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Syncing: How can it be this difficult?

OK, prepare for a rant.

I’ve been looking at ways to sync data across multiple systems. Basically I’m looking for something that can sync contacts, calendars and tasks across multiple devices. Ideally, this would be between a couple of desktop systems and my Android phone (preferably with a web interface for the rare occasions I’m without either). I don’t need to sync email due to using IMAP and the excellent clients available for it nowadays (personally I use Thunderbird 3.1 and K9 Mail).

Now I bet you’re screaming at me: “Why don’t you just use Google Contacts/Calendar/Tasks?”. Well currently I am, but in my ongoing quest to replace as many of these things with Free Software implementations, I was wondering what else I could use. Basically, the answer is that there isn’t anything that satisfies my requirements. There are lots of solutions which will do part of this, but nothing that will do everything. Having said that, I’m not against putting multiple components together to make a system that suits me better – in fact this is probably the best way to go about it. Probably the best project I’ve looked into is Davical, which seems to have the calendaring down, but web interfaces and Android support are a problem.

I guess what I’m really wondering is why isnt’ there some nice web application I can install that does all of the above, has connectors for popular platforms (i.e. Thunderbird and Android) and is Open Source? I mean really? I don’t know why this isn’t solved yet! How difficult is it, compared to say web apps like WordPress or Drupal? (I’m kinda hoping that I’ve missed something like this and some helpful person will step out of the Internet woodwork and point me in the right direction).

Of course if I come up with a solution I’ll be happy to share it. If anyone has any tips, please comment below.

The Web as an Application Distribution Platform and the Open Cloud

Having managed to produce five blog posts last week, I’ve taken a few days break from blogging A) because I’ve been busy with other stuff and B) because I ran out of stuff to talk about! However, now I’ve thought of something to write about…

Wow, that title is a little overwhelming. Basically this post is about what I’m going to term the Open Cloud, the problems with it and how treating The Web differently might help. I suppose I should start by defining exactly what I mean by the Open Cloud…

The Open Cloud (A.K.A Free as in AGPL)

Like it or not, cloud computing is here to stay despite what Richard Stallman might have to say and for most of us it’s  going to be great. Now, I respect RMS as much as your next Free Software supporter, but I fear he’s way off the mark here. I share his concerns over companies that don’t really care about your data or your privacy. However, Cloud Computing itself isn’t inherently bad – how can it be, its just a technology and technology is only as moral or immoral as those who wield it. So, what do privacy respecting, Freedom loving, FOSS advocates do. We do what we do best – start coding! We start building an Open Cloud.

“But Surely we already have an Open Cloud?”

Yes we do, but shouldn’t confuse this Open Cloud with the Open Web. The modern web, for the most part is built on standards which are completely open, from TCP/IP right up to CSS, HTML, RSS and other glorious acronyms. However, most of the applications that live in the cloud most certainly aren’t Free or Open. They are as closed as your average binary blob, more in fact because you don’t even have access to the running binary code (oh, and APIs don’t count guys). When I say Open Cloud, I’m referring to FOSS applications running in the cloud, preferably under AGPL (other licences are available), which is specifically designed for this.

“Hang on, aren’t there loads of FOSS web-apps out there?”

Well, yes there are, this blog is running on one of them, WordPress. Then there’s Drupal, Joomla, Roundcube, Davical, etc. The problem with most all of these is that they miss out one of the prime benefits of Cloud Computing in that they all need hosting by individual users (OK, so WordPress was a bad example as there is a hosted option). What I’m really talking about is hosted applications, that people can just use, but can also be installed on your own server. These can be really small things and would preferably start with replacements for popular closed web services.

“Hang on, don’t we have a few of those already?”

Right again, but the emphasis should be on A FEW. We don’t have nearly enough of them. So far we have identi.ca/StatusNet, Libre.fm and Libravatar and that’s pretty much it (please let me know of any more), although I guess Diaspora is coming. Ideally, we would have a replacement for every proprietary web app and more, but we just don’t seem to be getting there.

So what’s going wrong…

Basically, web apps are different to desktop apps. Apart from using different technologies, they require hosting to actually run them. If you want to run your shiny new FOSS web app that you’ve just come up with as a hosted service, you yourself have to find this hosting. For small FOSS developers who might otherwise build these services this could initially put them off. However, it you’re just starting out then your hosting costs wouldn’t be huge, but as your service grows this is likely to be an increasing problem. I don’t think it’s any surprise that identi.ca (which is probably the most successful free web service) is backed by a commercial company.

So what do we do about it…

HTML5 (or just HTML as it should now be known) gives the FOSS community an amazing opportunity. The technologies available in the HTML5 specification should allow us to build web apps that are lighter on the server. Specifically, I’m talking about the offline web app functionality and local storage. This basically gives us the ability to build cool web apps that are really light on server side processing and storage. Much as I think JavaScript has its problems, it really has come of age with HTML5. HTML5 gives us the opportunity to build FOSS applications that are not only available to people running FOSS platforms, but available to anyone with a web browser (a whole new demographic of users) and hopefully without killing all our servers.

One of the projects driving this (in the FOSS world) is UNHOSTED. Primarily this is a JavaScript framework in which applications would be composed of static HTML, CSS and JavaScript (i.e. no server side scripts). The system proposes other nodes which are solely for storage, thus providing a separation between the storage of data and its processing by applications. The data would even be client side encrypted (think Firefox Sync or SpiderOak), but only with JavaScript so I’m not sure how secure this is. That’s all cool, but currently it lacks one of the major advantages of cloud computing, which is the ability to do processing on both the client and the sever. Perhaps it will evolve into something which will allow this processing in a distributed, decentralised, privacy respecting way.

I certainly think there are use cases for wholly client side JavaScript apps and that the FOSS community could tackle building some of them, whilst we are searching for solutions to the wider scalability problems of server side code and storage. However, there’s no use writing apps that everyone can use, if nobody knows about them.

An Application Distribution Platform?

The web already is an application distribution platform. It has been for ages, but up until now those applications haven’t been very discoverable. This is starting to change. I guess most people have heard about Google’s Chrome Webstore. This is their attempt to bring the App Store/Package Manager model to the web, basically its just a catalogue of web apps and some scripts that create short-cuts to them. Whether you think this equivalent to installing an application or not (I actually don’t think it matters) the idea is great, at last there will be a place to go to find web apps that you want to use. Mozilla are also jumping in with their Open Web Apps project. This is more of a specification for doing this across multiple sites and is the tech that I’m backing (personally I’d like to see web app stores that automatically discover new apps and add them to their catalogues). If one of these app stores makes its way into a future version of Firefox then that would be the perfect platform to push FOSS web apps to the masses.

Conclusion…

I don’t know whether the ability to make almost entirely serverless web apps will help the state of the Open Cloud. I really hope it does, but JavaScript still has a lot of limitations that native app developers don’t have to put up with. That said, there are a lot of advantages, such as users never having to update an app (they always have the latest version). I also don’t see web apps overtaking native apps any time soon. More likely we’ll see a continued fusion between the two, especially on mobile platforms, so that eventually the boundary between them is indistinguishable. I hope that the app store model will increase the visibility of FOSS web apps and encourage developers to get coding, but we’re only at the very start of the story on this, so only time will tell.

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