Italian Open Source projects: WURFL

I heard many times people saying there are many Italian developers but no Italian OS projects.
There are no Italian Red Hat, but there are no OS firms like Red Hat in the whole world!

Despite the absence of an Italian OS firm publicly traded, there are few stories to tell.

Few days ago I passed by a blog of an Italian developer and when I learn about his project I asked him to tell me more. Here it comes the WURFL project, a big repository of information that help to recognize browsers, devices and their capabilities about (almost) all known Wireless devices.

To know more about the project and its business implications I posed with questions to the mantainer, Andrea Trasatti.

How the project was conceived?

WURFL was born in 2001. Since 1999 there was a mailing list collecting people talking about WAP and WML issues.
As you might know every mobile phone had its own screen, any browser its own characteristics, and behaviors. Among us developers was quite straightforward to share information about mobile phones instead of buying all ones. That’s how WURFL started.

So the software started, as pointed out by Raymond, by scratching a developer’s personal itch.
The message from the WAP Forum to wait for implementations to converge didn’t sound good to them, and that’s why they began to develop a database of device capabilities, the WURFL.

How did it grow?

Despite many people were sending useful information, mantaining the project was a time consuming activity. At that stage I was employed by BWare Technologies, and I was working in a project for an Italian mobile operator. Since I was developing a multi-channel chat web and wap based, I was in the position to get information about a lot of mobiles. That’s how I became the mantainer of the configuration file.

Luca Passani was there from the very beginning. He was employed by Openwave, and his company was interested to make WAP aware as many firms as possible.

Many other developers joined the project as long as they were interested in the problem, then they leaved, while others were coming up to help the project.

Everyone was using a different framework, but this was not a problem, since the format of choice was XML, and everyone might keep using his or her favourite tools. Many decided to share their libraries to access the data as well, and the project was growing.

Then Luca Passani designed and implemented the WALL tag-library, enabling the delivery of applications to all devices (WAP 2, old WAP 1.X, XHTML and I-Mode). Using his library firms with almost no knowledge of WAP could wrote their own applications for WAP terminals quite easily. As maintainer and author of WURFL I have been invited as expert to join the W3C Mobile Web Initiative.

How did the project affect your professional life as developer?

At the very beginning I was employed by BWare Technologies, and WURFL took me one hour a week, there was no reason to raise the issue. Then increasing the number of new mobile devices I asked to allow me to spend some time mantaining WURFL, and it was easy to convince them, since we were taking advantage of it by some customers’ projects. Then I left Bware Technologies and WURFL became a medium to create business opportunities.
While working by DADA, a leading European provider of mobile community and entertainment services, I used WURFL as a key tool and they allowed me to spend time to empower it.

Nowadays I’m working with M:Metrics, their core business is about statistics.They’re really interested into WURFL, because it represents both a source of data and a marketing tool. Empowering content providers with a useful tool is a medium to help the Mobile market to grow.

Indirect funding then, to call things with their name. It’s worth to notice that M:Metrics sounds like the most interested in aiding WURFL development, where the system integrator and the content provider might look like the best suite candidates.

Who are the contributors?

Sometimes single developers, hobbyists, medium to large system integrators or phone mobile producers.

So the technological club, started from single developers, today encompass every kind of contributor. In terms of adoption today WURFL is likely more popular than pure UAProf solutions.

The idea of sharing a “standard” was really strong in their mind, they couldn’t wait for implementations to converge “naturally”. And they got big attention, as seen they were invited to join a W3C initiative, and they spoke clear and loud.

What about the coordination of production?

Our organization is simple. Luca Passani takes care of Java libraries and WALL, I take care of the PHP library. Then I manage all contributions, while he is busy with our web.
Both of us spend time reading the mailing-list wmlprogramming, he moderates it also.

We receive contributions from other developers in other languages, like ruby, perl, or .NET. Data are all free, while libraries are licensed with MPL, GPL or BSD.
The project is guested by Sourceforge, and source code is accessible via CVS.
Very few contributors have write privileges for their own modules.

