If you are vaguely familiar with ownCloud, you may have noticed quite a bit of ruckus on the tech blogs back in July when their US business entity was essentially gutted. The Chief Executive Office and cofounder, Frank Karlitschek, announced he was resigning. Within a few weeks, most of the core development team followed suit. This left many long time ownCloud users, such as myself, completely puzzled. Here we are a few months later and a few questions still linger, but many have been answered. First, let’s briefly review what the ownCloud platform provides and why this matters.
What is ownCloud?
ownCloud is an Open Source cloud platform that closely mimics the functionality of Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and all the other big guys. There is an ownCloud server, that runs on a simple LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP), and then there’s a client(s). The client is an application that can be installed on Linux, Windows, OSX, iOS, Android and pretty much everything else. Each user has a folder full of files that magically stays synchronized on the server and each device the client has the software installed on. Then users can share files and folders with other users, collaborate, and the list goes on. Functionality has expanded quite a bit over the years, in way of apps. Apps have integrated mail, calendar, contacts, music, photo galleries and so much more into the ownCloud ecosystem. The main difference between ownCloud, and the big guys mentioned earlier, is it’s completely free. Well, it started out free. Needless to say, with thousands of developers contributing code, and tens of thousands of installations later, it grew. So, when did things go sour?
A couple years ago, things started to change. Instead of the community being the driving force behind development decisions and what direction the project was heading (the core principle of Open Source software) venture capital had another idea. Less attention was being given to community submitted bugs and feature requests, and a divide was being formed between the community and ownCloud’s business entities, ownCloud GmbH (Germany) and ownCloud Inc (USA). The business makes money by charging for support, but that started to expand into other areas. The list of complaints from the Open Source community is pretty long, so I’ll give you the headlines.
- ownCloud developers were ignoring feedback and hoarding functionality for their paying “enterprise” customers.
- User interfaces were mutilated for many of the core services, such as the contacts and calendar apps.
- Any attempt to give construction criticism was taken as a personal attack and/or just ignored.
- Major defects in the code were being released, such as broken updater utilities.
- ownCloud GmbH/Inc was not sharing future road maps and maintained a veil of secrecy.
- Lack of real innovation and development of the platform as a whole.
These major issues, along with many others, eventually caused a revolt of sorts. Frank, who had grown very frustrated with VC money slaughtering community collaboration, decided to take action. Within a few weeks of his resignation, most of the core team followed him out the door (by choice). Everything was very hush hush, then he announced the formation of a new Open Source platform, and business entity, Nextcloud. At the same time, they forked the ownCloud code base into Nextcloud on Github. Some saw it as a slap in the face, but many took it as a breath of fresh air. Out with the old way of doing things, and in with the new.
How is Nextcloud better?
Within a month of the June 2nd announcement, Nextcloud 9 (9.0.54) and Nextcloud 10 (10.01) were born. In addition, ownCloud 8.2.3 and later can be directly “upgraded” to Nextcloud, very easily. Nextcloud claims this functionality will remain as long as possible. Both Nextcloud releases addressed a slew of bug fixes (commits) as well as the addition of many sought after features. Including, but not limited to:
- Over 40 bugs fixed, most all of which were pre-existing.
- Theming app that enabled logo selection and color changes out of the box.
- Integrated video player (although it only worked with MP4’s on my server, but it’s a start)
- Gallery+ was replaced with the “Gallery” app, improving the user interface.
- Server Info app that displays real-time CPU load, memory usage, storage statistics and more via admin panel and external API monitoring tools (think Nagios integration).
- Already working on advanced features such as Collabora Online Office (think google docs) as well as fully integrating Video & Audio conferencing with the Spreed.ME WebRTC platform.
- Deployed a brand new app store with full Nextcloud integration coming soon.
Out of the gate, Nextcloud hosted meetups and even put together a 3 day conference in Berlin. They also managed to onboard a very large customer, the Danish Research and Education Network (DeiC), which was migrated from ownCloud. Nextcloud has even committed honor any current, paid for, ownCloud support contracts at no additional charge.
Does this benefit the community?
Many were concerned that ownCloud would cease to exist over night, hurting the community as a whole. This doesn’t seem to be the case. Although loosing most of their core developers, owncloud is still fixing bugs, although not as many as before June 2nd. Nextcloud’s bug fixes (commits) have skyrocketed, exceeding levels ownCloud had seen in a long time. Although resources were split between two projects, it seems to have had a refreshing effect for both projects and will more than likely attract new developers for both. This isn’t the first time this has happened. MySQL (MariaDB) and OpenOffice (LibreOffice) both had similar experiences. A few key things to be aware of would be:
- Nextcloud promised a drop in replacement / alternative to ownCloud within a month; they delivered.
- Frank has made it known there will be no contributor based license agreement.
- A newly created foundation will hold the trademarks so they won’t be sublicensed or under company control.
- The likely influx of new developer talent will breed innovation across the board.
How did ownCloud respond?
ownCloud obviously will suffer somewhat in the short term. How much is to be seen. Some say it’s the beginning of the end. When Nextcloud was announced, ownCloud posted a short blurb on their blog that was slightly unprofessional. They accused Frank and the others of being responsible for the demise of ownCloud Inc (USA). When Frank pulled out, the USA based lender froze their credit and ownCloud said they had to shut it down immediately. Because of this, 8 employees lost their contracts. However, Frank has publicly stated he would hire all ownCloud employees that haven’t already started working for Nextcloud already. Regardless, ownCloud GmbH is still around and has promised their customers all support contracts will continue to be honored and everything is business as usual. That’s somewhat hard to believe. Time will tell.