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ownCloud interview: "It is also about federation, not only about decentralisation"

16 min read

# Interview with Frank and Jan of ownCloud

Earlier this year it was [FOSDEM](http://fosdem.org/) time again. As one of the
biggest, or even the biggest, event around free and open source software the
FOSDEM is a great place to meet people and discuss about ongoing projects in
that area, but also to discuss topics around Internet Freedom and how free
software can be a part of the open and participatory Internet of the future.
I was happy to meet with two of the core ownCloud contributors, Jan-C. Borchardt
and Frank Karlitschek, who shared their thoughts about the importance of this
highly succesful alternative to central and closed data storage services. We
discussed about some cool features of the current ownCloud version, but also
about the exciting vision for ownCloud and new, upcoming functionality. This
is a translated transcript of the interview that originally happened in German
and that we recorded on video. So read the transcript below, or jump directly
to the end of this article to watch the full video in German.

This blog post is part of our ongoing campaign to promote free software
projects and raise awareness of the importance to have free alternatives to
closed and proprietary services and technologies. We started this campaign
together with the announcement of our shiny new
[Freedom Bundles](https://indiehosters.net/shop/category/bundle-16) that are
powered by ownCloud. We are proud to build the Internet of the future!

## "It's an alternative to those proprietary solutions, but it is also a tool that is easy to use"

![Jan and Frank of ownCloud talking](https://cloud.indie.host/index.php/s/gDdoBh5lr1oIipU/download)

*Peter:* First I would like to know who you are. Could you introduce yourselves?
And what you do exactly for ownCloud, how you started, both in the community and
at the company?

*Frank:* I started to think about it roughly 6 years ago, that there should be
something like ownCloud, and I also came up with the name. I developed version
1.0 and published it online as open source. And since then the community grew.
By now this is a nice community with several hunderd people that work on
ownCloud. There is also a company now that offers ownCloud for businesses,
when you have a little more requirements for the software, not just a .tar file,
a community, mailing list, then you can go to the company and buy a professional
enterprise product with support and everything related to it. I co-founded this
company.

*Jan:* I am Jan, I am mainly a designer at ownCloud. I discovered it in 2011, as I
was looking for an open alternative to Dropbox and such things. I found out that
the first hackathon is in Stuttgart, where I studied at that time. We were
around 4, 5 people, and this is how it started. Since end of 2012 I work full
time for the ownCloud company and do the design.

*Frank:* Jan is our design and UX lead, and is responsible for the frontend, how
the UI looks now. This is a very important, very central position, as ownCloud
is not supposed to be a "hacker tool", but a tool for "normal" users, without
special knowledge.

*Peter:* What is the main problem that ownCloud solves, from your perspective?

*Jan:* First, obviously, it's an alternative to those proprietary solutions, but
it is also a tool that is easy to use, that provides file synchronisation on
your own server, under your own terms, in an simple way. The installation is as
simple as possible, maybe even simpler than Wordpress. Of course you have to set
the file permissions correctly, but at a hoster, like IndieHosters, someone
takes care of that for you. And in principle the registration is as easy as at
Dropbox and similar services.

*Peter:* What are some of your short and long term goals for ownCloud? What do you
plan next, and what are your visions for the future? Can you tell us something
about that?

*Frank:* Yes, sure. First, the vision, as Jan just described, is to have a tool
that is powerful on the one hand and provides all the functionality, that the
user needs, but combined with an interface that is as easy-to-use as possible.
That is the main goal, and that will not change. But this is something that
won't be done quickly. We will still spend a lot of time on this goal. Make it
simpler, but also more powerful. Besides that we will soon pulbish version 9.0,
which will be released 6 weeks from now. With this version we will improve the
stability and user-friendliness, also for admins. Regarding user-friendliness we
are not only talking about users, but also about admins. To upgrade ownCloud was
sometimes not as smooth as we wanted it to be. And version 9.0 will improve
that. And there are things in the frontend, like comments, tagging and
federation, where we take the next step in terms of functionality. If you ask
about the long term goals: ownCloud is an open source project, i.e. we have now
around 900 developers that contribute to ownCloud. And "contribute" means that
you can send a pull request; you want to develop something, then you do it and
it becomes a feature. Which means the long term goals are in the hand of the
users, or in the hand of the developers community. Everyone who wants to
contribute is invited to do it.

*Jan:* In addition there are ownCloud apps. Besides the fact that it is a file
sharing and synchronization tool, there are many apps, like contacts, calendar,
notes and a news app, for all possible use cases. And if something does not
exist yet maybe someone is currently working on it. There are many things going
on, for example some people are working on a chat application that uses WebRTC
and XMPP for video and voice chat. Different things, that are done completely by
the community.

