Commercial Open-Source: Interview with Luca Passani, WURFL creator and ScientiaMobile CTO

By Ajit Jaokar

ScientiaMobile is a company in the field of mobile device detection. The company was co-founded by Luca Passani, Steve Kamerman and Krishna Guda in 2011. Luca and Steve are the main guys behind WURFL, the Wireless Universal Resource FiLe, a popular framework in the mobile space that companies such as Google and Facebook use to tailor mobile websites to the feature of different mobile devices. I interviewed Luca Passani to understand more about WURFL and ScientiaMobile, and, above all, to hear his expert opinion on what seems like a new way to do Commercial Open-Source.

 

WURFL has been around for some time, but can you summarize what WURFL is for the benefit of our readers?

WURFL is a framework that allows developers to map an HTTP request to a profile of the HTTP client’s capabilities. By “HTTP Client” I mean a mobile device and the browser running on it, but it could also be a regular web browser, a tablet, a smart-tv or a device of any kind. WURFL is a Device Description Repository (DDR) and consists of two components: a repository of device data and an API with the logic to keep the framework small and fast.

The framework can be used by organizations to serve multiple versions of their web content tailored for the different devices. We call this “multi-serving”. The framework has existed for over 10 years and the Open-Source approach has made it pretty popular over time. Thousands of companies are using WURFL around the globe. I’ll mention Google and Facebook, but this is not only about the big guys: two-guys-in-a-garage start-ups love WURFL too.

 

Open-Source, or more precisely, Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS), has been an area of great interest for me, as well as the business model of commercial open-source companies…

FOSS  is an amazing way to make a software product popular. My take is that 50% of FOSS popularity derives from the fact that it is free of charge. While the remaining 50% derives from the fact that the availability of source code offers flexibility and “integratability” (is this an English word?).

Of course, the other side of the Open-Source coin is that it is very hard to create a sustainable business model on top of a FOSS offering. If your software is provided free of charge, zero will stay zero no matter how many “customers” you have. The implication of this is that Open-Source also creates its own “bottleneck”: the lack of a viable business model prevents companies from investing in creating more better FOSS software. Some companies have managed to create a sustainable business model around FOSS based on support, training and/or more stable and better supported releases. This is totally great. Having said this, I sometimes wonder if it isn’t a waste to see millions of dollars worth of software being licensed for a nominal fee, as compared to what the same software would cost in the hands of Oracle, IBM, Microsoft or any of the bigger guys. But I digress…

 

So, is ScientiaMobile’s approach to Commercial Open-Source different from the approach taken by others?

Yes, it is. The traditional approach to commercial open-source taken by companies in this space is the “freemium” model. I’ll give users something free of charge, and then charge for some extra “goodies”. MySQL is probably the best known example of this, but there are many other companies that took a similar approach. I talked to some of those and they all believe in the assumption that if you don’t do the freemium model, someone else will and the company dies. I do not agree with this view, or, at least, it cannot be taken as a generally valid pattern for everyone. If a software product has enough value, catching up with it is not simple for newcomers and this includes Open-Source initiatives. More importantly, the freemium model was the one attempted by WURFL prior to the arrival of ScientiaMobile. That model did not work. Too few paying customers.  I think that organizations all over the world have come to take open-source for granted. Turning 2% of your users into paying customers was easier once. Today’s companies have figured out that the support budget for Open-Source products can be cut without dramatic consequences. This has made achieving 2% difficult for many commercial open-source players.

With ScientiaMobile we challenged the freemium assumption and went for a model that, if not totally new, it is still relatively novel. I am referring to the model that relies on the Affero GPL (or AGPL) FOSS license. In a nutshell, AGPL says, either you are OK with releasing the full source code of your application as open-source, or you cannot use the software, or, alternatively, you can license WURFL commercially from ScientiaMobile and avoid the AGPL restrictions (or freedoms, if you embrace the FSF’s view). As a copyright holder for the software, ScientiaMobile can legitimately license WURFL under different terms to paying customers. This new dual-licensing model is what has allowed the WURFL team to connect their work with a business model that is bound to deliver more better WURFL in the future. This has been made obvious by the number of new WURFL-related products we have launched over the past year: New version of the WURFL APIs, WURFL Cloud, WURFL Module for Varnish Cache, NGINX and Apache and more.

