The 3D industry is full of expensive professional 3D Software. When seeing the price tags on some of those Content Creation Packages, one might wonder how Blender, a highly professional and competitive 3D Software can be – free?
Blender offers cutting edge tech, and the huge user base creates professional work every day. There is enough incentive for working professionals using Blender to pay for their tools, but still – Blender continues to be free.
How did this even happen? Was Blender always free?
Let’s take a closer look:
A quick look at the history of Blender
Blender is a well-known 3D software and though it is not as widely used in studios as others, the user-base is one of the largest in the industry.
Its journey is quite interesting and filled with a couple of ups and downs:
At one point, the company developing Blender after it was originally created, nearly collapsed, but developers at Blender found a way to regain its glory.
The story of Blender dates back to 1988 when Ton Roosendaal co-founded NeoGeo, an animation studio. It started out small, the company only had 7 employees, Ton, and his co-founder.
In 1991 Ton bought the company’s first big silicon computer which they used to do real-time renderings of wireframes and solids.
A computer that cost around $60,000 and was among the best at that time.
It did not take long before NeoGeo became a household name in the animation industry.
NeoGeo had clients as big as multinational electronic arts firm Phillips. NeoGeo was at the peak of its journey and it was during this time that Ton started thinking of a new 3D software that would speed things up.
He felt that the, at that time, current 3D tools were outdated and did not have enough rendering performance to meet demands from their clients. Ton wanted something unique.
He eventually developed his own 3D software. Initially, Blender was only compatible with silicon graphics computer OS called Irix, but later on released versions for Linux, FreeBSD, and Windows.
As Blender was playing a huge role in NeoGeo, Ton thought of expanding its reach to other non-NeoGeo users. And with the boom of the dot.com era, it was apparent that NeoGeo couldn’t keep up with demand.
In 1998, Not a Number (NaN) was created by Ton after selling NeoGeo. It was a bold move as NaN’s growth was based on an overnight success. The spark came from the SIGGRAPH conference where NaN secured a staggering €4.5M from venture capitalists. The huge injection of cash meant NaN could expand and hire more CG artists to further develop Blender.
Soon, NaN gathered close to 50 employees working all over the world and the company was spending huge amounts of money in attending conferences, business meetings, and flying business class. Just before the beginning of 2001, Blender 2.0 was released and it was during this time that things started heading south.
Ideally, at this juncture, a company like NaN would have reaped enough profits to sustain itself during the tricky market situation that was there. But this was not the case. Blender needed a new round of funding which would facilitate the release of Blender Publisher.
This product was aimed at making use of emerging web-based 3D media. Unfortunately, investors felt they were losing too much money and decided to halt all NaN’s operations, including the development of Blender.
It was during this time that Ton came up with the idea of a free version of Blender, but he still had to tackle one big question, “Where would he get the capital?”
The Blender Community
To keep Blender alive, Ton had to find a way to finance and develop the software as it still had a fair share of users. At the time of NaN’s collapse, Ton had only 10% of shares in Blender, down from 100% when it was still under NeoGeo.
It was difficult for him to convince other partners to revive Blender and so he decided to include the entire Blender community to save Blender from fading away.
He founded the Blender Foundation in March 2002. The non-profit organization’s aim was to continue developing Blender as a community-based open-source software.
Ton’s biggest task was to convince investors at NaN to release Blender as an open-source program and not a paid one as before.
He started with a campaign to raise €100,000 to purchase Blender’s intellectual rights and make it available for the community.
After just a couple of weeks, the “Free Blender” campaign reached their goal and by October 2002, Blender was an open-source program under the terms of the GNU GPL. This was the first gesture that proved Blender had a caring community and they were eager to resuscitate Blender to its optimal state.
The huge community includes independent websites that are keen to develop, discuss and help each other on Blender usage. A great example is Blender Artists, which is a Forum for Blender users to show off their creations, offer help, and generally talk about Blender.