## "I think that is a great step, to reach decentralised, federated interoperability"

![Jan and Frank of ownCloud talking](https://cloud.indie.host/index.php/s/GlyN29OA21NcEWt/download)

*Peter:* We as IndieHosters have the goal to re-decentralise the Internet. So that
there are more individual sites and not all data is stored in central instances.
You already talked about it, but how do you see the role of ownCloud within the
re-decentralisation?

*Frank:* Great question, that is somehow our mission, too. The first step was,
obviously, to go away from central services that only exist once globally, like
there is only one Google, one Dropbox, one Facebook, and to enable the users to
host the software where they want. Which means you can host it at home, you can
go to a hoster, like IndieHosters, you can host it at the university, or at a
company, or whereever. And that is the first step. But it is also about
federation, not only about decentralisation, because then you end up with a lot
of islands, which does not help anybody. The islands have to be connected. And
that is what we want to do with the federation feature. That you can connect
them, that they work together, as if it was one big server, but in reality there
is no central server.

*Peter:* Yes, I tried this, it works well with files, but does this work with
calendars, contacts and such things?

*Frank:* Files are now the first step, but we want to extend this into other
areas. Jan talked about it, one application that gets more popular is the one
for chat and WebRTC. Chat based on XMPP, which is decentralised already. And
then there is the ownCloud mail app, to orgnanise your mails. Mail is
decentralised already, too. We try to do more here. Calendars and contacts
probably in the future, too.

*Jan:* And what is important here is that the user may use those features first
within ownCloud, but then also with other software. Like yesterday you, Frank,
talked to Pydio, and the people of Cozy Cloud set next to them. This way things
develop further, and that is the cool thing about federation, that not only one
system, like ownCloud, can talk other instances, but completely different people
that use other systems. This is the power of open source, because different
people use different systems, because they say: hey, this system does it like
this, this system does it like that, but they can still communicate with each
other.

*Peter:* Are there currently any steps towards this, for example with Cozy Cloud?

*Frank:* The federation feature, which allows you and me to share a folder, even
if we are not on the same server, this feature we developed within ownCloud, it
is working really well in version 9. But we designed the API so that others can
use it, we documented it during the summer and try to establish it as a
standard. Just yesterday we had a meeting with some people from Pydio and Cozy
Cloud, and they want to implement it. I think that is a great step, to reach
decentralised, federated interoperability. The area should not be dominated by
a single player, otherwise you have a fix point like Google again.

*Peter:* The web is now 25% Wordpress, how many peta bytes are hosted on
ownClouds?

*Frank:* That is not measureable. We can look at our number of downloads, are
there any trends. Recently we calculated a bit and came to the conclusion that
there are around 8 million users. But this is an estimation.

*Peter:* It's decentralised...

*Jan:* You never know how many people use one installation.

*Frank:* We do not have any central user database like others.

## "But if you use open standards, somebody will do it."

![Jan and Frank of ownCloud talking](https://cloud.indie.host/index.php/s/fx2tBebsHer8Hi8/download)

*Peter:* With ownCloud it is possible, for example, to synchronise your data with
a mobile phone. Do you work on any solutions specifically for mobile devices, to
integrate ownCloud?

*Frank:* Yes sure, for files as our core there are apps from ownCloud, to
integrate it on Android and iOS. In addition there is the web interface that
works well on mobile devices in the latest version. We rely on open standards,
as far as possible, which means WebDAV that works with different devices. For
example, I use a small app on my mobile phone for notes, that is able to
synchronize files with WebDAV. In this case they go to ownCloud.

*Jan:* For calendars and contacts we use CalDAV and CardDAV. On Android you need
an additonal app for this, DAVdroid, and there are others. But DAVdroid is open
source. iOS does support CalDAV and CardDAV natively, you can just add your
account. Then there are mobile applications for the ownCloud notes app, or for
the news app, for example, as a replacement for Google Reader. They cache the
data for offline usage.

*Peter:* But you do not develop applications for calendars or contacts, for
example for Android?

*Jan:* No, we rely on the native apps. They synchronize the data.

*Frank:* I think if we planned to build our own calendar application that would be
too much for us. We support open protocols and there are already calendars that
use those. The same is true for music, for example. A very popular app is the
music app. After you synchronized your music collection with ownCloud, the music
app scans the music files, analyses ID3 tags, downloads covers. It contains an
API that is Apache compatible, which allows you to access the music from the
outside. Then there are clients on mobile phones that are Apache compatible.
You can connect those to the server and stream your music from anywhere. This is
another example, where we do not necessarily need to develop our own player. But
if you use open standards, somebody will do it.

*Peter:* Our idea is to create register buttons for free software web
applications, in a decentralised way. On Dropbox, for example, you visit their
page, click on "Register", enter your mail address and password and instantly
get your account and use it. How could something like that look for ownCloud or
for other free software web applications? Do you have any plans or ideas around
this?

