by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 5 February 2019
We face many challenges as a society to make the World Wide Web a better, more equitable place; more in tune with its creator’s original vision of the web as a tool to serve people. And it’s not hard to see the headline issues of the day - the increasingly intrusive surveillance, online manipulation and powerful monopoly control - as anti-human rather than pro.
However, thinking about the web from the top down misses out a lot of the story. If you want to put any kind of file online - a photo, say - you either hand over ownership and control of it to a ‘free’ platform or pay for a hosting service. And what happens to those files, movies or photos if that service decides to shut down?
Jaisen Mathai encountered this problem for several years after closing FotoFlix, a photo sharing venture he co-founded in the early-2000s. As a software engineer and self-confessed nostalgic, he has always had an interest in creating products that preserve memories, and it seemed his old customers did, too.
“Memories and past experiences are important to people,” he explains. “We were getting messages from old customers asking for their photos for a decade after we shut. Even a neighbour emailed me a couple of years ago, wanting to know if we had one of the slideshows we had created 15 years previous.”
Toward the end of 2010, Jaisen began thinking about how you can make people’s photos more resilient to events outside of their control and to make a platform that would increase the lifespan of personal and societal media decades into the future. After talking to a few people there seemed to be an interest worth pursuing as a serious endeavour.
“There were a couple of things starting to pop up and different sources were matured,” says Jaisen. “I sensed the opportunity was there to create something. I was working at Yahoo! at the time and because it owned Flickr, I felt I had to quit.”
Just a week after leaving Yahoo! in 2011, Jaisen launched a Kickstarter campaign. The Trovebox project - then called OpenPhoto - was a huge success in raising its $25,000 goal with time to spare. It also attracted significant media attention and even a cofounder, Patrick Santana, a supporter of the campaign who offered to help make it a reality, despite living in Belgium.
A few months later, with the help of the international open source community, the OpenPhoto project launched. “We wanted to decouple the data storage from the service itself,” explains Jaisen. “So, you could use the service but store your photos in your Dropbox account - if something happened to OpenPhoto you would still have them.
“You can’t trust a company to keep their promises indefinitely. But you can guard against this by open sourcing the software. If, for whatever reason, the company goes in a different direction, you could do something with the source code.
“The vast majority of the population wouldn’t know what to do with that, but it keeps the company honest. And, if someone else wanted to take the software and do something else with it, they could.”
The final aspect of the project was some creative thinking on interoperability. By allowing and linking data portability and data ownership, users could switch services whenever they liked. It was a key differentiator to everything else on the market. However, there was a problem.
“It was a real challenge to find funding,” recalls Jaisen. “The model wasn’t motivated purely to generate a lot of profits. I wanted to be a self-sustainable business, but because there was a lot of control placed back in the users hands, there wasn’t much lock in. It made for a difficult story to sell to investors.
“I was able to get a lot of feedback that validated the idea and got in front of some prominent VC funds, but couldn’t close any deals.”
By this stage, Jaisen and Patrick had been working on the project for over a year, and things were a little challenging. Jaisen had been living off savings and while the Kickstarter money had helped, it was difficult to see sustainability without further funding.
“It was a tough period,” says Jaisen. “I was fortunate to be able to take a risk in the first place but towards the end we were close to calling it a day.”
But a chance meeting with Philipp Schmidt, a former Shuttleworth Fellow, pointed Jaisen in the direction of a potential lifeline. He applied to the Foundation and in the September of 2012 - a full 14 months after leaving his job at Yahoo! - Jaisen was awarded a Fellowship. His work promised to provide people and society with an open alternative for preserving personal and historical media in a field dominated entirely by proprietary software and vendor lock in.
“It was the last throw of the dice,” he says. I wasn’t expecting to get anything and it gave us time to continue the project. What I didn’t expect was how much the Fellowship and the Foundation would mould how we built the project - or how I thought about it.”
For the first six months of his Fellowship, Jaisen focussed on scaling the product, adding support for a range of cloud storage providers and relaunching OpenPhoto as Trovebox. But the problem of sustainability was always at the front of his mind.
