Points of view on Blender: Jon Peddie

This article is part of a series celebrating the 20 years of Blender as a free and open-source software, edited by Blender producer Fiona Cohen and first published alongside the Blender Foundation Annual Report 2022.

About the author

Fiona Cohen is an animation producer and project supervisor from France. During her 7 years of working with producers and studios to make animated short films, series and feature films, she discovered Blender at Autour de Minuit in 2018. Then started a journey of curiosity and learning, diving more and more into the Blender technology and its community. She visited Amsterdam in October 2022 for the Blender Conference and got to experience the full power and thrill of the project.

In February 2023, she joined Blender Studio as a producer, managing movies, editing the Studio website and taking care of Blender-global tasks like the writing and editing of The Blender Foundation Report 2022.

What have we achieved in twenty years? What impact did Blender really have on people, the animation industry or the software world?

Keeping in mind that honest feedback will always make us grow stronger, Ton wanted to interview people outside the organization, all with different perspectives and relationships with Blender. People who played a role in Blender’s past, for some, and who also have an independent business so they can share their outsider’s point of view as well. 

We reached out to them explaining that those conversations were not meant to be a promotion piece, we encouraged honesty and distinct viewpoints or recommendations.

For those who worked with Blender and Ton, I poked their memory to better grasp what the project had been, at the beginning. How was it perceived then? And since, what do they think of our track record? Can they point out strategy errors? Is Blender still relevant in their eyes?

And above all: what about the next twenty years?

Through all four different points of view, a clear consensus emerged: for people who have followed the project or known Ton for a long time, Blender is above all a great tool linked to great memories. Times at the BCON, meeting passionate people, the amazing community, or times working on a project, be it a crappy experiment or an award-winning feature, with all the possibilities the software can offer. The fun. The joy. The freedom.

Thus, I wish to present those four conversations as a way to recognize past accomplishments and stories that have shaped Blender into what it is today. And next to this, take the opportunity to look into what lies ahead. 

To the next chapters!

The interviewees’ words have been edited for clarity.

Jon Peddie, industry wiseman

Does Dr. Jon Peddie need any introduction? In our industry, at large, his reports have accompanied hundreds of companies and, with over 35 years of working in the business, he has given his consultancy to many CEOs and CTOs. His website presents him as a recognized pioneer in the graphics industry, president of Jon Peddie Research, and named one of the world’s most influential analysts. When Ton contacted him to offer the interview, Jon responded with much enthusiasm and even started digging into his memory of their relationship. Indeed, the two men have known each other for more than 20 years now, meeting at conferences over the years, often gathering over dinner – “Ton knows his food and wine!” – after meeting during the Not A Number years. A strong bond connects Jon and Ton, as they share the same appreciation for honesty, directness, and, you got it, a good meal.

With his wide knowledge of the international market, spanning hardware and software evolutions for decades, what does Jon Peddie see in Blender? “Blender was fully functional in 2000, it only got bigger and better”, he explains. “Ton’s vision was to design a universal pipeline for 3D animation, in the nineties, to make movies.” Nothing like it existed then, studios were juggling with different softwares, if any. Ton’s ambition was to streamline the processes to put the creators back at the center of the experience: here we can already hear the premises of today’s core value, The Freedom to Create.

When the internet bubble popped and Ton’s first venture, Not A Number ended, Ton reflected on his experience so far: “since he had been dealing with struggling entrepreneurs and artists, he knew that there was a population there – that’s when the open-source idea came”. Jon recalls the night that his developer friend told him that, during a nice dinner: “It was like a switch went off. He went from mildly depressed to enthusiastic, with his face lit up”. Jon’s first thought? “Don’t do it!” He couldn’t imagine anyone making a living out of this, “selling manuals”, and was worried about his friend. He could see that, while many people working on open-source projects were doing it on top of their day job, Ton was going to go all in and make it his primary activity: “He was gonna live or die on this. I’m thinking, you know, he’s not fat to begin with, he doesn’t have a lot of weight to lose without eating!” . However, Ton’s vision proved him right, finding like-minded people to build the project and ways to have a line of income: “he actually managed to support himself selling manuals, as he thought!” Regarding Ton himself, “he’s self-actualized, he genuinely is [because] he has realized his dream!

As history will have it, Blender managed to deliver on its core goal:

“Blender’s biggest achievement is to have given the industry the first functioning linear tool.” Although, as Jon Peddie recalls it, the open movies might be the project Ton is most proud of: when the first open movie came out,  “if [Ton] could have floated he would have.