*Jan:* On the ownCloud site we have a provider page, where we list ownCloud
providers, where you can register as a provider. We also had the idea to reduce
the list in a certain way, to simplify the choice. Often people ask me which
provider I recommend. This is difficult because there is no "owncloud.com" for
registrations. I think Diaspora did it, or they still do it, with a register
button and then you are redirected to a random instance. Or pump.io did it like
this. This is a bit, I don't know...

*Peter:* A bit strange for your personal data...

Jan, *Frank:* Exactly.

*Jan:* I prefer to give personal recommendations. Depending on the person: is the
person able to host her own server, or prefers a provider? Or wants to install
it on a Raspberry Pi? There are many approaches at the moment. There are so many
metrics to rank providers. It is very difficult to categorize this. It would be
interesting to talk to you about that...

*Peter:* Well, we had the idea of a "migration network", where you can...

*Frank:* ... that you can migrate your data freely ...

*Peter:* Exactly, that the user can register for ownCloud, pays for a year, but he
can change the hoster at any time, by clicking a button. Or move to a home
server, if he installed ownCloud on a Raspberry Pi, so that he can put his data
from the Internet on his Raspberry with one click.

*Jan:* Exactly, this is also possible with ownCloud, simply because of the fact
that we use open formats and protocols, you can export and import. Here one can
dock into.

## "It is always amazing to work with so many people."

![Jan and Frank of ownCloud talking](https://cloud.indie.host/index.php/s/g5vgQXMbgwfzpVw/download)

*Peter:* What is your favorite plugin or feature of ownCloud? What do you use the
most?

*Jan:* I personally use the mail app a lot, because I am working on it. It is an
IMAP client. I just find it interesting, because often you hear: ah, mail is so
complex, there are only few good mail apps. I am a bit disappointed with
existing open source solutions, to be honest. And that's why I find it
interesting to work on something better. Also because it is an interesting
example for the integration with other apps. For example, if you write a mail
and enter the recipient you will get autocompletion from your contacts. From
your files you can simply add attachments, or store attachments from mails on
the net. This app is highly integrated. Avatars are loaded from the contacts,
and your own data. I use it a lot.

*Frank:* Now I had some time to think about it, but... On the one hand you asked
what I use most often, but on the other hand what is my favorite feature. Mostly
I use not very exciting things, like synchronise folders, create a publicly
shared link, send it to someone and the recipient can then look at it. Which is
wonderful for photos, for example. You can synchronize photos to a specific
folder with the mobile phone app, generate a link, send it to your family: look,
my vacation photos! They click on it, see a beautiful gallery, can click on the
images, watch them in large. That is maybe not very exciting, but I find it very
handy. If you also ask what is a bit fancier or more intersting: there is an app
that I personally find very good, because I like the idea a lot. It is an app
that you can install and then enter the data of your mail server. Then the app
fetches all attachments that arrived with your mails, and puts it in a folder
that you synchronise to your desktop or mobile. You get a folder on your desktop
with all the attachments that you ever received. I think this is a very creative
idea, I have never seen something like that before.

*Peter:* I have to have a look at this... and the last question is: what would be
the question that you would like to be asked from us? And your answer, please!

*Jan:* Actually those were really good question already!

*Frank:* One challenge, you asked about it, is: how can someone use ownCloud that
is not able or does not want to run a server. The bright answer is: she has to
go to a hoster, like you. I would really like to discuss with you more about
this, how to make the experience smoother. Maybe you can get an account
somewhere from the desktop application. We will display, as mentioned, the best
X hosters. Then you can register directly. I did not have a look at Dropbox for
a while, but aren't you able to create an account there directly from the
desktop application...?

*Jan:* Yes...

*Frank:* Eactly! Something like this we could develop for example with you.
Directly from the application or from the mobile phone, you download the
ownCloud app from the app store on Anroid or iOS, click on "Register" and then
appears: you can register at those 20 providers, maybe with prices and feature,
and then I say: this one looks good! Click! Then I register directly with you
and the data is stored in the app. I would really like to brainstorm with you,
what great thing we can build here.

*Peter:* Sounds good!

*Jan:* Another thing came to my mind, too! The question on how to participate at
ownCloud.

*Frank:* Haha, very good!

*Jan:* We are an open source project and I would say we have a very cool
community. Our code is on github for collaboration. There is a "core" repository
and the ones for all the apps, for example "calendar", "contacts", etc. We also
have regular Meetups every month, for example in Munich and Berlin. And each
year we have a conference in Berlin for contributors, in September this year.
It is always amazing to work with so many people. And for everyone that wants to
participate in development we have a "junior job" tag in our issue tracker.
Those are small "starter problems" to solve, or even new features. Or whatever
you want to develop, it is a platform and everybody can develop apps, whatever
you want. Like such a small email attachment app, that is very useful in general.

*Peter:* Thanks a lot for the interview!

## The full interview as video