In a crowded consumer space with so many competitors, it was tough to grow enough subscribers to continue. There was, however, a growing number of businesses using the service. Could moving towards the underserved area of business customers prove sustainable? The next year focussed on trying to make that hypothesis a reality.
“We made a lot of changes.” he recalls. “We had to make the switch to businesses, but in everything we did we tried to retain our original goal. At one point we were working with universities that had digital preservation systems so we were working with them and it was very much in line with our original open source vision.
“But with the same product we were selling the service to for profit enterprises and there were features and aspects that weren’t open source. If it was something that we felt wasn’t valuable to the community and we felt we could build it quicker if not in the open, we would.”
Jaisen recalls the Foundation’s support as valuable and helpful, particularly in overcoming the challenges in open source, and the model of freedom on offer.
“We tried various approaches to realising our original goals,” he remembers. “They were supportive of us sacrificing openness in an effort to achieve that sustainability.
“It gave us the ability to experiment. It was made clear at the beginning of the Fellowship, and throughout, that the Foundation values experimentation in finding new approaches and figuring out how openness can exist in different ways.
After almost two years of experimentation with consumers and businesses, the Trovebox project had enjoyed some success. It was, however, still in a fragile position. The product itself ended up in reasonable shape but Jaisen and Patrick struggled to find the right market to sustain the project as a viable business.
It’s a common problem with for profit enterprises with social change at its heart. The balancing act of achieving sustainability while benefitting society is still a going concern for even the Foundation’s most successful and established projects.
While the Foundation was optimistic about the future of Trovebox and tried to persuade Jaisen to think again, he decided not to apply for a third year of funding.
“I was exhausted,” he recalls. “We had spent three and a half years on this and just didn’t see the path to sustainability. We were both taking pay cuts and making sacrifices during the Fellowship. I have a wife and kids so it’s not just a personal impact.
“We made a last ditch effort and set up booths in a series of trade shows in Seattle and Las Vegas to try and muster up some business and interest. Ultimately, we weren’t able to. We’d had some conversations with Sony, Roku, Netgear and Western Digital but none of them seemed like panning out.
“One of the mistakes we made was not pivoting early enough. That’s not to say it would have changed the outcome but we didn’t move soon enough and stayed with an app that wasn’t working for too long.”
However, that wasn’t quite the end of the Trovebox story. Western Digital had expressed an interest to integrate it into their My Cloud products, on the proviso Jaisen became an employee.
“It was an opportunity to keep the idea moving forward and a new approach,” Jaisen explains. “You have the software running on a device you own but at your residence.
“We successfully got the software integrated with their products, but it never launched. Once that happened I didn’t have a purpose there so I moved on. It’s unfortunate that we never got it into people’s hands…but that’s how it is.”
“To be honest, when I first got the Fellowship I was happy with getting funds to continue,” Jaisen admits. “But what really impressed me was the opportunity to be among other people with similar value systems, trying to do things that were compatible with those value systems.
“It’s a very unconventional Fellowship. It isn’t fundamentally focussed on revenue; rather the idea of what might be possible and how we learn from other approaches.
“It was meaningful and influential in how we approached Trovebox. It helped us to remain honest with regards to our original goals and intent, and it was eye opening to see how openness can provide value that non-open approaches cannot.
“Experimentation is in the DNA of the Foundation. One of the critical aspects of that is the Gatherings. During that one week you end up leaving with entirely different perspectives in terms of problems and that allows you to apply those into your work.”
While Jaisen’s project did not reach sustainability, his Fellowship experience has contributed a great deal to the Foundation’s thinking, particularly with regards to how success should be defined when pursuing social change. The source code for Trovebox is still available on GitHub, open for anyone to pick up and run with as they see fit. And although Jaisen now works in a completely unrelated role as a product manager for Google, he still pursues the idea he had in 2011 as a personal open source project.
“That project is called Elodie,” he says. “It has had moderate success in the sense people are using it and it’s a new approach to the original intent and goal we had in 2011 and over the course of the Fellowship. Open is absolutely something that I still pursue, and Elodie is an example of that.”