The software that refused to die

When the owner of mTropolis gave it the ax, users raised money to take the code into their own hands.

Published June 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Lots of computer users love their software. But few in the annals of technology have gone as far as the devotees of the multimedia authoring tool mTropolis in trying to save a beloved program. When the current owner of mTropolis decided to put it out to pasture, they banded together and raised millions of dollars to buy it for themselves -- the rights, the source code, the whole caboodle.

Quark bought the program and its company, mFactory, at a fire-sale price of $2 million last year. mTropolis had been the multimedia phenom of 1996, appearing out of nowhere as the only program that could challenge the longtime leader in the field, Macromedia's venerable Director. But a series of management miscues and investor infighting left the company in Quark's hands. Quark, though, seemed an unlikely owner: It already had its own development tool, Immedia.

The release date for version 2.0 of mTropolis slipped by a year, and when it was finally ready in late April, Quark announced it would ship the upgrade free to current registered owners -- and then kill the whole project. Ouch!

Quark cited the tiny pool of mTropolis owners -- only 4,000 or so -- as the reason for killing it. But as the company's PR department soon found out, those 4,000 could scream like millions.

Upside columnist Lisa Voldeng kicked it off by announcing that Quark's executives "should be hung by their most sensitive parts." Other developers' reactions were similar, if not as graphic.

"First reaction: utter dismay. Second reaction: I wasn't particularly surprised," said Ian McMillan of Mekon Ltd. "Everybody just sort of swallowed it and said to themselves, we'd ride this [out]."

Mekon is a British design company whose multimedia work depends heavily on mTropolis. It was also the original U.K. distributor of the product. Now the company, led by McMillan, its vice president of marketing, is organizing efforts to buy the source code itself from Quark.

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In a proposal McMillan circulated on April 15, he estimated any group would have to offer at least $1.5 million for the code. "The risk would be high for one entity," he wrote, "but, with the investment spread across 500 individuals and companies, the risk is about the same as buying a couple of copies of Director 6.0 ..."

So Mekon floated an offer to the mTropolis developer community of shares in a user-owned, user-directed new company that would purchase mTropolis and continue to develop the program. Shares were sold at $250, with a minimum purchase of three.

At first, both McMillan and the developers considered just licensing the code from Quark and adding the new features they wanted themselves. But a trip to the lawyers nixed that idea. "The owner of the technology would have rights that, in the future, we could never control. They could start a lawsuit over our changes which we could never defend," McMillan said.

So a week later, on April 22, McMillan presented the offer to Quark of $1.5 million -- half a million less than what Quark paid for it, but better than a total write-off. Both sides have remained mum on the specifics of the ongoing negotiations, but McMillan has posted encouraging updates to the main mTropolis mailing list. Quark PR is a wall of silence.

Software projects get bought, sold and traded all the time, to be sure. What makes this different is Mekon's plans to join the potential new mTropolis company to its developer community at the hip. McMillan mentioned that nine of the original 12 mFactory engineers have expressed interest in resurrecting the software, and the list of necessary improvements to the software (a QuickTime 3.0 patch, a Windows version of the currently Mac-only development environment) was drawn up in mailing-list discussions months ago.

While Mekon and the developers are hopeful they can expand the small user base if they buy the program, their immediate interest is to salvage the thousands of dollars each designer sank into his or her mTropolis investment.

The multimedia authoring tool initially retailed for a steep $4,495, dropping later to $1,195 for the rest of its short life. Individuals who bought the product would certainly mourn its demise, but the biggest losers are design shops like Mekon and their even bigger peers like Jim Henson Interactive and Douglas Adams' The Digital Village, whose 30-plus copies of the software are suddenly obsolete. The same goes for educational institutions, which often have even less money to burn. As McMillan points out, these companies and institutions now have to retrain their personnel to work with Director or another authoring tool, losing hundreds of hours to retraining.

So the most fervent and most desperate of mTropolis' 4,000 users have
banded together to salvage their investment. McMillan has said that if
Mekon closes the deal, he'd like to distribute functioning (albeit slightly
crippled) copies of the software to every educational institution that
asks for them. McMillan hopes such a strategy would build the larger user
base mTropolis needs down the road. In the short term, to raise more capital, the company would offer a 2.1 upgrade with the QuickTime 3.0 patch and other improvements, and charge the developers the $200 or so they would have paid had Quark actually charged for 2.0. In a sense, the community would be gouging itself -- but better to keep it in the family than run out of money and have to go crying to venture capitalists.

But even some of this plan's staunchest supporters express doubt about the venture. "So the community wants to purchase it. Is it even possible to make money with mTropolis if Quark couldn't?" asks Carl Frederic De Celles, vice president of Ixmedia, a software firm in Quebec that develops add-ons for mTropolis.

"This is like the Macintosh, in that personal attachment to the product is quite high," De Celles said. "But the problem with this is that without support for the program, as it is right now, a producer cannot trust it. I wouldn't risk a product -- a large multimedia project worked on for a two-year basis -- just to see it die."

An ironic sentiment considering that mTropolis won its initial acclaim through its promise of cutting development schedules in half, especially on game projects. The list of CD-ROMs built in mTropolis is short, but it does include one of the masterpieces of the form, "Obsidian" -- considered to be the heir to the "Myst" throne until a truck named "Riven" ran over it.

mTropolis was hailed as a paradigm shift (and yes, that clichi actually applies here) among authoring tools. Unlike Director, whose animation-derived time-line method has been around since the '80s, mTropolis used "events" to push the story along. Interactivity in Director requires laborious programming in Lingo, its built-in command language; mTropolis has a list of generic yet powerful modifiers that can be dragged-and-dropped onto objects.

As a user of both, I can testify that mTropolis' method is vastly more simple and elegant. And the bigger the project, the more time developers save, thanks to this simplicity. The program is a real-life use of object-oriented programming, which no mTropolis convert will ever let you forget. They'll also always say that it's a visionary product and the best authoring tool they've ever used. To compare their devotion to Mac devotees is to do them injustice -- their fanaticism is more akin to that of the lost tribes of Amiga users.

But implicit in their praise is a put-down of the program's arch rival, Director. With a user base 50 times the size of mTropolis' and with the full marketing forces of Macromedia marshaled behind it, Director is unbeatable in its market: It's the Office 98 of the multimedia world. If it's a dinosaur, as the mTropolites have it, it's still a T. Rex. "They're the established market leader," said Norm Gudmudson, a co-founder of mFactory and the last team member still working for Quark. "For anyone else to enter the market, they'd have to be really big. A company with low costs can't compete."

Director's senior product manager, Kevin Ellis, agreed that Director was becoming easier to use, but shrugged off mTropolis as any kind of long-term threat.

"People try every year," he said. "As the years go by, a new competitor springs up. There was ScriptX, Apple Media Tool and, of course, mTropolis."

But Director has shown mTropolis fans the most sincere form of flattery by borrowing, or at least appearing to borrow, the most innovative aspects of the program. Director 6.0 saw the introduction of "behaviors" -- canned Lingo scripts with functions similar to mTropolis' modifiers. Version 6.5, which debuted in May, added increased support for Apple's QuickTime VR, which mTropolis has provided for nearly two years.

"I think it is important today for the health of the authoring tool market that we have an opponent to Director," one mTropolis user wrote in an e-mail.

Even if mTropolis never does hit the big time, if Mekon buys its code from Quark, it will guarantee that multimedia creators still have a choice.

By Greg Lindsay

Greg Lindsay is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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