The way to create a new product or service when you already have one.
A couple of years ago, a few open source developers were in a room in Phoenix AZ, discussing what was missing from the Asterisk open source PBX. We had a lot of wishes, the team from Digium listened, argued, contributed their own needs and we came out with a list of features.
Then there was a long silence. I was a bit annoyed, I’d contributed my time and thoughts to the opensource project and the only place I saw any results was in their closed source Switchvox product.
In Germany at Amoocon (I blogged about it here too) , Digium’s engineers sat and listened stoney faced as I gave a talk which described how much easier it was to build a fault tolerant solution using the arch-rival FreeSwitch. But still they said nothing.
A few months later I found out why. Digium’s engineers had come to the conclusion that we had asked for the impossible. To meet our wishes, they would have had to re-write Asterisk from the ground up, while a million servers were still running it and all their users depending on it. Also once our wishes were granted it wasn’t clear that the resulting product would be suitable for all of the things that Asterisk does today.
So they made a very brave decision, they’d have to start again. The new product (now known as Asterisk Scalable Communications Framework) would be a companion product, to work along side the Asterisk we know and love.
Earlier this year a group of some 30 community members were invited to Digium HQ in Huntsville for a mini-summit. I was one of the very few who knew what the summit was about, which made for awkward bar-talk the night before and put me on at least one journalist’s “Annoy list” (Hi Doug!) . There they presented the choice they had faced and the decisions they had come to. They asked us what we thought, they asked us what the priorities were, they asked for our help. They asked us to keep silent a little longer.
Astricon in October 2010, they held a keynote with an uninspiring title (astricon keynote video) where new project was revealed. They invited 3 community members to be part of the annoucement and to help explain the background. (My bit is about 10 mins in) – They also released all the source code they had so far, along with the working wiki that afternoon.
As a result of all this careful consultation and community involvement, the announcement was met with a ‘that makes perfect sense, when can we start?’ attitude from the 700 developers and business partners in the hall.
Contrast this careful step-by-step involvement with the way Skype treats their ecosystem (like Fring and Nimbuzz ). Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Skype had every legal right to block them, but I’m not convinced it was smart. As a developer, I constantly find myself confronted with things I can’t do because Skype won’t let me or tell me how.
Now Skype have sprung the hated Mac Beta and the Facebook enabled Windows version on a shocked ecosystem. Did they consult with developers or partners ?- No I don’t think so.
The only counter example is the way that Skype have made the Silk codec available to the IETF as a draft standard and licensed it reasonably freely to developers.
Why should Skype care what I think? Let’s face it, telephony is long overdue a shakeup, the phone call may be ‘dead’ but voice communications over a distance isn’t. Indeed, it is still the killer app. Despite the total lack of innovation in telephony for 50 years people are paying (yeah, paying – hear that Web 2.0? ) billions for phone calls. So where is that innovation going to come from ? Will Skype’s hundred or so brilliant inward focussed engineers out-think a 70,000 community like asterisk.org or the wider startup world? I know where I would put my money.
Here’s a final thought, if you look 2 or 3 years into the future, you can see that realtime voice and video communications will be baked into the browser on every platform (see IETF discussions). Why would you need a fat (some say bloated) stand alone communications client then? Then a user’s choice of who’s minutes to use will be down to the quality of integration into your web experience.
“Look after your developers and they will look after you” as an escapee from Symbian put it.