Mobile Cloud Computing, Part II: Where do We go From Here?

Mobile cloud is going to be big, according to a study published by ABI research. And they’re not the only ones to say so.

In this second part of my thoughts about mobile cloud — which I hope we can all talk about at OSCON — I’ll try to find answers to this question: as a developer commited to free-as-in-freedom software, what would you need to do to get started?

In this who’s who in mobile open source, Funambol and Volantis are shown as the only companies offering service delivery platforms, demonstrating that there are many ways to develop free software applications but only a few solutions to build open mobile services with.

Linux support packages Wind River (also one of the most prominent integrators for mobile Linux stacks), MontaVista
Operating systems for feature phones: Purple Labs; for smartphones: Azingo, Access Linux Platform, A la Mobile, OpenMoko; for MIDs: Intel Moblin, Ubuntu Mobile. Also OKL4 is virtualisation (hypervisor) software for mobile phones.
Middleware GNOME’s GTK+ and related projects (e.g. D-Bus, Gstreamer), the graphics subsystem of Nokia’s Qt and the db4o database engine.
Application environments Google’s Android, Nokia’s Maemo, Nokia’s Qt, Eclipse eRCP, Sun’s Java phone ME, Motorola’s Java MIDP3, AOL’s Open Mobile Platform and Nokia’s Web Runtime
Browsers Apple’s WebKit (on the verge of becoming a de facto standard for web-centric service delivery) and Firefox Mobile
Service deliv. platforms Funambol (consumer email sync), Volantis (content adaptation)
Development tools Eclipse Foundation (manages the Eclipse IDE, used as the basis for Nokia’s Carbide, Wind River tools and many others). Plus RhoMobile – a new set of open source developer tools for creating connected enterprise apps on smartphones.
Industry initiatives Symbian Foundation (EPL license), Open Handset Alliance (APL2 license), LiMo Foundation (open source as it builds on top of Linux), GNOME Mobile and Embedded (LGPL-licensed GTK+ and related software)

On the other hand, proprietary mobile services are blossoming everywhere. Funambol recently listed and reviewed 11 mobile cloud sync services, from Apple MobileMe to Vodafone Zyb.

A minimum requirement are interoperable services implementing open standards, because users’ data must be preserved at all costs. Proprietary walled gardens create small monopolies that sometimes grow big and take away personal data from the users. Two recent cases demonstrated that users of mobile cloud services are exposed to serious problems: one with Amazon Kindle and the other with Palm Pre. Both are mobile devices, both rely on mobile cloud services for most of their usefulness. Kindle users that buy electronic books are realizing that they don’t end up owning anything and Amazon can too easily prevent users from enjoying the books they’ve bought.  The other disturbing news story reports that Palm Pre owners cannot access the music that they bought and stored in Apple’s iTunes: Apple still wants to own the music it sold its users and keep their data hostage.  I think these are just a visible signal of  proprietary services battling to own the users’ data.  If Kindle and iTunes used interoperable and open standards, which could be safely implemented in free/libre open source software, their users would not face much of these problems.

The pure mobile service frameworks available for freedom conscious developers are Funambol, which offers push notification, synchronization and device management, and Volantis, which offers content adaptation to mobile browsers. Rhomobile is another options, a mix between a development tool and a service delivery platform. Funambol is fully based on the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) open standards Data Synchronization and Device Management, therefore services built with Funambol can easily respect users’ rights. The server aspect is complemented by the Java and C++ SDKs to develop native mobile applications for the devices. Rhomobile is based on Ruby and can be used to develop applications that act as being native but use the local web browser.

While Funambol and Rhomobile in theory can be used to develop free as in freedom mobile cloud services, there is still one big issue to solve: locked down devices. Network operators don’t want the users to be too free so almost all of them prevent users to run applications that are not digitally signed. RIM, Apple and to some extent also Symbian devices are all locked down, which renders users’ freedom in the mobile cloud a balancing act: on one hand a developer needs to obey the rules dictated by network operators and device manufacturers; on the other hand the same developer needs to find ways to deliver freedom to the users. In Funambol’s case, for example, the official iPhone client can only sync contacts because the official Apple SDK only allows that. Nonetheless, Funambol client for iPhone can sync also calendar accessing directly the sqlite database, but such version cannot run on the device unless it is unlocked (breaking Apple’s warranty).

