Cloud services have become the default tools many people use to get their work done. But this can mean giving up privacy and control. Some open source alternatives are now offering tools to put people back in charge.
Frank Karlitschek is a German open source developer and founder of Nextcloud, a platform for storage, collaboration and everything else you expect to work together online.
“We have this huge centralization of everything. The cloud infrastructure that drives a lot of the services on the internet, is controlled by very few entities, like Amazon, Google and Microsoft. They are the backbone of everything and this is not healthy,” he says.
Nextcloud was originally founded as an alternative to Dropbox, but where the user could get the benefits of cloud services on infrastructure they control. It has since evolved into a fully modular productivity suite, meaning you can choose which applications you run on the platform.
“The idea was that you can run your own server on your own infrastructure, so it’s decentralized and federated,” says Karlitschek. He compares the current version of Nextcloud to G Suite from Google or Microsoft Office 365.
“There’s a lot of sharing, collaboration and communication features, document editing, calendars, contacts, all kinds of things. It’s a full modern collaboration suite but it’s a hundred percent open source and on your own infrastructure.”
Nextcloud has about 1,800 individual contributors of code, from single fixes to multi-year engagements. “But it’s more than code,” says Karlitschek. “For examples there’s translations. It’s available in 95 different languages and they are all done by volunteers all over the world.”
It is not purely volunteer-driven, however. 45 people are employed to maintain the codebase full-time. Their business model is to sell support subscriptions to organizations that use Nextcloud for free, a time-tested way of generating revenue from free and open source software.
Free and open source software emerged at a time when people ran software on their own computers, whether a PC on their desk, or a server in a hosting center. By running non-proprietary code, you had more control of what your computer was doing.
But as cloud services are becoming the default mode of working together, that kind of control is slipping away. “In a way it’s even more closed than proprietary software running on your own laptop, because at least there you know where it is,” says Karlitschek.
In order to create a product that compares and competes with the global internet monopolies, you need to get a lot of things right.
“You need to have an alternative software that is as good. You need to have all the features that the user expects. If you have less features they will use the other software,” says Karlitschek.
But even if you make the user interface and workflows interesting and useful, there are still obstacles to adopting decentralized cloud services.
With Google or Microsoft, you just create an account and get started. To use Nextcloud, you first need to install it on a server. No matter how easy this process is made, it is still one step more than the experience of the proprietary cloud. Hosting your own cloud also costs money.
“In the old days, with open source and free software, we always had the cost benefit on our side. We could say, if you use Linux it’s as good as Microsoft and it costs nothing, where Microsoft costs money. With cloud services it is unfortunately the other way around. Nextcloud is free, but you still need to host it somewhere. Hosting now comes for free with the other services,” says Karlitschek.