Thoughts on mobile cloud computing

Mobile cloud computing represents an opportunity for the free/libre open source software movement that is just as big and radical as cloud computing, maybe even moreso. This is part 1 of a post about it, part 2 will follow shortly.

By the end of 2009, 4 billion people will use mobile phones. By 2013, that number is projected to grow to 6 billion. That is many times the number of personal computer users. By definition, mobile phones that access the internet are performing mobile cloud computing: handsets need to borrow storage and computing power from the cloud because of their limited resources.

Just as Free/Libre Open Source Software played a major role in the growth of the Internet and cloud computing, sparking issues about openness and freedom, the Free Software movement has the potential to provide a similar yet different impact on mobile cloud computing.

To mitigate the power of the cloud computing vendors and reduce the risk of lock-in the free/libre software community and proprietary vendors are discussing policies and proposing standards. Various communities, from Open Cloud Manifesto to Autonomo.us think-tank, are searching ways to guarantee interoperability, security, privacy for users of the cloud services.

Mobile cloud services have similar issues, although the expected impact on the users is different. While a desktop user has the option to keep pictures in the cloud, on services like Flickr or use local storage, mobile user’s choice is limited by the device form factor.  Even if mobile devices are not exactly ‘dumb’ terminals, but they’re not ‘super-smart’ either. Usually the applications are resident on the device, but not all of the user’s data or the computing power can fit in there.  Therefore mobile cloud servicese ‘lend’ computing power to the handset when it connects to the service, which then can continue working ‘disconnected’. For example, a phone can use extra storage from the cloud for multimedia files, like pics or music. The mobile cloud service can then push to the device a special music playlist for a running workout when it’s needed.

Mobile cloud services are largely dominated by vendor specific walled gardens, and debate is not as intense as the numbers of cell phone users would suggest. Probably this is due to the fact that not only Free Software powered mobile phones are not easy to find, but also installing new software on phones was not an option for the mass market until recently. Now, after iPhone and with more and more ‘application stores’ emerging, the issue of mobile users’ freedom is showing up: billions of new handset users have the issue of freedom for the software on the device and freedom in the mobile cloud.

The Free Software community has to step in the mobile cloud debate or a large piece of digital citizens will not be able to enjoy the benefits that free software has brought to larger computer users.  The mobile cloud is pretty much an open territory where many vendors are already fighting to lock-in their users.

The birds of a feather session at OSCON is devoted to the idea of “open mobile” cloud computing. Some of the questions that we can discuss include:

  • What is open mobile cloud computing and what does it mean?
  • What components, solutions, technology, ecosystem and standards are involved?
  • What provisions are needed to safeguard everyone’s rights?
  • What tools are already available to build free as in freedom mobile cloud services?

If you would like to participate in this birds of a feather session @OSCON or this discussion, please contact me.

Moodle ripped off, should switch to Affero GPLv3

Roberto reports about the Lazio e-Citizen project chose Moodle to deliver courses to educate elderly citizens (age 60 and more) to use computers and Internet, but they don’t say that openly.’  I found it offensive, that AICA and all the other groups involved in the project failed not only to give credit to the Moodle project, but they also created artificial requirements for the solution’  making it look like the training lessons need Windows 2000 or later versions and for the browser: Internet Explorer 6.0 or superior.’  Goodbye browser interoperability, farewell Moodle’s effort to be platform independent.

It’s annoying to realize that Moodle was exploited so radically, it feels like a rip off. To give credit to the developers of the Free Software you use to deliver your services is the least you can and should do.’  You should also contribute back your changes and learn to be a good citizen in the digital world, where freedom must be preserved.’  I think the Affero GPLv3 is a better license for Moodle and other web based software as the best way to protect their asset from such rip off. Funambol wisely chose it immediately and more projects are using it, too.’  Credibility and reputation are between the most important assets for Free Software developers and they should be guarded properly.

Probably, even if Moodle used the AGPLv3, it may have not prevented the Lazio eCitizen project from hiding it under the hood but at least it may have forced them to release back their changes. I suspect we will see more of these misguided/misinformed uses of Free Software in the future. We should get the best legal protection and get ready to educate people to behave correctly.

Freedom and privacy in hosted applications

I’m not a big believer of hosted applications mainly because they fail to deliver the ‘run everywhere there is a connection to the internet’ promise. Nonetheless, I’m using hosted apps very often, especially for school papers where I have to collaborate with other people on one document. In these cases I would like to have more freedom and more privacy. That’s what I like in Marco ‘Clipperz‘ Barulli’s call for action for a suite of web applications built following the zero-knowledge methodology:

The basic idea was to deliver a no trust needed service, where users had the ability to inspect and verify anything running in their browser. We had to drift the attention away from trusting us and let users focus on trusting the application.

Add the Affero GPLv3 on top of this methodology and you can have a suite of online applications that respect freedom and privacy.’  Not a bad thing to have, not at all.

Give the GNU GPL an ‘A’, as in Affero

The GNU Affero General Public License v3 is now officially an ‘open source’ license, approved by the Open Source Initiative.

Funambol started the approval process of the best license available to protect copyleft, and business based on it, from predatory practices. Fabrizio (Funambol’s CEO) celebrates the sweet victory on his blog mentioning the ‘strange’ coincidence of Google caring only for GPL. For Google the ASP loophole is the key to their business, while they don’t like the A of Affero.

It’s a good day for all the companies that use the AGPLv3. I found some like Wavemaker, OSSDiscovery, Colosa and I wish Palamida started tracking AGPLv3 adoption too (Update: Blackduck Software already tracks AGPLv3 adoption). Here Funambol’s full press release with quote from Wavemaker’s CEO and Eben Moglen.

Update (thanks to Andi Zink):’  Doug Levin’s post contains more software licensed under AGPL.