November 15, 2006

For Funambol, open source software makes business sense

Author: Nathan Willis

Funambol, an open source Java-based SyncML application, reached a milestone in September with the release of v3.0. The software provides calendar and address book linkage for groupware and mobile devices. Funambol started out more than three years ago as Sync4j, with a project on SourceForge.net. From humble beginnings, Funambol has today become a company that sells commercial support contracts, but still makes its software available under the GPL.

Windows and Linux server bundles of what the company calls its general availability release are available for download, as are client modules for a range of mobile devices that do not support SyncML natively -- including BlackBerry, iPod, Palm, and Windows Mobile systems. The company hosts a list of devices with built-in SyncML capabilities for people who are not sure if their device qualifies.

The server bundle contains three big components: the Funambol Data Synchronization Server, the Funambol Administration Tool, and the Funambol Inbox Listener. DS Server handles synchronization of calendar, contact, and to-do data with mobile phone clients, Inbox Listener is an "always on" email forwarding server, and the Administration Tool lets you configure both.

The DS Server and Inbox Listener are J2EE applications; you will need a supported app server like Apache Tomcat and an ANSI SQL compliant relational database in order to use them. The server bundle also includes a pair of demo applications.

If you don't have access to a Tomcat installation, you can get a taste of Funambol's sync services by signing up to test your mobile phone against the company's invitation-only demo portal. Check to see if your device has already been tested, and if not, sign up for the Funambol Phone Sniper program. You will receive instructions via email and can test basic sync functionality for calendar and contact data.

Currently the "push email" feature touted as a BlackBerry-killer is only available for Windows Mobile devices. Funambol's Marketing Vice President Hal Steger explains that push email relies on support for SyncML version 1.2, which as of yet only includes a few non-Windows Mobile devices. Data synchronization is part of the SyncML 1.1 specification, which is in widespread use.

Whether you need to download client software to your phone depends on whether the phone natively supports SyncML. Many do, including most models made by Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson. Other devices will need to download Funambol's client software packages.

Non-phone devices and platforms

The real point of SyncML, of course, is its ability synchronizing multiple devices and platforms. To that end, Funambol provides connectors for Windows software like Outlook and Exchange.

Fortunately, non-Windows users are not left completely out in the cold. The DS Server API is free, as is its documentation. Funambol maintains a page of links to related community projects. Most of the current batch is written for the previous version (named Sync4j 2.3), but includes connectors for open source apps such as Evolution, Mozilla, Kolab, GroupDAV, and SugarCRM, as well as generic LDAP server support.

A more interesting prospect is Funambol's Code Sniper program, an incentive-driven campaign that offers bounties of $1,000 to $3,000 for developers who write connectors for the latest version of Funambol. To qualify for a bounty, developers must submit a proposal to Funambol and agree to license the work as free software.

The company has received 10 proposals since launching the program, including several from its public "hit list" and several independent creations. Funambol works with the interested developers to develop a detailed design requirements document before accepting a proposal, at times requiring several iterations. All design requirements docs for accepted proposals are publicly available on the Code Sniper page.

Regarding what ideas are welcome, Steger says, "We're pretty open to any proposal that we can see benefiting a reasonably large number of Funambol developers or users. Our rationale is that if we can see how a lot of people would like something, as long as it's medium priority or higher, we'll approve it.

"A bonus is that there will be another experienced developer who knows how to develop mobile applications and services using Funambol, which is good for them and us. In some cases, if developers really get into it, who knows, maybe they'll want to work for us in some capacity at some point. At a minimum, chances are that they'll be using Funambol for other projects as well. So it's a win-win-win, for them, us, and the community."

Licensing

Funambol makes its commitment to the free software community explicit in an "Open Source Social Contract" available on its Web site. All Funambol tools are licensed under the GPLv2 and a home-brewed license named the Honest Public License (HPL), which has at its core the GPLv2, with an added paragraph attempting to close the "ASP loophole" for software services.

The text of the added paragraph was lifted from a draft version of the GPLv3. Funambol CEO Fabrizio Capobianco states in his blog that "the use of the name 'Honest' is ABSOLUTELY not intended to mean that GPL or any other licenses are dishonest. It is quite the opposite, actually. But some people are taking advantage of a GPL legal loophole and are defeating the spirit of the GPL."

Steger reports that the company has engaged in informal communication with the Free Software Foundation regarding the HPL but has not formally participated in the GPLv3 draft process. He says, "If GPLv3 includes the single paragraph that we borrowed from one of its drafts, we will adopt it, as long as it closes the ASP loophole, which was the whole point behind HPL."

Conclusion

Given the detail demanded in the Code Sniper Program, it may be a while before working connectors are available to sync PIM data between your phone and free desktop software applications. Likewise, push email has several hurdles to cross before it comes to generic mobile devices.

But Funambol's efforts so far are impressive, and the availability of its free PIM synchronization server is a big win, particularly given how locked-down and vendor-controlled the mobile device market is today.

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