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Let's dig into how open source could KO the Silicon Valley chat silos

Open Xchange boss maps out IMAP scheme

Interview There's never been a better opportunity for the world to start untangling itself from the giant Silicon Valley data harvesters than now. Last week, we revealed a plan to embed open-source chat into three quarters of the world's IMAP servers.

And this may be an important development. Maybe.

Google, Yahoo!, Apple and Microsoft handle around half the world's email, some 2.5 billion users, while open-source IMAP servers handle the rest, around 2.5-3 billion. Of these the Dovecot open-source server, part of the German business Open Xchange, is installed on 75 per cent of boxes. Quietly drop IM into the mix, and you've given the world a reason to leave WhatsApp.

After breaking the news we caught up with Rafael Laguna, Open Xchange's co-founder and CEO, to explain the motivation.

Perhaps the clues were there a year ago when Laguna questioned why we were being sucked ever closer into the monopolies. Open email became Facebook. IRC became Slack. And chat?

"Chat is even worse," Laguna had told us, "because we already have XMPP [Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol]. 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?" And the rest of them.

You should be able to switch from asynchronous (email) to synchronous (chat) communications and back again. The internet's designers either grew old or forgot what people do.

Although the plans are still on the drawing board stage, Open Xchange has sufficient clout in the marketplace to birth a new protocol.

No free and open-source software means a network monopoly – and Facebook is an avoidable example, he says. Laguna acknowledges there are plenty of open-source chat clients but they don't have the qualities of a true open protocol like email.

"When you say WhatsApp is evil but Telegram or Signal is great, remember that they're silos. Maybe they're open-sourcing some of it, or all of it, but it isn't federated. I can't connect to the network with my own Telegram server. So really I have no idea what they're doing.

"Innovating in email is difficult. We've been thinking long and hard about why people use email. It's growing and there are reasons for that.

Open source sets sights on killing WhatsApp and Slack


"Chat has a couple of features that are likeable: the status of message delivery, and presence info. And retractibility or 'editability'. You can't do these things on email. Email is a store and forward architecture, it takes many hops to get to you. That's great – it's robust – but we lose the route.

"If I send you an email, and you reply to me, we've created a trust relationship. The email contains what your home email server is. So what the servers can do is create a direct connection. That allows a real-time connection to be created. Message delivery can now be in milliseconds – it's instantaneous.

"And so we can implement real-time features like real-time encryption for comments; delivered (d) and read (r) marks; threaded chat; group chats – all these are an extension from email and we're using email formats to store the messages.

"It's not super hard to do that. I should have all my chat and email in one place. I can then search the archive, and move to other providers. What about the network issue? 75 per cent of all open email deployments will get that functionality immediately. And because it's email you're getting very chatty emails." Aggregated, he stresses.

"Right now it's a brainchild. We'll try and put something out in the next couple of months. We'll go through all the mechanisms to propose extensions to IMAP. This will really live and die with email clients picking them up, and creating good user experiences. We'll entice our customers to activate it. But you don't need millions of servers if you have thousands more than anyone else."

We discuss the various pitfalls that await.

Laguna finds optimism in that nobody is particularly loyal to a specific platform – they go where their friends are.

What about protocol subversion? Like Microsoft before it, Google loves an open standard it can then break and own.

"They broke the protocol with OpenID. Google based its identity platform off OpenID. They've done the same thing with others: embraced open protocols like XMPP and caldev, and once they had enough users they discontinued support of it," he admits.

"Google is weak on chat but they may actually like what we're doing. They can kick Facebook." ®


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