes sense from a customer perspective. Or rather, it makes sense for some of their customers, but not all. And herein lies the problem.

Not every developer, or development team, or business is built identically, and one size has never fit all. We’ve been building developer tools and languages since 1997, and over the years our models have changed and matured, but with deep roots in open source, we have learned one very important thing: community and customer feedback is what should ultimately drive decisions.

That’s why although our products and pricing have changed over the years, we have continued to provide licensing options for all developer types. We could go on about how ActiveState aims to meet customer needs, but the point is that being tied to a subscription for an IDE should be a choice that a developer makes, not one that is forced upon them.

Business vs. customer

As developers ourselves, we get that. A lot of us want to own the tools we use, and so long as that’s true, that’s the way ActiveState licenses will continue to work – that is, we will continue to offer several options for our licensing so you can always find an option that works for you. Why wouldn’t we continue to sell what developers want to buy?

SEE ALSO: JetBrains Toolbox payment model angers community – “told you so” says Eclipse

We see the value in monthly subscription-based licenses as JetBrains has unveiled, and perhaps we will add this as an option (not replacement) in the future. Subscription licenses offer more fine-grained control over software costs by allowing large teams to add and remove users on a month-by-month basis. We know there are probably a few of you that would choose this option, too. But as we noted, we don’t feel that forcing a major shift in the way a developer uses the IDE is the right way to approach things from a customer-centric viewpoint. Instead, it’s important to not just listen to the market, but to listen and make decisions that benefit both the business and the customer.


Tom Radcliffe

Tom Radcliffe is Director of Engineering at ActiveState and has over 20 years experience in software development and management in both academia and industry. He is a professional engineer (PEO and APEGBC) and holds a PhD in physics from Queen’s University at Kingston.

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