This is only scratches the surface of the mobile cloud services for the freedom-concerned developers and users.  There are further issues to talk about, including:

  • device management,
  • how to push software updates to the devices,
  • security of data (since people tend to lose their phones),
  • how to keep data secure while transfering.

The free software movement should take the lead to address and solve these issues. I hope we can spark the discussion at OSCON. I’ll be available all days ping me any time. Follow me on identi.ca or twitter.

The cost of monopoly in the cloud

Reading of the latest cyber attacks against South Korea and USA digital systems, I remembered a rather old post from Gen Kanai @Mozilla, the cost of a monoculture. It’s about monopoly, government decisions and security in the cloud.

[South Korea] is also a unique monoculture where 99.9% of all the computer users are on Microsoft Windows.

The post tells what is happening in the country since the South Korean government decided that the whole digital infrastructure of the nation would have to depend on non standard technology and ended up with only one IT supplier. That was a really bad choice that may have made the whole country vulnerable to become a base for large scale cyber attacks.

Whether or not South Korean computers will be destroyed today (it seems that they are), the point that should be clear is that the ‘cloud’ is not a virtual environment, but it’s part of everybody’s life. Government decisions on technical issues have tremendous impact and real open standards should be mandated. With so many more mobile phones than computers, the mobile cloud must have its own standards in order to avoid monopoly and the cost associated with it. If you’re interested in the discussion about mobile cloud come to the free BoF session at OSCON2009.

via Mozilla in Asia » Blog Archive » the cost of monoculture.

Back from Online Communities Unconference 2009

Back from a super-duper day in Mountain View where a crowd of community experts met to discuss about communities, online and not. These are the main takeaways for me:

Communities are about participation and Free/Libre software projects should make participation easy. This may require a few steps, like preparing a formal governance process (like Twiki had to do).  In commercial open source communities participation should start from planning of product roadmap, but this is difficult to sell to the management because the community is not a customer.

This consideration leads to the second takeaway: community == asset. The word customer is related to income: if there is no income, then the customer is bad. Using the word asset instead helps managers understand that, even if it doesn’t generate revenues, a growing, happy and healthy community is good for the company.

Monitoring social media is a hot topic and I received a few suggestions. I knew about some free tools (Google Alerts, tweetalizer, technorati, or the simple Y! Pipe I use for Funambol) and manual labour to control conversations about your brand. There are also affordable tools (I heard mentioned Radiant6, Andiamo, Visible Technology, ScoutLabs) and very expensive ones, too (didn’t write them down since they’re good for huge brands like Sony or Toyota). You should select the words to monitor like you select the words for advertising: focus on the objective you want to reach. Why  do you want to monitor the social media?

Don’t mix social contracts with market contracts: some members of the community can be offended when offered money in exchange of something they do for fun or for altruistic purposes. Some members may also not like to be recognized as leaders, too, so be careful when giving recognitions or activating ‘karma’ points in forums.

Engaging community members is a delicate art of balance. You have to know your community well to keep it engaged. Give them new tools to play with to keep them returning, don’t underestimate the lurkers. The social aspect in community software is important: people seem to like to subscribe to twitter or facebook pages of peers posting on separate forums.

There is enough food for thoughts to keep me busy for the summer (and more) at Funambol.

Back from school, Funambol community grows

I haven’t been writing too much here because I was spending whatever leftover energy from my real job on myMBA project work. With that put to bed, it’s time to celebrate the end of two long years studying topics that I fell in love with. I feel so good, I’d start over (just kidding).

I have received satisfaction not only from school, but also from work. Funambol community is growing real fast, but it’s not just the pure numbers that rock. The quality of some contributions are just stunning. Recently, there has been a new release of the Funambol connector for LDAP, which now makes it easier to write DAO classes for different DirectoryServers. Also, Mailtrust developed a new special connector that syncs directly from server to server. For example, say you have your contacts in Google Mail and you also use an MS Exchange server, with Gnome Evolution on the desktop and an old syncml-based Nokia phone: before the Server-To-Server sync you would have to orchestrate the synchronization between the Exchange and Google accounts through the clients, being careful not to mess up. Now the S-t-S connector can take care of keeping all the accounts in the cloud in sync. That’s not the only scenario, there are more and all go in the same direction: empowering users of cloud based services to keep their data with them.  I think Mailtrust contributed s a very important building block of freedom in the cloud.