The Founder’s Vision
Some people might argue that Blender would not be alive if it were not for Ton Roosendal’s tough decisions. Even after losing almost 90% of the shares of his company, Ton continued to save Blender and involved all those who were passionate about it.
But why would Ton resuscitate a company and then leave it for free?
Simply put, he had a vision for Blender and this vision didn’t involve money. He wanted Blender to survive so much, that he would do anything to make it work. With the Blender Foundation in play, Ton knew the 3D software’s chances of survival were quite high.
And he did not stop at that. With Blender having its roots as an in-house 3D tool, it was apparent that they would get feedback from its day-to-day activities. The fact that employees needed to interact and develop the software for a larger community made Ton create a project that would bring together outstanding CG artists to make an amazing 3D film.
That was the beginning of “Project Orange,” back in 2005. The project was quickly acknowledged and later released the world’s first open movie “Elephant’s Dream.”
It was a one-of-a-kind short film / tech-demo that used only open source tools, and the assets gathered in this movie were licensed under the Creative Commons Attribute making them free to use for anyone.
After this success and wide-spread interest from the 3D-Industry Ton continued to regularly release other open movies and games.
In a recent interview, Ton expressed his passion for Blender and stated that he only needed Blender to make “stuff” and money was just the means to make that possible.
He further stated that when NaN went bankrupt the option of making Blender commercial was on the table but it was something he could never warm up to.
It Was Necessary To Save Blender
When NaN received their initial seed funding of 4.5M, the company didn’t yet know that their trip would be a short one. In fact, employee capacity increased to more than 40 people and expenditure rose exponentially.
It didn’t take long before NaN went bankrupt and in 2001 investors had to go back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, investors felt like they were using too much money with minimal returns.
They contacted Ton and gave him a six months notice that all investors would have to leave NaN and abandon all of its projects, including Blender. It was necessary to save Blender quickly, and Ton worked tirelessly to do just that.
He started the Blender foundation which helped steer the Blender movement and he later founded the Blender Institute which was the headquarters of all of Blender’s operations. Today, the institute has several CG Artist and Developers who are constantly working on improving Blender.
Blender’s Sources Of Funding
Even though Blender is free, running the company requires a ton of help and funds.
The company needs to make sure there is enough manpower to keep the software up and running. One of Blender Foundation’s core functions is to facilitate the development of Blender.
Here are a couple of Blender’s sources of funding:
The Blender Cloud is an avenue for developers and the community to access all tools in the open-source platform. It is a subscription service that hosts extra features for subscribers including tutorial videos, textures, tools to collaborate with others, plugins, and many more.
The platform charges €9.90 a month or €109 a year. After signing up for this subscription, you’ll not be charged until the 2nd month begins. The Blender Institute uses Blender Cloud as part of its sources of funding.
Apart from Blender Cloud, the institute uses Blender merchandise stores to generate some income. It is an online store selling some of Blender’s assets, merchandise, books, and artwork.
Perhaps the largest source of funding for Blender is the Development Fund. It accepts donations from well-wishers and CG artists alike to support the development Blender including all Blender contributors.
Since the creation of the Blender Development Fund, the company has managed to get donations from multinational corporations like Facebook, Microsoft, Unity Technologies, Ubisoft, Epic Games, and many others.
The most recent partner to the Blender Foundation is Amazon Web Services which joined in December 2020, as stated in a recent Blender press release.
AWS is set to support Blender in its upcoming project “Animation 2020” which is targeted to improve character animation in the next decade. The foundation is set to start recruiting for this cause in the first quarter of 2021 following the recent travel restrictions.
Blender’s journey has been a rollercoaster and there is one word that fits it well – resilient. The software is an excellent 3D creation tool with professional and competitive features that are usually only available in premium software.
Looking at its history, it was inevitable for Blender to be a free and open-source platform that has not only helped the community but nurtured creatives in the process.
Critics may define the free software as an amateur’s delight, but from several instances of what the software can do, it is clearly a tool for professionals as well.
Without Ton Roosendal’s persistence and vision, Blender would not have found the current support system. Its latest release is only the beginning of a journey worth partaking in.