I had already interviewed Luca Passani - the inventor and maintainer of WURFL, the Wireless Universal Resource FiLe - a few years back, but now that his new venture ScientiaMobile hit the market it is time to talk to him again.
I asked Luca to tell us about the new company, its licensing and business strategy.
What are the reasons for a new start-up company? How long have you worked on this project?
WURFL has been a popular tool for many years in the mobile community. Paradoxicall, though, my daily job was not mainly about WURFL, but rather about the consulting jobs that the WURFL “fame” was bringing. Now, there is nothing wrong with consulting, except that, as a business model, it does not scale much. For this reason, in 2010, a particularly challenging year from an economy perspective for our business, I had a few tough question to ask myself. That’s when the idea of turning WURFL into a commercial reality based on its own merits came about. I discussed this idea of starting a new company with Steve Kamerman (Steve is known in the community because of its work with Tera-WURFL, a popular WURFL tool among enterprise programmers) and it turned up that Steve was also thinking of starting a WURFL company. Joining forces at that point was only obvious. Of course, we are technicians by background. You need someone more business-oriented to make a company take off. This is where my old friend and colleague Krishna Guda entered the picture. Krish made the plan, pitched investors and did everything that one expects CEOs to do perfectly.
Good to see other members of the WURFL ecosystem get into the picture.
Talking about investors, I guess you got VC funding, can you reveal more about this?
There is not a lot I can reveal, because we agreed with our investors not to disclose their identity until the final agreement is signed. But I can tell you a bit about the process to find an investors. We pitched a bunch of VS’s. Mostly US. Some in Silicon Valley, including some top-tiers. There was some attention, but we did not get as far as getting funding from them. My clear impression is that either those VCs take way less risk than the mythology around suggests, or they simply do not understand much of what is going on in our business. Anyway, it was a frustrating but useful project. The process was very instructive and, above all, the whole team is now super-charged for whatever comes next.
Is WURFL going to stay an open-source project?
Yes, it is. We did go out of our way to avoid restricting the space of the open community. This is not solely because of our good heart, but also because WURFL exists thanks to the community of people and companies adopting it. Crossing the community is the last thing WURFL needs. The most delicate part of the move into ScientiaMobile, has been the change of the software license with which the APIs were being released. We went from GPL, to AGPL v3.
Commercial companies are unlikely to be happy with this requirement and may be looking for different licensing terms. ScientiaMobile can offer the same APIs commercially. This is called selling/buying a GPL exception in GNU parlance (others simply call this ‘dual licensing’).
So, how are commercial users charged for the API?
ScientiaMobile licensing is based on the ‘tip-the-barman’ concept, i.e. having access to an open bar at a party is cool, but in order to keep the party going, guests should tip the barman. Even when considering the tip, an open bar is still a lot cheaper than a regular bar. Similarly, WURFL Commercial licensing is still a lot cheaper than commercial solutions in the same space. As an aside, many, or even most, commercial DDR solutions will import WURFL data and resell it as their own. For example, ScientiaMobile has no concept of charging based on the number of CPUs.
Open-bar analogies aside, the ScientiaMobile commercial licensing is based on the concept that each company that uses WURFL will need to pay something for it. If a company is using the API for its own company mobile website exclusively, they’ll probably just need to acquire a single license.
Of course, we do not allow anyone to re-license our API. We exert considerable effort on maintaining WURFL and we do not particularly like free-riders.
I wish you and the ScientiaMobile team all the best.
WURFL is a framework that enables developers to query device profile information in real time, by mapping an HTTP request (originating from a mobile device) to a list of actual properties, AKA capabilities in WURFL parlance. Technologies like WURFL are generally known in the industry as DDRs or Device Description Repositories.