Sandy to be rehired — and liberated

When the personal productivity site I Want Sandy announced thatit was shutting its doors, customers on the support site Get Satisfaction wentnuts. They were upset that Sandy was being laid off because they hadcome to rely on her. And while many former Sandy customers wentlooking for otherservices to replace Sandy, a group of users learned a lesson fromSandy’s demise: even online services need to be run by their users.

That’s the traditional approach to productivity and personalinformation software like calendars, email and address books. Manypeople are hesitant to move their calendar to the cloud because theyneed it to be always accessible and, ultimately, they’re concernedabout what would happen if they built their workflow around aparticular online calendar service and then that service went offline.

But there are benefits to using services in the cloud instead of onlocal computers. It means having those services accessible from anycomputer, it frees up local resources for other tasks and, if all goeswell, data is likely better protected in the cloud than it would be ona local machine, given how few people do regular backups.

So what is the best way to use online services but know they’re notgoing to shut down? By making sure the services you use are opensource services. When software is licensed under the popular GNU GPL, the sourcecode must be available when the program is distributed. However in thecase of online services like calendars and I Want Sandy, nosoftware is distributed. Even if I Want Sandy were built onopen source software, nothing would have required its owners to makethe source code available to the community.

That problem was the motivation behind the establishment of the latestaddition to the pantheon of open source licences, the GNU AfferoGeneral Public Licence. Software licensed under the AGPL is subjectto similar distribution requirements to the GPL, even though softwareis not distributed, but run as a network service.

The AGPL reached a milestone last week when it was declaredto be Freeunder the Debian FreeSoftware Guidelines. Services by Evan Prodromou including laconi.ca and identi.ca(microblogging platform), ur1.ca (urlshrinkifier) and Pligg socialbookmark manager, are all licensed under the AGPL as far as I know. Andthat is part of their success, more so I believe than for open sourcesoftware on the desktop.

I may choose to run an open source mail client on my desktop, butthat’s not because of an urgent operational need, other than my desireto have better features than most proprietary email clients can have.Either way, the content is stored on my computer and if I care to go tothe trouble I could switch to another client easily enough.

But it’s different in the case of online services. When I WantSandy announced that it was shutting down, that group of customersrealized that they had made a mistake by relying on a service that theyhad ultimately no control over. It is arguably more important touse open source software for online productivity services than itis on the desktop.

And that’s why this group of programmers is trying to resuscitateSandy, via their blog Sandy’sBack. Their plan? To build an open source service like Sandy. Allthat while knowing that Twitterhas purchased the IP assets behind I Want Sandy and willpossibly launch it to their huge customer base. Why face down Twitter?The same reason laconi.ca and identi.ca did it, and came out with adecent user base: by going open source in the online service space, youprovide stability and consistent service.

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