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Jonathan Roberts [opinions]

Free software web apps

fsmsh.com/2214 [web-applications]

After the comments on my last post, I decided that perhaps I should investigate the world of free web apps a bit further, and give some real thought to the licensing implications of software that is, in many peoples’ view, not actually distributed.

RoundCube

I’ll start with RoundCube Webmail. This is how their website describes the project:

RoundCube Webmail is a browser-based multilingual IMAP client with an application-like user interface... The user interface is fully skinnable using XHTML and CSS 2.

To really appreciate it, however, I recommend you visit their website and try the public demo.

You can drag and drop messages to different folders making it incredibly easy, and surprisingly pleasant due to the silky smooth AJAX implementation, to manage your messages. And, while there are still going to be those occasions when you lose track of a few e-mails or let your organisational methods falter a bit, there’s no need to panic as I’ve found the built-in search functionality very effective.

Composing a message is perhaps one of the simplest—but also one of the most important things—you’ll do in an e-mail client. Again RoundCube seems to have done an excellent job: a built in spell checker, auto-address completion, the ability to save drafts and to add attachments all add up to as good an end-user experience as possible.

Some final points about RoundCube are that it allows you to manage multiple identities, and, as stated in the opening quote, fully skinnable via XHMTL and CSS 2. What more could you want? GPL license? Well, it has that too!

One concern I have about RoundCube is that, as I understand, it is missing spam and general filters at the moment; however, these features are planned for a future release.

Tiny Tiny RSS

The other application that I found, which I was really impressed with, and that is also GPLed was Tiny Tiny RSS. Tiny Tiny RSS is based on the Magpie library to parse the feeds and, like RoundCube, uses AJAX to mirror the experience of a desktop application.

It handles feeds very well and, again from my experiences of their demo, always formats them in a usable and attractive manner. It features support for starring and tagging items; it is theme-able using stylesheets; searchable, along with different filtering criteria, and features a massive range of preferences including e-mail digests and the ability to display articles from oldest to newest.

Horde

Before moving on, I’d like to mention Horde. I’ve just found it halfway through writing this article and it looks like it could be interesting but I don’t want to write about it before having had a proper chance to explore it! So go check it out if you’re interested in seeing about another cool-looking project.

Rounding off

The other point I wanted to cover in reply to the comments on my previous post was the issue of whether or not web services are really being distributed, and if not, do they really need to be free software? My personal opinion is that if you’re using the app for your own personal use then there is no need to release the source code: if you’re allowing public access to your software, even if only a small amount of the code is technically being distributed, then you should share the source code for it.

What happens if you want to change e-mail services from Google to Yahoo, but they decide they don’t want to let you do that? Without the source code these restrictions can exist. How do we know what our current service providers are doing with our e-mails? Who they’re sharing that information with? We put a lot of trust in companies who’s primary responsibility is to their shareholders, not to their customers; companies who are increasingly trying to gather more and more information on us to better target their adverts.

I’m going to look for some affordable hosting to set these apps up for myself, and all being well, use them in place of my current Google accounts. If other people are interested perhaps they might drop me a message to jonathan.roberts.uk at googlemail dot com and if we get enough interest maybe we’ll even be able to start some sort of a co-operative: a web app service that is owned and managed by it’s users. Sounds like a dream but if there’s enough interest, or a few rather wealthy readers, maybe we’ll get something off the ground!

Such a service might encourage development to help us fill in the gaps that currently exist in the free web apps market—calenders, online office suites etc—and possibly even provide the resources to help fund development on some of these projects! OK, I think I am now officially a dreamer.

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