 

How was the change of license taken by the community of WURFL adopters?

Generally speaking, the response has been very very positive. The reality is that an organization that utilizes server-side device detection has support needs that a pure open-source model is hardly able to satisfy. This is your typical “someone to call when something is wrong”. Lots of companies adopted WURFL, but when a problem was encountered, the best they could do was to post a message on the WURFL mailing list at YahooGroups and cross fingers that I or Steve would not be busy with some other projects that paid our bills that day. This was far from ideal. The arrival of ScientiaMobile has changed this. WURFL is our only project now. We offer a great forum for all WURFL-related questions and our support team will respond within one business day or, more often, just in a matter of hours. You may find it interesting that we also allow non-commercial WURFL users to post questions, so the new model is still benefiting the larger community to a greater extent than previous set-ups.

Of course, I admit that not everyone was equally happy about the change. Open-Source zealots, the most vocal ones typically, objected that WURFL should stay free-of-charge with a variety of funny arguments. At the end of the day, they were wrong. Creating an open-source project cannot be a commitment to work for free for the rest of one’s life. Plus history has already shown that WURFL works much better for everyone with the new commercial model. I once heard someone argue that Open-Source zealots are not OK with anyone profiting from Open-Source. I disagree. I think that Open-Source zealots are not OK with anyone evening breaking even with Open-Source (laugh).

 

So, what is your definition of Open-Source?

Wow, this is a super-complicated question and one that would require a full lesson on the origins of open-source going from Richard Stallman (of GPL and strong copyleft fame) to the schism of Open-Source, which was essentially brought about by the idea that after all one does not need to be anal about a piece of software being integrated into a commercial product. Rather than a history lesson, I’ll gladly focus on what Open-Source means in practice for companies. As I mentioned, there are two sides to Open-Source: price (i.e. the fact that the software is often free of charge) and availability of the source code, i.e. the fact that the software is easy to integrate and tweak for one’s needs. Open-Source delivers both aspects to its users. Proprietary software costs money and is a black-box. I’ve always found this to be a paradox. Ironically, with proprietary software, sometimes companies pay more to have less.

Mainly thanks to the AGPL, ScientiaMobile decouples these two aspects of Open-Source and turns FOSS openness into “value” that customers will gladly pay for, along with support and the diminished liability that would come with embedding strong-copyleft software in your proprietary code base. Up to about 10 years ago, US corporate lawyers would advise their customers to sail very far from open-source in general and strong-copyleft FOSS licenses in particular. The IP liability was too much to bear in their views. There was a little problem though: open-source meant millions of dollars to be saved in software! This is why corporations went back to those lawyers and demanded a different answer. That answer was that the GPL spirit could be worked around by avoiding distributing the code. There is a name for this: ASP loophole. Companies can work around the spirit of GPL by keeping applications confined on their servers alone. Essentially, AGPL is simply closing that loophole. If you place your AGPL-based application on a server accessible through a network, you are now “distributing” the application and the full force of GPL kicks in: you need to release your full application as Open Source. The dual licensing scheme does the rest of the job for commercial companies (and their lawyers).

 

About Luca Passani

Luca is an Italian software engineer with many years experience in Web and Mobile Internet development. Prior to co-founding his company, ScientiaMobile, inc., Luca has spent several years with Openwave Systems,  AdMob and taken part in projects for Telecoms in the US and Europe. Luca is known to the community of developers for creating WURFL, the Wireless Universal Resource FiLe. In addition to that, Luca has authored articles and co-authored books on Mobile Web Development, an area in which Luca is a recognised expert. Luca holds a Master in Computer Science from University of Pisa, Italy.

Luca Passani