The sad state of free software collaboration tools

My post yesterday sparked a little conversation on G+. The content of that conversation reminded me that free software collaboration tools are in a very poor state. Email clients for Linux (well, also on Mac OS X and Windows) suck badly, address book managers are awfully ancient, voice/video chat systems compare poorly to proprietary alternatives (technically, not just because none of our friends use them).  Some fellows of FSFE recently tried to hunt for Skype alternatives. The published results are depressing.

It’s a hard to solve. Hopefully we can put behind the quest for the ‘perfect desktop’ and start building tools for the free digital citizens again.

Skype is not beta anymore on GNU/Linux. So what?

I see lots of excitement within the GNU/Linux communities about the new, stable Skype. It makes me sad: it’s the worse kind software to be excited for. It’s designed to spy on you, it has a proprietary protocol, the software itself is badly designed, poor UI and lacks of many features compared to others. What’s more, using software like Skype that is not interoperable with other voice/messaging systems allows Microsoft to push in it creepy features like advertising next to your personal conversation. The network effect created by Skype is bad for humanity, we should treat Skype as a necessary evil and work to make people aware of reasonable alternatives.

I’d be much happier if I saw communities cheering for the alternatives. For example, I wish Canonical added a xmpp/jingle service to its One product (and I’d love to pay for it). I wish the community knew that Google allows federation in its Google Talk service: you can reach your friends that use Google.com from your own jingle server. These are the things that we need, more than yet another proprietary protocol and software to take away our options.

Facebook’s Awesome Is My Yawn

The Many Faces of A Website
The Many Faces of A Website

Mark Zuckerberg tried to steal Google+ thunder announcing that Facebook would soon have something ‘awesome’. Today the veil was lifted on the new feature of Facebook: video chat. Seriously? I find this boring. Facebook’s videochat only works one-to-one, no group video chat. It runs as a Java applet, nothing cool. It’s not based on open standards, but it’s the same secret, insecure protocol used by Microsoft/Skype.

Compared to Google+ Hangouts, Facebook’s chat is so 2010: I’m not impressed. Are you?

GNU Telephony working on a Skype replacement

Nathan Willis on LWN explains quite well the role of two GNU projects as Skype replacements: SIP Witch and GNU Free Call.

SIP Witch, the call server developed by the GNU Telephony project, made its stable 1.0 release in May. In conjunction with that milestone, GNU Telephony has also unveiled its next major project, GNU Free Call — a free, peer-to-peer routed voice calling network.

Read it all ($) GNU Telephony releases SIP Witch 1.0 and announces Free Call [LWN.net].

FSF highlights two projects that can replace Skype

GNU Free Call wants to help people easily connect with each other without relying on any one centralized network. To do that, they’re creating a peer-to-peer calling network, along with client software for traditional desktop computers and mobile devices. The project recently released stable call server software, GNU SIP Witch 1.0, and now the team is beginning to focus its efforts on building the client software.

WebRTC is coordinating an effort to let people call each other and hold videoconferences just by visiting a Web site.

via Two new projects can help free software replace Skype — Free Software Foundation — working together for free software.

First action from Microsoft after buying Skype

Every time Microsoft has the chance to demonstrate it can play nice with free software/open source companies, they fail. After buying Skype, Microsoft has canceled the agreement with Digium for the Asterisk/Skype bridge. As Simon says:

In one move, we have illustrated the risk of a hybrid open source model, the danger of dependency on a proprietary system, a proof that Microsoft still can’t be trusted with open source and an impetus to open source innovation. All in one announcement.

Amusing. via A Liberating Betrayal? – Simon Says….

Looking for freedom respecting alternatives to Skype

Now that Microsoft has bought Skype many people I know are wondering what will happen to Skype’s GNU/Linux client. Will Microsoft keep it or will they drop support for it? I don’t know, nobody can predict what Microsoft will do at the moment.

From a conversation I started on identi.ca I learned a few things about the state of VoIP with free/libre software. The good news is that all you need is to make voice calls over Internet, computer to computer, there are many alternatives based on free software and open standards. The two main protocols are XMPP and SIP. Software like Jitsi (aka sip-communicator), Ekiga, Coccinella, QuteCom (aka openwengo), Telepathy/Empathy, Pidgin and other provide the same basic voice calls.

Some of these programs claim to have video capabilities but I haven’t tested this function deeply. The fact that Carlo can’t make video calls with Ekiga is not a good start. I tested Empathy video call with a friend on Empathy, both of us using our Google Talk accounts on Ubuntu and the video call worked. I’m not aware of any other XMPP server that allows video calls or if there are services using software from Muji project. I learned a little bit about SIP Witch, OpenMSRP and GNU Telephony, all seem very promising tools to help stay away from proprietary VoIP software.

Some clients, like Jitsi work also on Windows and Mac OS X. Others are GNU/Linux specific but this shouldn’t be a problem: being based on open standard one should be able to run any other SIP or XMPP client on those platform and still be able to call each other. A search on iTunes App Store and Android Market reveals lots of SIP and XMPP clients, I’m not sure about their capabilities though.

None of these clients allow desktop sharing: this is not a big limitation for me though, as I rarely used that. The main features missing from all these programs are:

  1. a global addressbook to discover your friend’s address
  2. simple ways to make calls from computer to phone or viceversa

Discoverability of new accounts is crucial to drive adoption: I have lots of contacts in my addressbook and I would like to be able to find them online instead of having to ask them for their latest VoIP address. The complexity of SIP broker white pages is intimidating, I’m not even sure I understand how it works.  Honestly, I don’t even want to know: I want to call my friends and family.

Enabling calls from and to regular phones could finance further development of these applications. I can’t believe that none of them seem to offer an easy way to buy credit from the application itself.

Since the Free Software Foundation considers a replacement to Skype an High Priority project I would suggest them to put it on a more visible page.  I keep looking for a good free software alternative to Skype that I can use to talk to my mom: leave your thoughts and notes in the comments.

Skype open source. Not!

Skype open source? Reading the full announcement on Skype blog:

[…]Having an open source UI will help us […]

So, it’s not Skype being open sourced, but it’s only the UI. The full sentence should be:

Having an open source UI will help us further our [Skype’s] plans to monopolize the Voice Over IP market with a proprietary and secret protocol that nobody can interoperate with. [Evil laugh]

I wish Google released a fully free and open source Gtalk, server included.