Italian Open Source projects: Funambol

As I already observed, there are interesting stories to tell about Italians involved with OS projects. Funambol is both the name of the firm, raised up by Italians with funds from US Venture Capitalists, and of its flagship product, the open source project formerly known as sinc4j.

Funambol application server provides push email, address book and calendar (PIM) data synchronization, but is also a development platform for mobile applications. The product is aimed at developers who need to extend an existing product to the mobile space, or who are looking to create a new mobile application.

Andrea Trasatti commenting my post suggested me to have a look at Fabrizio Capobianco’s blog, Funambol’s CEO, I did it and then I asked him to tell me more about Funambol story.

How the project was conceived?

The project started in 2001 as Sync4j, with the basic idea of providing a mobile application server for developers. To allow the next paradigm shift (from web to mobile) to become a reality. In 2002, a company was created to promote the project. It was called Funambol, the mobile open source company. Funambol is a Latin word that means tight-rope walker: being a commercial open source company means walking a tight-rope, every day. Funambol is based in Silicon Valley, it is backed by Venture Capitalist and in 2006 it was selected among the top 100 companies in America by Red Herring. The project changed its name to Funambol in 2006, it became the largest open project in mobile and it is now close to reach the one million downloads mark.

Not differently from Wurfl the project started by scratching developers’ itches, but the business idea was quite clear from the very beginning.

How did it grow?

Initially, the focus was around building mobile applications and providing data synchronization with SyncML (an open standard now pre-installed on 80% of the devices). Then we created vertical solutions around push-email, contacts/calendar backup and sync. The goal is to take BlackBerry-like capabilities and bring them to everyday phones. Push messaging – integrated with address book synchronization – is the “killer app” in mobile. The focus is building the next SMS: based on standards, supporting attachments (e.g. pictures and videos, created on devices) and integrated with the web email. The community grew extremely fast, in particular in the last year. Apart from the development, the key contribution is on the device testing. When you have a billion phones that change every quarter and behave differently depending on location and mobile operator, device testing and compatibility is the killer factor. In mobile, there is no automated testing but there are a billion devices to be tested… You need people in every country of the world. To create a BlackBerry solution for the masses, the only option is a distributed community effort. Open Source is the only viable alternative to BlackBerry and Microsoft, when it comes to the consumer market.

Looking at the community projects page I found many external developers contributing to Funambol’s OS projects, realizing connectors and syncronizers. The modular architecture establishes spheres in which developers can work free of interference from external influences, aiding the division of labour. Modularity, as usual, is central.

Who are the contributors?

Funambol is released with two edition: Community and Carrier edition. The Community Edition is targeted at enterprises who need to mobilize their users, giving them push-email and PIM synchronization for the rest of the company. Contribution to the project comes from IT people in the enterprise, ISV (bundling our project in their own) and ASP (offering our platform as a service). The Carrier Edition is targeted at mobile operators who need to offer push-email and contacts/calendar backup and sync to their consumers. It has additional features – specific for mobile operators – and it is licensed with a commercial license. We call it “honest dual licensing”, since we are not upselling a commercial product on our open source community (enterprises and ISVs) but we sell to a different target (who does not want to be return code to the community). It is the best of both worlds, since there is no tension with the community and you make paying customers quite happy (they like the source code and the large community around it, for quality and support).

Looking at the edition page, I sorted out there is a third edition, namely the Network one, aimed at delivering some basic technical support and software update notices, a low level subscription level.
Funambol is a business model layering users and customers depending on their needs, and here turning consumer users in customers is not an issue.
OS marketing works very well for pyramidal markets where you need to address only the top.

What about the coordination of production?

We have a core development team in Pavia, Italy. The project manager of the Funambol project is Stefano Fornari, Funambol CTO. The team coordinates the development and the contribution from the community in the core. On top of it, we have a very significant amount of contributors around clients (for example, the Mozilla or Evolution client) and data sources (for example, the Exchange or SugarCRM connectors). These are what we call Community Projects, fully maintained by community members. We have also launched a couple of interesting programs: Code Sniper is meant to encourage development by the community of components that have been requested by the community itself. Phone Sniper is meant to encourage device testing and certification. Both programs enjoy cash contribution from Funambol. It is one of our way to return some of the revenues of our Carrier Edition back to the community, walking the tight-rope.

I did know Funambol was helped by one of the most active attorneys in open source, what I learn from Capobianco is the extra effort they put to organize programs, included the Funambol Open Source Project Social contract, and I believe they do merit their success.

Long live to Funambol and all its Commercial Open Source projects!