We’re very happy and proud of our results, and I believe many firms use it not only because it’s gratis, but because of its open nature, and our mission is to keep it so.

Thank you Andrea, I wish you happy hacking, and please keep WURFL cool!

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7 thoughts on “Italian Open Source projects: WURFL

  1. Thank you Roberto for the article, it was a pleasure to have this interview with you and chatting about open-source and business opportunities.

    I think WURFL has a bright future ahead. Luca and I are working daily to channel the energies of the community to give more fire-power to WURFL.

    The idea of open-source in Italy is often to have something for free and not even say “Thank you” to the original developers. I have taken a lot from the open-source world and it feels good to give something back. It is hard to find sponsors in Italy. DADA was an exception and it was good. M:Metrics is a US company and things are different again.
    We should try to import the best from the foreign countries and not just hamburgers. :)

  2. Andrea would you explain what do you mean by “M:Metrics is a US company and things are different again”, please?

  3. I have worked for Italian companies for more than 10 years now and most of the times we are talking about small companies that have grown from nothing to whatever they are today. This means that over the years the managers have saved the money they earned and spent it in new projects and development.

    What I think is crazy is that in Italy there is very little investment (if nothing) in the research and development. Companies always invest internally in projects they feel safe will bring some revenue in the very near future. There is very little pure research.
    Investments in new technologies in Italy is very little. Rarely happens that a company spends money on the learning for its employees.
    A demonstration of this is the number of Italian companies participating in research activities such as the W3C. The W3C counts 3-4 entities from Italy, one is the CNR and another is Telecom Italia Lab.
    Where are all the other companies?

    This is what makes me think that open-source can hardly find investments in Italy. Research and open-source today go side-by-side, in my opinion. A lot of research is done in open-source and a lot of innovation came from the open-source, look at PHP or JBoss.
    Companies in countries like England, Ireland and France are spending much more money and time in research and development and this will bring them to even more advantage in the future.

    I think that the post from Fabrizio Capobianco describes some of these ideas too, in the “The Funambol model: US capital and Italian heart ” paragraph from BAIA invited post on the Funambol model. He is Italian, all the development is done in Pavia, but they had to go to the Silicon Valley to find some money to start working.

  4. It’s worth to notice that Italian VCs tend to invest only on sure bets. After all Italian Banks get money because medium to large companies pay 120 days after, so companies have to borrow money from them, an easy game to play.

    Then you’re right, Italian companies do not participate to standardization bodies, and I believe there are a number of reasons, ranging from cultural aspects to linguistic ones.

    About R&D expenditures I know that in other countries there are fiscal deductions for firms who invest in R$D.
    This might help, I guess.

    My personal experience in Italy says that if you have a good project you might help from public institutions, like the Financial Investment Agency of the Regione Lazio (FILAS), who helped me to create a network between a roman university and my company.

    I’m looking forward to interview Fabrizio Capobianco,stay tuned!

  5. I don’t live in Lazio so I don’t know them. According to the site they are focused on the Lazio-region only.

    I have very little experience with public funding, but of course I know that in some cases they deliver high funds if we compare it to the economics of small companies and start-ups.

    From your posts it seems like you have had a positive experience. I don’t have any, actually. What would you advise?

    What did you get funding for?

    What was the outcome?

    How did you report on the results? Were the funds “a fondo perso” or was it a loan with a tiny rate?

  6. I believe almost every Italian region guest public institutions similar to FILAS, you better check it out through your local business innovation center. – there are 160 BICs in 21 countries sharing the goal of supporting SMEs development -

    My experience: it took me six months to get the project – create a commercial open source product starting from a toolkit made by academic researchers – approved and funded.

    I personally interviewed applicants along with FILAS and the professor involved with the project, and and I got three researchers paid for one year.
    Besides that they sponsored a marketing research, and at the end of the day we did a very good deal spending some efforts to work on the business model in order to get it approved.

    If you have a business idea, give it a try!

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