When 37Signals created Basecamp, they filled a huge void in the project management market: the world was full of people who needed to actually manage projects and communicate, rather than learning the black magic of project management and its complex terminology. Free alternatives to Basecamp took a long time to develop: ActiveCollab was released around 2006, a good 2 years after Basecamp. Right now, the most established free alternatives are Project Pier and FengOffice. There are tons of non-free alternatives to Basecamp out there. They are all page-reload applications that mimic Basecamp's interface quite closely. Amongst the non-free ones, there is one I'd like to see as free software: Apollo. More about Apollo later.
The status of free software collaboration projects
At the beginning, the free software community had ActiveCollab. However, just before reaching version 1.0 ActiveCollab turned into proprietary software, with the great disappointment of all those people who had contributed code and time to it. As the copyright owner, they had any right to do that. However, ethically speaking the community didn't take it very well (would you?).
The current status of free software collaboration tools is a little confusing.
FengOffice. While FengOffice started as a fork of ActiveCollab, it's evolved into something that goes way beyond managing tasks and projects -- which, incidentally, is what most people are after. This is not a criticism towards FengOffice -- I think they did something amazing. However, I think FengOffice could be a bit of an overkill if somebody wants to just manage projects.
What's so special about Apollo?
Amongst many, many alternatives to Basecamp, I am talking about Apollo. Why? The simple answer is: because I love it. If Applicom had come to me, and had created yet another clone of Basecamp, I would have wished them good luck and would have continued using text files for my TODO lists. Apollo was different. If you read my earlier posts, you know that I love the idea of a stateless terminal that stores all of its information online while doing all the processing locally. This is the idea about online applications. I want to be able to lose my computer and not spend the next day, or week, recovering backups. If you think backing up is easy, try living a life where you rarely are in the same country for more than a couple of months (my case); or try to get your computer-illiterate friends to have a sound backup strategy (most people don't). But, I also believe that in 2010 people should develop web applications that look like Google Documents, rather than Basecamp. That is: applications should respond snappily, and should connect to the server only to download data, rather than download a full web page containing that data.
That's the spirit about Apollo. That's why I fell in love with it. That's why I use it, shamelessly, and am talking about it now: Apollo makes my life immensely easier, and my workload (which is considerable, with Free Software Magazine and other writing jobs) totally manageable.
Applicom: please, release Apollo under the GPL
My love for Apollo is cursed: Apollo is not free software. The arguments are the same as with any Software As A Service:
- If Applicom stops developing Apollo, I will no longer be able to use it
- If Applicom's servers stop, I will be locked out of my data
- Nobody can look at the code, and improve it
This is the same problem I have with Google Documents, and any proprietary Software as a Service. Yet, I'm addicted to Gmail and Google documents as well!
Applicom's response to this idea
I asked Applicom about freeing Apollo. Here was their response.
Applicom (the company behind Apollo) would need to hire programmers in order to manage the patches and improvements coming from the community. Managing external patches will take up a lot of resources, with people wanting to take something like Apollo to different places and bugfix to be checked. At the moment, they would prefer to focus on their roadmap. Communicating properly with the community would also take considerable time: if somebody offered to develop a big feature, Apollo would need to direct them to the right direction in order to save the developer's time.
Applicom would need to make the code "generic" enough so that the installation would be relatively painless for people who would want to use Apollo in their own network. Apollo has been developed as an in-house tool, and it's not really ready public distribution. Not only that, but any future work would need to be done so that public distribution is always possible.
Installation and product support. People would create countless forums posts about installing Apollo. At least for a while, there wouldn't me anybody but Applicom able to answer these questions. That initial strain is a worry.
Applicom comes from a background in custom-developed applications, where the license didn't even matter. They say that they are financially very strong, and have build their strength on custom and in-house software -- and now with SaaS. Switching to becoming a free software provider would be something new, and possibly dangerous.
It's definitely worth a shot: email Applicom at email@example.com, and send them an email saying "You should free Apollo", explaining in the email the reasoning, and why it would benefit Applicom as well as Apollo's users. Applicom won't be able to engage in discussions, but they promised they will listen.
I didn't manage to convince them. Maybe, all of us together will.
(Please be polite!)