Funambol: Italy competes with BlackBerry and Cupertino
Funambol is one of the most important open source projects worldwide, not only for the number of participants, but also for an extremely lucid and targeted business plan.
Making the push email and wireless synchronization features finally available even to ordinary mortals, completely free based on advertising, still offering these paid and large-scale services to Internet providers, telephony operators and companies.
The brilliant all-Italian idea for the precision of Fabrizio Capobianco born in Valtellina, graduated in Pavia and soon a worker in Silicon Valley. Here Fabrizio finds the right ground for his ideas and the capital needed to finance a unique project of its kind.
Today Funambol has a main development center in Pavia, with Italian minds and programmers and a branch in the Valley. Funambol's free solutions are available for most cell phones on the market, including the iPhone, and have existed long before Apple launched the MobileMe project and services. Fabrizio lives with one foot in Italy, another in the Valley and for a long time on a plane: Macity managed to interview him at high altitude.
The story and the answers of Fabrizio Capobianco, born in 1970, are illuminating in many aspects. On the world of technology and open source, of course, but also on Apple, the Apple products and on the importance of the push mail and wireless synchronization services offered by Funambol for some time and now targeted by Cupertino with fluctuating results.
Finally, the ideas and the project of Fabrizio and his Italian-American team also have something to tell about the Italian school system, in particular the universities and the increasingly technological world of work and in which Italians could play a more consistent.
Macitynet:When and on what occasion of your life did the original idea of Funambol come to you?
Fabrizio: The idea of Funambol was born from the observation of the work of Alessandro Rubini, the backbone of the world open source, who worked in my laboratory in Pavia on the first mouse device driver for Linux. I saw how he managed to build a global community that tested and modified his software to adapt it to all mice in the world. The wireless market for mobile phones is much more complex than that for mice: there are three billion devices, all different. To succeed in the mobile market requires a huge community. Funambol, with its 2.5 million downloads, is the largest community in the wireless world. And it's all Italian.
Macitynet:The heart of Funambol's development lies in Pavia: two words to cheer up all Italian university students and another pair to advise them of what is theirs in the world of work, in Italy and abroad.
Fabrizio: The Italian university is still competitive. A bit of specialization is missing, but maybe it's better this way: it opens the mind. However, the knowledge acquired must be applied: developing open source software is the smartest way. You become part of a global community and learn quickly. And then English is improved, which is fundamental in our market. The world of work – especially for those who make software – is not much different from a structured open source community. In particular in Silicon Valley or in Pavia, from Funambol.
Macitynet:For what reasons do Italian brains have nothing to envy to Indians and Americans?
Fabrizio: Because our school holds well and the minds are trained by the effort of everyday life. And software is pure creativity, which is in our DNA. The best designers have always been Italian. Now we need to produce more software designers, because the country must become a leader in high technologies to compete in a global world. With Funambol we are showing that it can be done.
Macitynet:The Open Source world, of which Funambol is part, by definition contrary to proprietary standards and technologies. What Fabrizio thinks of the Apple world, Mac OS X and the PC world. In several interviews you have had words of admiration for iPhone: Macitynet imagines that you own one.
Fabrizio: I use a MacBook Air, I have an iPhone and two iPods. Apple devices are the best in the world in terms of aesthetics and functionality. If they were open they would dominate the market. Instead Steve Jobs insists on keeping them closed and proprietary. I think he's wrong. An open Apple system would be dominant, the real alternative to Microsoft. The risk for Apple is still to remain a niche. They have a great opportunity in the wireless world with the iPhone but they risk throwing it away, following the proprietary way. With Symbian and Android open source, there will be little room for those who remain closed.
Macitynet:What do you think of the Apple smartphone and the new 3G version?
Fabrizio: The iPhone is the best phone in the world, without a doubt. It is a step above all the rest. Just look at the speed with which my daughter and mother started using it. With 60 years of difference. But they both became passionate.
The 3G version has nothing new, and is just a little faster and more accurate in terms of location. A small step forward for Apple, from a technological point of view. What has changed is the business model. Low prices and subsidies from operators. A big step backwards (it was nice to see operators bend over to a device manufacturer), but very sensible. Apple continues to make reasonable moves: from Intel chips to support for Microsoft Exchange on the iPhone.
Macitynet:Apple will no longer use the word Push for some of MobileMe's services. Could you briefly explain why MobileMe is not a Push service, while Funambol and BlackBerry are?
Fabrizio: MobileMe was probably the worst product ever launched by Apple. It simply doesn't work. The push component was key, because it is the spring that triggers the use of emails and more on mobile phones – from SMS to BlackBerry email, messages are answered as soon as they arrive. MobileMe has been announced as a push service, but the data doesn't arrive immediately. It is actually a pull service. Apple had to apologize to all users for the misinformation (fraudulent marketing). The Funambol platform supports true push, we even have three different models to do it …
Macitynet:The Funambol program available as a free download on the App Store. What does Funambol offer to iPhone and Mac users?
Fabrizio: Offers synchronization of the over-the-air address book, that is, without the need to connect the iPhone to the home computer. One of the most common uses is the transfer of the address book from the old mobile phone to the new iPhone. I connect to my.funambol.com (the demo system of the Funambol product, completely free) with the old mobile phone and automatically send the address book to the server. Then I connect with the iPhone and download it from the server. All in five minutes and without the need for any cables. In the future, we would like to add the synchronization of calendar and notes but Apple has not yet released the API necessary to do it (we have a ready-made version for iPhone jailbroken, but not everyone wants to "crack" your iPhone).
Macitynet:Can you tell us something about the feedback your solution had on the App Store?
Fabrizio: It has had an incredible success. MacWorld put it among the 20 "must-have" applications. The number of requests on myFUNAMBOL has exploded, so much so that our little demo has struggled to manage the new traffic. It was a great satisfaction, which goes hand in hand with the jailbroken version – available since last autumn – which has had 100,000 downloads (on a million jailbroken iPhones …).
Macitynet:On the Web there are opinions of disgruntled developers about the management of bugs, patches and updates by Apple for the applications on the App Store. Could you tell us something about your experience with Funambol present from the first day on the App Store and in general of the collaboration between Funambol and Apple?
Fabrizio: Apple has all developers sign an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) that stops us off. I'd like to say more, but I can't. Again, my advice for Apple would be to choose the open way. Transparency and community help a lot, especially when it comes to software developers. Apple Open Source would be a dream.
All readers interested in Funambol for iPhone or any other supported mobile phone can find all the information directly on the developer's website. IPhone users can instead download the application in this direct link on the App Store.