Dark cloud looms over ownCloud as founder resigns

Frank Karlitschek has left the company citing a conflict between the interests of the company and those of the community.

cloud dark
Credit: Natalia Synyster/Flickr

Frank Karlitschek founder and CTO of ownCloud Inc., has resigned from the company that he founded. According to my sources a few engineers have also left the company following his resignation.

Karlitschek founded the ownCloud project some six years ago. In his own words, the goal of the project was “to enable home users, companies, universities and big enterprises to host their own cloud services and files. In a world with growing threats around security, surveillance and espionage, this idea is becoming more important every day.”

Around 4.5 years ago, Karlitschek co-founded a company around ownCloud. The company raised more than $10 million in funding from venture capitalists. It has been very successful, and as an ownCloud user I consider it one of the most important open source projects. But Karlitschek’s resignation has raised questions around the future of the company and the project.

But what led to this fallout? It seems there was a conflict between the interests of the ownCloud community and ownCloud Inc, the company.

A long-time KDE contributor, Karlitschek has always been a free software community guy. In fact ownCloud was founded at a KDE event. And Karlitschek thinks that while the ownCloud community has done a great job, the company didn’t. “The community has grown tremendously, with contributions by almost 1000 people over the last 6 years, over 80 every single month. Nothing is perfect, the company could have done a better job recognizing the achievements of the community. It sometimes has a tendency to control the work too closely and discuss things internally,” he wrote in a blog post announcing his departure from the company.

I have seen this conflict before. It's a common theme when a company controls an open source project.

For example, Canonical, the parent company of Ubuntu, makes many decisions internally without discussing with the community, and that upsets community members. As a commercial entity Canonical needs to make such decisions for strategic reasons. Involving the community in everything that the company does can be a challenging and unrealistic task. The question that keeps resurfacing is who owns Ubuntu, who owns this huge Ubuntu community?

That’s the question Karlitschek was asking himself about ownCloud:

Who owns the community? Who owns ownCloud itself? And what matters more, short term money or long term responsibility and growth? Is ownCloud just another company or do we also have to answer to the hundreds of volunteers who contribute and make it what it is today?

Those are some pressing and valid questions but it doesn’t mean an open source project and corresponding commercial entity can’t co-exist. In fact, there many more companies who have built successful business models around open source projects.

There are companies like Red Hat that maintain a very fine balance between Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), the commercial product, and Fedora, the community project. There is SUSE that maintains a great balance between SUSE Linux Enterprise and openSUSE. These companies have a clear separation of powers; Fedora and openSUSE are autonomous projects and decisions are made by consensus within the community in a public forum. That leaves the companies make their own decisions internally, just as any other corporate entities would.

So, let me be clear, this is not an open source problem. It's a problem that arises when projects fail to separate church from state.

I can't say whether ownCloud would be where it is today if it had followed the model of Red Hat or SUSE.

Where does ownCloud go from here?

Karlitschek has declined to comment, but he wrote in his blog that he is going to lead the project as long as the community allows it. And I see no reason for the larger ownCloud community to question his leadership; he founded the project. However, it’s quite clear that the goal of the project and the goals of the company are different.

That means that ownCloud and Karlitschek can’t walk on the same road. A fork is inevitable.

This is the silver lining in the dark cloud looming over ownCloud. There can be a free and open, community-led ownCloud fork with clear focus on what the community needs. At the same time the company can maintain its own ownCloud code base with commercial features to meet its needs.

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