Into the Cloud: Upwardly Mobile Funambol

Funambolis arguably the leading open source company in terms of providing the back-end solutions that link the Internet to mobile phones. As its site puts it:

Funambol's vision is to make it easy to keep billions of smart and feature phones in sync with the Internet cloud, email systems, personal computers and other systems. We uniquely do this through open source software that provides the greatest degree of device compatibility as well as freedom, control, flexibility and risk-reduction.

In addition to supporting billions of mobile phones, Funambol works with leading email and webmail systems, including Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail, Gmail and Hotmail, POP/IMAP servers and Exchange and Domino via Funambol community projects. The software supports popular desktop apps, including MS Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird on Windows, Mac and Linux PCs. Funambol performs mobile cloud sync for contacts, calendars, tasks, notes and content such as pictures as well as push email.

I met up with Funambol's founder, Fabrizio Capobianco, this morning to catch up with his views on the coming together of open source and mobiles, something he is eminently qualified to talk about. Last time we spoke he was extolling the virtues of advertising on mobiles; today, it was synchronising mobiles (and other computers) with data held in the cloud.

Now, cynics might put this down to a certain trendiness in cloud computing, but there's no denying the utility of being able to sync all of your devices, including your mobile, and the cloud is an obvious way to do that. It's part of a larger trend of mobile devices to become more computer-like – what are now called smartphones.

In any case, it certainly provides a handy way for Funambol to distinguish between the open source community edition of its synchronisation software (available under the AGPL), and the commercial version aimed at carriers who have suddenly discovered a violent desire to jump on the cloud computing bandwagon and offer synchronisation services to their customers.

And as Capobianco pointed out, open source is superbly positioned to fill this synchronisation role. It can draw on the widely-used, and highly-scalable free software stack for its foundation. And its open source's customisability means that it is possible to for Funambol to support all of the major handsets, and many of the minor ones, plus other devices like in-car systems. As ever, the beauty of free software is that third parties don't need permission to do this: they can just take the underlying code and do whatever is necessary. Similarly, on the server side, anyone can write the connectors that link the central synchronisation server with the services that people want to pull into their data cloud – Gmail, Facebook, Flickr etc.

No wonder, then, that Capobianco claims things just keep getting better for Funambol in terms of signing up carriers (including super-secret deals he couldn't talk about). So much so, that he's even allowing himself vaguely to think about his “exit”, either in terms of being bought or an IPO – but only in a year or so's time. I look forward to talking to him then to see how his view of the open source mobile cloud has or hasn't changed – and whether that exit is any closer.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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