How relevant is Blender today, according to the experienced analyst?It’s a vehicle”, with so many bright people working on it. With communities working together, like when computers got started: “you would gather and share, show each other’s code [so it taps] into the DNA / spirit of the field.” Like a Volkswagen, it is “a tool for everybody, and anybody” – plus “it’s got too many bright people working on it.[…] I would say that probably every studio in the world is using it – not necessarily 24/7, but for something, for a tiny part even.” That is if you consider only the movies, which Blender is not even restricted to! In 2010, Jon recalls asking the Pixar or Dreamworks team (he can’t remember precisely) if they were using Blender, or considering it: “they said very cautiously, wondering if they were going on record and I was going to write an exposé on it, ‘uh we’re looking at it, it’s – interesting’. So I wrote a note to Ton saying that this big studio was gonna use Blender – and Ton already knew!”. Even when people couldn’t believe that Blender was as good as others said it was, the project gained more users and contributors. “It was really a grass root growth.” The community at work, again.

Nowadays, Jon Peddie sees Blender as “a full member of the open-source world”, and, in the CG world at large, Blender is “no longer a curiosity or a question – it’s almost a standard”. While it is now firmly installed in the landscape, it still carries its singularity: “Blender brings a robust set of tools, functions and libraries, as well as a user interface that developers understand and quickly relate to.” A strength that the analyst clearly attributes to the open-source nature of the project: “it is made by the people who use it. And it will perpetuate because they want to use it – they’ll keep it alive.” Blender managed to grow and get robust, while staying relevant for the users and interesting enough for developers to remain invested.

When asked about the doubts expressed by his long-time friend Ton, Jon was quick to respond: “It’s his cross to bear, he’s doing that to himself!”. Ton’s impression that Blender can be seen as not accessible, or apart from the global open-source movement is not well-founded: “If you do a survey of the industry, you’ll find out that they don’t share that view. But let him have that! Keep him hungry!”. As the founder and leader, Ton both has a very specific point of view on Blender’s place – maybe even skewed – as well as an obvious responsibility in it. So keeping him on his toes, always, is another way of getting the project to move forward, asking the hard questions and improving.

We then talked about the project’s relationship to big corporations, subject to criticism in the past: “Every organization needs patrons”, and yes, often one or more of the ´’Big Five’ get involved. “Since there’s no advertising involved or attempt at ownership of the final product, if those companies and organizations feel generous – and it is generosity, not charity – then yes, I think you should accept it. I don’t think it diminishes the open-source-ness, reputation or objectivity of Blender.” The broad picture is nuanced though, as Blender has patrons in various corners of the industry, as well as many private individuals contributing. And, as it’s always been said and enforced, the project keeps its independence, So, we could look at other entities to work with, and we are – Jon Peddie encourages the project to broaden the scope furthermore: “The analyst in me, I would start identifying the industries that benefit from using Blender – look at who uses content-creation software in other, in every industry?” Jon wouldn’t go into specific recommendations though, as he says “anytime I’ve done that ,Ton says ‘yeah I know, I’ve already talked to them’ – He’s always two steps ahead of me!

As we start the project’s journey into the next 20 years, Jon believes that “Blender will still carry on – it does need a leader with a vision otherwise the direction will wander, to whatever the current crisis is in content creation”, influenced by the outside. As many people in the industry, he senses that the next step has to do with AI. “Tell the computer to do [things], to do what you want. [..] Work on an AI interface.” Isn’t Jon Peddie afraid of the effects of AI on the quality of projects, or on the people working on them? “Now, everybody’s a creator. It will all come down to, not the mechanics of Blender, but the quality of your story.” He sees this next step as a natural progression, one similar to others before: if you divide people between the technical ones and the artistic ones, even if you give more technical means into the hands of the artists, they’ll still reach “the limits of [their] own use. [Blender users] will still get to a point where they’re not quite getting what they want, which is when you reach a tipping point; they’ll still want to see what’s behind the curtain. Maybe you don’t become a coder, but a tweaker.” In other words, like other technical innovations, AI will put more possibilities into the hands of more people; it will give more direct access and power over tools and results many couldn’t reach before. Still, it will have a limit, and other people will still have a purpose in helping cross that new boundary.

For Blender’s organization itself, Jon recommends we hire a person for… data analysis. “Look at the communication’s traffic […] are we at a steady state, or are we falling off somewhere?” Do some auditing: quality control, keep an eye on the global and the details so that we can fix things when they slip or pinpoint what people don’t use – a more difficult thing to track, in contrast to bug report. As he remembers, “Ton is always thinking about how to make Blender better.” I gather that a person dedicated to gathering intelligence and helping turn those info into actionable items would ensure that this spirit endures. With time, Blender could become one of those open-source projects that rallies (almost) everyone into building industry-standard tools. A common basis for more innovation, like Khronos: “they make Vulkan, an API software that allows communication with the hardware. They are an open-source organization as well, they invited various companies trying to build software drivers to come together and build an API that [they] would want to use, efficient. It took a lot of diplomacy, and it worked” which allowed the mobile phone manufacturers to align on important things and then the market to skyrocket.

Participate in change, rally organizations, keep a close eye on the quality: can Blender lead tomorrow’s innovation?