January 30, 2008

Free online desktop came to life with FLOSS

Author: Tina Gasperson

Back in 1999, free software believer Joshua Rand and his friend Oscar Mondragon were talking about the changes they predicted were coming for the Internet. Not long after that, the bubble burst and things did change, for the worst, many said. "We didn't subscribe to that theory," Rand says. "We saw the Internet becoming a platform for applications and services long before the term Web 2.0 was coined. With the growth and proliferation of things like Web-based email, the next logical step was, why not everything else? Why not more personal productivity tools and office tools?" That was the beginning of Sapotek.

Sapotek is the force behind Desktop Two and its Spanish-language counterpart Computadora.de, a hosted, browser-based desktop that users can save and access from any online computer. Sapotek releases all the code it develops for Desktop Two and Computadora at Sapodesk.org, a 1,000-member community Rand launched last year. "Through that we liberate all the code for all the Web applications we've developed to date."

Rand says open source is in his DNA. "When we started Sapotek, using proprietary technology wasn't even something we considered to a great degree. We are a free software company even more so than open source. The reasons are as much philosophical as technical. We believe in the ethics of free and open source software."

Rand says if there have been challenges along the way for Sapotek because of that belief, he hasn't noticed. "Whatever challenges there have been are those germane to any small startup company. Whatever the limit of our knowledge is. We're a small team, constantly learning. But open source itself isn't the problem. There are so many different flavors of open source, including Linux, just trying to sort through it and figure out the best solution, well, that's more of an embarrassment of riches than a challenge."

The benefits of using open source are clearer for Rand. "From the inception of the company, not having to lay out a significant amount of capital right off the bat, that's significant. Cost matters for a small, underfunded company. In addition, one of the biggest advantages of open source is that there's no vendor lock-in. Fifteen years ago this wasn't an issue, because you just made a bet on the platform and went with the market leader. You had to ride the coattails of that developer. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it worked against you. But you didn't have a choice. Open source has changed the game completely."

Right now, everything about Desktop Two is free, as in zero cost to the consumer. But Rand still brings home cash. "Because of our expertise in development, we've actually been taking on some projects on a selective basis. Enough people have seen our product and have been impressed. We get a lot of calls from people who say, 'Hey, I've seen what you've done -- can you do xyz for us?' These can be very lucrative."

Rand says he plans to begin monetizing Desktop Two soon. "We're planning on rolling out a discretionary advertising campaign. We've run some polls with the users that asked, if we were to carve out a little real estate on the desktop and show ads, but the ads were displayed at your discretion, or you could choose the types of ads, would you be willing, and our users said yes. We also plan to roll out a premium version for people who want expanded service and creative control."

Rand says the best thing for entrepreneurs using open source to remember is, "Make and use friends. Seriously. When we first started, we had big ideas that have come true, but I think that along the way we could have benefited by listening more. We thought we had it all figured out, but sometimes you shoot yourself in the foot. The more people you have talking to you and that you can bounce your ideas off, all the better. In the beginning I think we kind of raced. It's not uncommon to people who are hardcore tech to engage in a race to see who can develop the fastest, or the best, or most elegantly. That's all well and good, but sometimes the end user gets lost in that equation. It was all about what we could do, and so we developed features that people didn't use or care about. We learned our lesson quickly. Stay above the fray."


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