Source: Ray MacLean on Flickr

Call to fund research on an easy and COMPLETE alternative to Gmail, Facebook etc…

Source: Ray MacLean on Flickr UPDATE 2013/09/17: THIS PROJECT NOW HAS A HOME AT I have been using my own email service and self-hosted blogs since 2006/2007. I started explaining why everybody should do the same three years ago, when I proposed Virtual Personal Email Servers to overcome the big limits of today’s email. In 2011 I repeated why it is important to find alternatives to Gmail.

Since real support for privacy, control and data ownership should be present in everything we do online, last January I also pointed out that alternatives to corporate social networks already exist and only need proper packaging.

Now the Snowden/NSA/PRISM affair has finally made evident, to an audience immensely larger than geek circles, that I (with many others of course) was right. Everybody, including non-geeks (no: starting from them) should have, as soon as possible, at least the possibility to:

  • store personal data and files a personal online space
  • own and use email addresses
  • run a personal blog with social networking capabilities (“find friends”, see as one page what all your friends are doing on their websites etc…)
  • share calendars online
  • do collaborative work (e.g. co-writing text through the Internet)
  • use strong cryptography for all communications, in the most transparent way that is possible
  • do all the above from any device

in a way that:

  • requires the least possible amount of software CONFIGURATION skills
  • is not tied to any single, non-replaceable organization, be it a software multinational or a Public Administration, or computer platform
  • if not gratis, is as cheap as possible, i.e. a few USD/Euros per year, possibly because it…
  • may be (temporarily) outsourced to many trusted third parties (e.g. community-owned data centers, relatives with a permanent Internet connection…). Please note that this would also be a new, huge business opportunity, for all the small ISPs and consultants that may host, manage or customize the software
  • could be also freely moved in any moment to other personal or third party computers without losing data or disrupting services (meaning that one’s email address, domain name, links to blog posts etc… would not change because of that migration)

and my proposal is…

I do know that things like Mailpile, FreedomBox and Diaspora have been already proposed to solve the same problems. While they are all great, in my opinion they also have a few serious limits that I have explained in another post. My proposal, which I first made here, remains instead:

  1. study which already existing Free Software applications may best replace each component of the proprietary, centralized services, and are most compatible with point 2
  2. study and specify how a single, graphical control panel for all those applications should work (*)
  3. build and maintain that control panel
  4. define the procedures to integrate and keep integrated with the smallest possible effort all these applications, that is to build and maintain ONE software bundle that contains all of them and can be installed with one procedure on any server
  5. do the actual maintenance/integration/quality testing as time goes by
  6. develop iOS/Android app versions of the control panel

Point 3, 5 and 6 are work for (teams of) real programmers, possibly coordinated by some Foundation. I could be part of it, but never do it myself.

I am, however, qualified to do the other points, or at least a good initial part of them. Having such documents would prove that there is wide interest for this kind of solution and describe how to make it happen. The only reason I’m not doing this yet is that I can’t do it for free, as even this initial part should be almost full time work for a few months.

Therefore, and following several private requests I got recently, I officially announce that:

  1. in the next few days I will set up an Indiegogo page to raise the money to crow-fund me to write those specs and publish them online with a CC-BY or CC-BY-SA license. In this way all the work will remain available for reuse. I’ll publish the details of this commitment, that is what exactly I’ll study and write down if I get funding, in a separate post
  2. regardless of point 1, this winter I’ll start an online course at the Free Technology Academy on how to build your own cloud from scratch by yourself (that is how to assemble and configure these applications by yourself, without a central control panel)

Follow me via RSS or Twitter to be informed of any further development. In the meantime, please do spread the word as much as you see fit AND provide any feedback you may have as comments to this post. Thanks!

(*) here’s a 4-line definition of “single graphical control panel” (writing the real one would be part of the job…): ONE window with links to the existing dashboards of each single package, or to new ones developed from scratch, that would open as sub-windows of the main one, all pre-configured to have the same theme/colors/etc…

9 thoughts on “Call to fund research on an easy and COMPLETE alternative to Gmail, Facebook etc…”

  1. Addition to the list of “similar projects but with some limit”: IndieWeb, because, as you can read here “Mass adoption has never been our focus,” he says. “It’s more about enabling people who are already interested. Whereas THIS proposal is to make usage of stuff that already exists much simpler for ordinary folks.

  2. Hi Marco and all,

    This is very good news to me. I have been wanting to do a similar thing but have never gotten around to it.

    > Regardless of funding

    As strange as it sounds, I am very happy this is targeting software that runs on *shared* hardware.

    Sharing hardware is is a very difficult but extremely important problem that we must solve.

    I have been working on a “business model” to help us with this and with the apparent need for continuous external funding.

    This will help us compensate those who setup, operate and maintain servers and so quickly cover the earth with our alternative.

  3. There is an opportunity here for shared authentication for hosted services on shared hardware. This is a different way to describe some of the capital letters in the original post. I think a model for success is a suite of services, maintained by different operators, using different technology and a unified authentication protocol. This would provide something like the Google suite of services, where a single account grants access to mail, chat, voip, files, social networking, etc.

    I’ll be taking new accounts in the coming month at a VPS hosting service I operate called OpenVPS. It’s also an open source code base to manage a cluster of virtual servers.

  4. Dear Marco,

    I find your proposal very interesting and as I’m using gmail, facebook, mac and advocating for an open world I feel like I need help…

    So yes, there is a need for me to switch. yes I’m looking for an all together package because coding, setting-up this stuff is not my job and I’m ready and will be happy to pay / donate for a solution that is not hosted/cracked/checked/spyed by my dear nsa friends.

    I believe I would’nt be the only one, and I’m sure there is a fair and clean service to provide to the commons.

    Crowdfunding it or crowd-building it could also be a way to make things move quicker and gather forces for this beautiful project or asking for a quick “how many people would be interested in such a service” could be a start.

    What is the next step?

  5. Here is an excerpt from a private email I got about this, showing the point of view of another potential end user:

    I would certainly buy into such a thing, even though I am only an
    individual without a lot of capital — I hope you have thought about
    crowdsourcing it. I’m sure you could find a few hundred or thousand
    folks who would pre-buy the framework for such a thing, even at a
    premium, just to bring it into existence (unless someone already has).
    I cannot wait for this sort of thing to be available — as one of the
    masses who spends nearly all of my time working online, yet who has
    very little idea how to code. I would love to be free of the ties
    that bind, but don’t have the time or knowledge to do it myself. I
    hope someone helps folks like me. I would gladly pay a lot for it,
    for the freedom and reassurance. Especially if eventually mobile apps
    figured into it.

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