Open Sorcerers: Can you rid us of Emperor Zuck?

Looking for lessons for FOSS from OX

OX Summit Back in the dot com heyday, around 1999 and 2000, Linux and open source conferences were huge events: they were packed and brimming with excitement. There was optimism, new initiatives in every conceivable direction, and anything seemed possible. Move over, Grandad: everything traditional was going to be up-ended by open source.

The logic that innovation gets “sedimented” (the great buzzword of the day) into open protocols and code was very seductive at the time. (“Sedimented” really meant “copied”, but has a geological flavour to make it look inevitable, like a natural element.)

Some of us wanted to believe it - but we couldn’t put aside a few nagging doubts. There was no shortage of talent, but we wondered how you’d motivate a developer to do the really boring stuff like write and maintain whatever-the-open-source-equivalent-of-SAP would be. Bug-fixing is tedious on sexy software - who’d want to do it for dull commercial data processing? Not only was the whatever-the-open-source-equivalent-of-SAP not there, but nobody in the room knew what it was.

We also wondered how a services model would bring in the necessary dosh to fund development for specialised software? Even then, supposed cost advantage of “free as in beer” didn’t really convince anyone: you need scale.

No matter. Eric S Raymond told us that FOSS made humans fulfilled: it worked at the highest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Once you had sufficient food and shelter, and family, you’d hanker for self-actualisation - and develop an itch to go and fix somebody else's bugs. You couldn’t be happy unless you were writing open source software. Really.

And in any case, IBM was splashing money about all over the place.

Despite the holes in the arguments, I looked forward to seeing lots of commercial experiments. Today, few (Red Hat, Canonical) have fulfilled even a glimmer of the promise of those early events, and Open-Exchange is one of very few providing software higher than up the stack: apps, not just system software. OX has some 230 staff, and releases only open source code which provides businesses and telcos with email and storage and DNS. It’s successful, and evidently well run - although it was far from an overnight success.

But why aren’t there are more OXs? I ask Rafael Laguna this every time I see him.

It’s money, he suggested. Telcos operate at huge scale.

“There’s no OX app, but Virgin Media can use it so a VM customers can send email. The OX model has done that for email and cloud stuff, but you have to build a sound and valid company.

“[The] Open source model helps you because you have wide distribution immediately. For commercial use - we’ve platformed ourselves.”

But in many respects the “sedimentation” view of history turned out to be wronger than wrong. The world has moved in the opposite direction. Open protocols like IRC were shunned as proprietary apps like WhatsApp (a clone with a million clones) and Slack thrive.

Er... where's the value in WhatsApp?

“Chat is even worse,” Laguna agrees, “because we already have XMPP. There are lots of implementations. You can do anything with XMPP that you can do with WhatsApp or Snapchat, so why do we have WhatsApp?”

Nobody seems to be able to write a common messaging system that ISPs can host with better privacy than Facebook allows you to have. How healthy is the market in Facebook clients compared to the market for nntp readers twenty years ago?

Facebook does hire good developers, Laguna points out.

“They hire clever people and pay them crazy money. Again, we’re trying to be the other guys. We hire good people too - and do all the stuff a FB does - and offer good karma.”

IMAP developer Dovecot and PowerDNS joined, each benefiting from OX’s scale.

“Dovecot went from three people to twenty-five, and the same for PowerDNS. It’s almost like we’ve become an aggregator of that. I’d really hope too we see more OX-like companies. We’re a 230-people company and we’re growing at 40-50-60pc each year.”

Laguna takes some inspiration from Qwant, a privacy search engine - “that’s compatible to our way of thinking - it doesn’t store data between sessions.”

Maybe a sea change in how the US giants are perceived will spur that change.

“It’s a crazy world we live in. The internet has been taken over by private companies that make their own rules. They ignore local laws.” Referring to Uber, he points out it would be “illegal in most European countries,” but acknowledges that, “the quality of taxis hasn’t improved in most part of the world. A lot of these companies create better quality service even though, as you say, they transfer the risk to the driver and the customer.”

OX only launched its app suite in 2011, adding on-premises or full service hosting in 2012. Now the portfolio includes add-ons such as PowerDNS parental controls and malware filtering. Making it all mobile seems to be next on the agenda. It’s very much geared around what its telco customers want to host, but that in itself can be viewed as a positive. Europe just doesn’t have the knee-jerk telco-hatred that Silicon Valley has nurtured.

The prize for open source should surely be the social network and messaging functions. A few years ago a federated open source social network called Diaspora was announced on Kickstarter - raising a six-figure sum before it had written any code.

The model was interesting, though. The vision, if realised, would have made social networking a service - and a feature of everyone else’s app - rather than a few proprietary fiefdoms, accessible via one website (in each case) and strictly controlled vendor apps. Once upon a time, not so long ago, you needed a BlackBerry to do mobile messaging properly. Then that bundle was burst open.

"WhatsApp says they’re not giving to give data to Facebook, [they're] just going to pocket the $20bn. Then it gives it over to Facebook anyway. Screw you," Laguna said in his keynote. "I’ve got 30 years of email, and I've changed provider dozens of times in the mean-time. A service cannot be trusted if it’s not available from many providers."

An open-source federated social networking infrastructure would tick a lot of boxes.

Diaspora got nowhere, but maybe we’ll look back on the Facebook era and be amazed that it lasted so long. ®

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