December 9, 2008

Funambol's CEO sees AGPL as essential for FOSS in cloud computing's future

Author: Bruce Byfield

"The future of software is in cloud computing," says Fabrizio Capobianco, CEO of Funambol, a company that provides mobile services. And if free and open source software (FOSS) is going to survive in that emerging market, he says, then the community needs to adjust by promoting greater use of the GNU Affero General Public License (AGPL), a license specifically crafted for software as a service.

"If we want open source to thrive in the future," Capobianco warns, "We need to make sure it applies in software as a service. You need a license that preserves copyleft in the cloud world."

Capobianco's conclusion is the result of 15 years' experience with FOSS. His first encounters with the community occurred when he was a graduate student at the University of Pavia in Italy. There he met Alessandro Rubini, the writer of the Linux mouse driver and the co-author of Linux Device Drivers. "I observed him working on Linux, and the work he did with the community," Capobianco recalls. "People worldwide were helping him with the device driver and doing testing. And I loved the idea of open source and community."

When Capobianco graduated and began his career as what he calls "a serial entrepreneur," he took his interest in FOSS with him. At companies like Internet Graffiti, the first Italian Web company, and Stigma Online, an information portal with major Italian customers, he used FOSS to build the company's back ends. And even during a stint at Reuters, which employed no FOSS, he was still using Solaris, GNU/Linux's cousin in the family of Unix operating systems.

However, it was in Funambol that his interest really emerged. Beginning as a FOSS project in 2001 and becoming a company in 2005 with the help of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, Funambol is a company that Capobianco explains is dedicated "to bring the BlackBerry experience to the masses" by providing software services that can be used by any mobile device on the market. Funambol calls this product MobileWe -- a play on Apple's MobileMe that emphasizes its community roots. The Community Edition or client of Funambol's product is distributed as FOSS, while the Carrier Edition, which is aimed at service providers, is sold under a proprietary license.

But Funambol is not just built on FOSS. According to Capobianco, the company would not be possible without the FOSS community. Estimating that some two billion phones are being used worldwide, Capobianco points out the impossibility of any company developing support for them all. "You'd have to buy every type of phone, and fly to every country and buy a connection with every carrier on the planet," he says. "The reality is it can't be done by a commercial entity. But it is done by our community. Our community is in every country, playing with every possible phone. And lots of them are developers. They test [our services], write code, and return the code to the community." As a result, he claims that "Funambol is the largest open source project in wireless."

Advocating the Affero GPL

Early in Funambol's history, Capobianco noticed a major loophole in the GNU General Public License (GPL). The GPL requires distributors of software that uses it to make their source code available, but companies offering cloud services "were going around the requirement by saying that they were not actually distributing software, because they were running it as a service. And there are some big companies doing it, such as one that starts with 'G' and ends with 'oogle.' I just believed that that was exploiting a loophole." That loophole existed because the second version of the GPL dates to 1991, when "no one was thinking of running software over a server and how copyright would work in that case."

In response to this situation, Funambol started using the Honest Public License, which was the second GPL with an additional line that specified that distributing software as a service was still distribution.

Neither Capobianco or anyone else at Funambol sat on any of the committees that the Free Software Foundation consulted during the writing of the third version of the GPL. However, the process of writing also included community input, and Capobianco became an advocate of creating the Affero GPL, which was substantially the same as the Honest Public License.

"The moment the AGPL came out, Funambol submitted it to the Open Source Initiative for approval. It became an approved OSI license, so we switched right away," he says. Since then, Capobianco has continued to promote the use of the AGPL in his blog and when he speaks in public.

His logic is simple: "If you let people use a loophole and use the normal GPLv3, you're killing copyleft. To me, it's a cancer that's out there waiting to kill open source. I want to ensure that copyleft remains a constant in the future of software. That's why I've been pushing for AGPL. We would make a mistake by not looking at it."

Admittedly, he adds, the AGPL "makes more sense in my business and with my product than in many others. But what I tell people is, 'Any product that you have may be packaged as a service in the future. So,if you're going to pick a license, you better pick the AGPL.'"

Gaining acceptance

The largest obstacle that Capobianco sees in encouraging the use of the AGPL is that it is largely unadvertised and unpromoted, and many people are unaware of it. The writing of the third GPL created widespread interest in licensing, but "people have moved on now," he says. Also, the difference in the licenses is "a subtlety" -- although an important one -- that people can easily miss. For these reasons, people "don't have a clear understanding of the difference between AGPL and GPLv3. They just go with GPL because it's the standard one."

Still, Capobianco sees encouraging signs. He cites the Palamida page that tracks GPLv3 adoption, noting that, in the year that it has existed, the AGPL has gone from 0 to 181 companies using it. While this is a small number compared to more than 3,300 companies using the ordinary GPLv3 license, Capobianco points out that it represents almost 100% growth in each quarter. "It's going to take a few years," Capobianco says simply.

However, Capobianco views the adoption of the AGPL as essential. "Because of what I do, I believe that mobile is the best market for open source, and that a lot of innovation is coming from mobile. Computing is going mobile, and mobile means cloud services. That's the future of computing: Lots of devices, including laptops and phones plus software as a service. And if that's the direction, then you need a license like AGPL to protect open source in the cloud services world and to preserve its spirit."


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