Don’t call it Scrum

Gianugo Rabellino has given me more food for thoughts about my research on Free/Libre Open Source software development and Agile/Scrum methods. His latest post contains a sentence that summarizes my key finding so far:

At the end of the day, this means that the customer is there – it just happens to coincide with the community as a whole.

Talking with my Funambol colleagues, the pragmatic agilists, and looking at Ross Gardler presentation below, I have the confirmation that the Pentaho guys are on the right track with Open Scrum. I also learned that it’s better not to use the word Scrum if it’s not The Scrum you’re talking about. With that in mind, I’m now focusing on best practices for communication between developers distributed around the world (more in latest posts).

View more presentations from Ross Gardler.

Funambol engineers apply iPhone ergonomics to cars

Check this out: Funambol’s R&D department just released a prototype user interface for driving cars. According to my colleagues that drove it in Redwood City, it’s so easy to use, even a caveman can drive it. The vehicle smashes driving age limit with “snap” finger-powered steering; integrates cruise control with Google Latitude to automatically get friend.  See it in action:

Full press release

SCRUM and volunteer developers

SCRUM development process
SCRUM development process

Funambol engineering team uses the SCRUM methodology to develop software. It’s a very interesting method that seems highly compatible with free/libre open source software development habits. It mandates fast release cycles (like the release early/release often mantra), teams that can self-organize. SCRUM also mandates fixed time (2 to 6 weeks) to complete a development cycle (called iteration or sprint). This last part doesn’t seem to be very compatible with contributions by volunteers.

I’ve been looking for other free software projects that use SCRUM internally to understand how they involve external contributors, volunteers, in strictly time constrained release cycles. Pentaho wiki has a very interesting paper on the topic, but I still don’t understand if they have established a process to assign user stories to volunteer contributors.

I wonder if some have tried and failed or nobody has ever tried this at all.

Will Nokia become FLOSS best friend?

Google’s power is making more people concerned that their motto ‘do no evil’ is not reassuring enough. Fabrizio Capobianco’s blog post summarizes the concerns of the Winston Smith Project. Google is scary because it controls the access point to the internet for 90% of users and because it’s expanding its reach to the mobile network. But G is not the only one trying to blend the separation between your desktop computer and your cell phone: it just happen to be a very visible one. Look at the chart on Funambol’s white paper on mobile sync opportunities and strategies: everybody is doing the same.

Mobile sync opportunities

Microsoft is not less scary, because with its monopoly on the desktop computers it controls the users’ applications and data. Extending their power from the desktop to the mobile environment is within their reach: after all, they succeeded expanding from the desktop to the server. They can do it again, if they play it right. Apple controls and has access to data for millions of desktop+mobile users: maybe MobileMe is not yet widely used but nonetheless the closed and proprietary nature of all Apple things and the quantity of iTunes+iPod users makes them scary enough.

Nokia is peculiar: it has a huge market share on mobile phones, but its Ovi services don’t have a strong companion on the desktop. With all the other operating systems controlled by competitors, Nokia could start collaborating more with the free software community to better integrate Ovi with Gnome or KDE for example. I think it would be a wise move since there are many GNU/Linux desktops out there, and more will come during 2009.’  Will Nokia become the next Free Software community Best Friend Forever, now that Google has become scary?

New Maemo UI and new Funambol Code Sniper

funambol-maemoNokia has shown the new UI framework for the next Maemo SDK, codename Freemantle. They finally are getting rid of the stylus keyboard and a lot of very cool new features. Ars published an overview and more up to date details. I’m a fan of the N8xx devices but I’m still waiting for devices with phone capabilities. Speaking of which, I think it’s time for a Funambol client to also run on Maemo. There is already Syncevolution, a powerful syncml client compatible with Funambol, but it’s missing a GUI. Funambol can offer $750 to develop a full graphic user interface for Syncevolution to run on the stable Maemo 4 or on the new Maemo 5. Do you know somebody interested in developing on Maemo? Go to the Funambol Code Sniper community for the details.

It’s (a)live: new Funambol Forge layout

After a lot of effort to develop a new and improved home page, we can finally say:

Thanks to Alessandra for the new graphic layout and Davide for some crucial css workaround, the home page of the Funambol Forge is now more informative and rich. Directly from the home page you can see reach not just the community pages but also the search box and latest Funambol news. In addition, you can see the latest messages posted to the most active mailing lists of the Forge, the latest twits about Funambol and latest messages from Funambol blogs. Enjoy the new site (and the new Funambol version 7.1).