GIMP cover

August 8th, 2004


Long and labored has been the history of the software till today, July 2004. A long and winding road, constellated of success and failure. Good examples of successful software have been Lotus 1-2-3 (later acquired by IBM). Or the dBIII format with its main interpreters Ashton-Tate (later acquired by Borland) and Clipper. Or Novell Netware, today still breathing but showing its age. Not to mention Oracle which entered the application software market in 1987 with Oracle Financials, now sells some 75 different applications covering a broad spectrum of business requirements [1].

Other applications were more-than-good but did not resist to a fast evoluting market, like Wordperfect, that after reaching an astonishing sales went up to $10 million for the first quarter of 1986[2], later changed couple owners and almost disappeared. Not to mention that not even 20 years ago we could not survive without Wordstar, and now where is it?

Not everything is rosy: good flops, in the hardware field, have been the Sinclair, or the VESA bus: short lasting actors of a never ending sit-com. While as software is unbelievable the success of Windows for such a limited OS.

During and after the times of the aseptic mainframes we knew nothing about computer art. The more popular works were like the Einstein face printed with a dot-matrix printer. What brought a revolution has been the advent of the computer graphic programs. From the star Photoshop to a cheaper PaintShopPro, from CorelDraw to AutoCAD, Illustrator, Quark Xpress, Painter and Macromedia Flash and Director, they changed the world. And nothing was more the same.

From the advertisement to the Art, and - since few years also in the movies - computer manipulated images began to occupy a large part of our nowadays life.


All these graphic programs are very beautiful but have a bad defect: they are largely expensive, except PaintShopPro thats cheaper. Programmers requires large amounts of time to write [possibly bugs-free] functions to rotate matrix, or to slide pixels 1 place on a side to create a smooth effect. Not to mention calculus to work with either Bezier curves or complex numbers to render Mandelbrot fractals. Thats why one requires a banks loan to buy those programs.

For the people who, like me, is adverse to loan-needed software, in the early 80s began an other revolution: the GNU. The GNU Project has developed a complete free software system named 'GNU (GNU's Not Unix) that is upwardly compatible with Unix. Richard Stallman's initial document on the GNU Project is called the GNU Manifesto [3]. At the same time, in a parallel way was developed the Free Software Foundation, the FSF. FSF is the principal organizational sponsor of the GNU Project. FSF receives very little funding from corporations or grant-making foundations. We rely on support from individuals like you who support FSF's mission to preserve, protect and promote the freedom to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer software, and to defend the rights of Free Software users [4]. Thats it: clear enough.

GNU and FSF, when coupled, brought us several programs projects, among which the most famous in the computer graphic is the GIMP, that stands for GIMP is an acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed program for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring [5].

Today July 2004 AD its one of the most powerful graphic tools around here. It can accomplish many tasks, has plenty of filters and instruments, realized with plug-ins, an optimal use of shared memory, for OS who support it, support for scripts, and moreover its FREE.

How all this began? A couple of students at Berkeley, Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis, decided they wanted to write an image manipulation program rather than write a compiler in scheme/lisp for professor Fateman (CS164) [...] Thus Spencer and Peter begat the General Image Manipulation Program, or GIMP for short [6].

How It Grew

In its first public release, v.0.54 on Jan.1996, GIMP already showed its strength and many promises:
  • it had a plug-in system, so programmers could add more functionalities, without introducing changes in the main code;
  • it had the basic tools to do drawing, and channel operations;
  • it had a beautiful undo feature, unknown to any other image manipulation programs;
  • it soon gained loyal users, was protected by the GPL, and had a cool name [6].
But it was not the GIMP we know today. It had some youth defects: frequent crashes, that could be provoked either by the plug-ins or the code. Its interface relied heavily on Motif and its GUI toolkit, so large scale distribution was tough, and also did not attracted so many plug-ins developers. Already in this age there were some fan users who claimed GIMP was more stable than Photoshop [6].

One of the first action Pete and Spencer took, was to open a mailing-list and receiving feedback from the users. A mailing-list was also a good way to announce what was going on. A problem soon arose. Many users needed help on how to do this and that, while the list was mainly on how to manipulate pointers and data structures ". On July 5th, 1996, gimp-list split into gimp-user and gimp-developer [6].

In few months were born several GIMP related web sites made by users. The history remembers the name of Zach Beane (Xach), started making tutorials for GIMP. Many other users followed, so it was easy to find information and how-tos. By now a newbie could find other users available to help.
Also forever remembered will be the names of:
  1. Federico Mena Quintero, also known as Quartic, who setup a page of links pointing to all known GIMP resources. In the page were also announced both new plug-ins and those developed on his own;
  2. and above all Larry Ewing who became famous with his Linux Penguin, also known as Tux.
In the meantime other things were happening. Peter got stuck with the Motif development toolkit, and took the road to write one on his own. He called them gtk and gdk, for the Gimp Tool Kit, and the Gimp Drawing Kit. Peter tells us now that they never intended for it to become a general purpose toolkit - they just wanted something to use with GIMP, and it 'seemed like a good idea at the time'. A name change also occurred; The General Image Manipulation Program became the GNU Image Manipulation Program [6].

