Sunday, June 25, 2006

Open Source for the masses

The goal of Funambol is to create a platform that will bring mobile applications to the masses, starting with push email. Obviously, via open source.
Bringing open source to the masses requires a bit of explanation. If you work in this space, I know you tried to tell your mom what you do for a living and failed. She does not understand what open source is. In my experience, the problem started with her not understanding with "source" means.
Some time ago, I have been asked to hold a seminar around mobile open source and dual licensing to college students. The crowd was a mix of people with engineering and economic backgrounds. The first group, techies enough. The second group, a bit more techies than my mom (with all due respect) but still not enough.
The key is that you have to explain "source" first: non techies do not understand the concept of source and binaries, let alone compiling. We grew up with that. It looks simple but it is not an easy concept to grasp for the masses.
Hence, here is how I explained open source to them:
- how does Coke produce its final product (the beverage you like)? They start from a very secret recipe (the "source"). Based on that, they produce your Coke. The recipe is not available to anybody, it is totally proprietary. Nobody can improve it, but Coke. That's what Microsoft does with Excel.
- if you want to make Tiramisu, the recipe is public. It is not proprietary. The "source" is open, available out there on the Internet. Anybody can improve it and make a better Tiramisu than the person who first invented it (which I trust is not my wife, though her Tiramisu is great). Many today share their modified recipes on the Internet. Most do not and keep their changes secret (proprietary) to impress new boyfriends. Wouldn't be great if anybody who improved the Tiramisu recipe would be forced to share it on the Internet?
- THAT is what is behind Open Source. The recipe is public and open and available on the Internet. Everyone that changes it must share it with the world. The concept is called copyleft, which is something different than copyright (yep, engineers might love compiling source code into binary code, but are also funny people). Copyleft is the basis of the GPL, the most used open source license. You change something in the source, or bundle the source to distribute it with your code, and you have to open source everything. That is what makes open source software incredibly better than proprietary software.
- if you do not like the idea of open sourcing your code (you want to create the uber-Tiramisu) and behind the project there is a company with a dual licensing model, then you can license the code (in exchange for cash) and get rid of the copyleft requirement. That's how Funambol makes money and puts it back into the community to improve the product even more.
Lately, I found out that this explanations brings my point home. My mom knows what I do (and still calls me every time there is a problem with her computer). I am not sure if it will work for you as well, but if you try, it works and you are grateful, I accept Tiramisu as a gift.