The new version, the v.0.60 didnt gathered so many favors. The main reason was the new plug-ins were not compatible with the old 0.54 version. People didnt feel neither to write documentation nor to download something that crashed more easily, while all they wanted was the job done. After some new features were showed at Berkeley web page, it really began the rush to make a solid industrial strength product. How Andreas Dilger commented: It's good to see that the next version of GIMP is here. Let the enhancing begin! [6].

The Teen-Age

On Feb 26, 1997, Spencer and Peter (S&P) released version 0.99. The main goals were to port plug-ins to the tile based memory scheme and new API, which wasn't done on a large scale for the 0.60 snapshots. There was a new version of gtk/gdk, called GTK+. It incorporated massive changes to the previous model of gtk [6].

Now the releases take a faster pace, till we reach the v.0.99.9. As many beautiful dreams there was a mourning stop: all of a sudden GIMP became an orphan, of both parents. S&P managed to release a new GTK+ and a GIMP 0.99.10 eventually on June 9th, 1997. It would be their last release [6].

Many users were skidded. There were some unofficial pre-releases and rose the problem to keep track of patches. Federico Mena Quintero (Quartic) picked up the releases for awhile, Under his guidance, a movement towards stability and a usable product became the primary objective. On release 0.99.14, Quartic announced a feature freeze - no new features until 1.0 [6].

Among the others, there was also the problem to find a better way of communication. A mail list is a great idea but it doesnt allow real-time conferencing, that stresses discussion and brainstorming. To achieve this, GIMP used its own irc channel, #gimp. #gimp was born sometime near February 1997 [6].

A Full Adulthood

Here began the era that brought GIMP to be a mature package. Spencer & Peter, and Quantic were gone. The GIMP split in 2 branches: the development of the toolkit and the development of the program. On #gimp irc channel is born the new team shape. Mainsh Singh (yosh) was in charge of making releases. Adrian Likins, maintaining data. Larry Ewing (lewing), Matthew Wilson (msw), and a host of others made bug fixes, and did other messier stuff [6]. The most amazing thing was they worked as a team and there was no leader. All the decision on GIMP were made primarily on #gimp, through its team effort [6].

Now other things were happening around the GIMP. Many other users felt the needing to have order and several other Web sites were born. A special mention goes to born on April 13th, 1997 by Zach, who did this effort. This site became something to check daily if one wanted to follow the development of GIMP. Around the same time came out something that helped a lot to keep track of the massive quantity of plug-ins and planned plug-ins. It will become a corner stone. The GIMP Plug-In Registry allows authors to update their plug-ins, and people to register their plans for future plug-ins [6].

In the late May 1997 Seth J. Burgess started the GIMP Bugs database and list. A great job.

On October 7th, 1997, thanks to two users, Karin Kylander and Olof S., was born the Gimp Users Manual. A monster of 200+ pages. Recently it grew to 600+ pages [6].

Now the GIMP is mature for an other new. To help keep track of the patches and releases the development was ported under CVS.

Then other things started. A commercial involvement, with people that wrote plug-ins for money, released art work, printed and sold CDs. Then in October 1997 was born and registered the official Web site, and was also born the official mascot Wilbur, of course made with GIMP. Articles appeared on the Linux Gazette and the Linux Journal. The Red Hat distro since its release 5.0 includes GIMP. More amazing things happened to the development kit: Remember GTK+? Some developers got the crazy idea that it was a great toolkit and should be used in everything. And we can create a desktop based on the toolkit. Like many crazy ideas, this is becoming a reality. The GNOME project is well underway, in the alpha stages. The GNOME project is being aggressively supported by Red Hat Labs. All of this may be seen as a byproduct of GIMP. The success of this one project has spawned many. On June 5th, 1998, at 17:17 CST, GIMP 1.0 was released. Great plans for the future are forming now! [6].

Porting and Conclusions

Given the solidity of the code and the plenty of features, the GIMP, over running on Unix, was ported on MacOS and Windows.
We could talk either of all the tools included in the package, or how to use them, but this paper could become as long as the New Testament.
As my personal experience I tried to work with Photoshop, Illustrator and PaintShopPro, but none gives me the feedback, the completeness, the task automation and the ease of use of the GIMP.


Vincenzo Maggio


For the development of this paper, have been consulted the following resources:

Orzech, Dan - Datamation, Earthweb, May 7, 2001 - at: earthweb
Peterson, W.E. Pete. Almost Perfect. First edition: Prima Publishing, 1994 at: fitnesoft
GNU Web Site
GNU Home Page
GIMP Web Site
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