Exit Dokkeos, Enter Chamilo
Those of you watching closely the Dokeos code will have noticed… I stopped contributing to the project in December 2009, along with my team of 12 and all of our fellow community members. The only changes we sent were actually customer requirements, so no way to avoid that. But that’s it.
I officially stopped working with Dokeos on January 1st, 2010. As many huge actors in the open-source (MySQL/MariaDB, OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice, …) and PHP development world at the end of 2009, it was time for a big change. On one side I think it is just sad to let go of something you’ve been involved in with so much of your love, sweat and personal motivation. On another side, there was no possible compromise between a company that strengthened its fist around the open-source software neck a little bit more each year.
I started working with Dokeos for a reasonable hourly fee in 2004, and continued working (for the same fee all along, that is) until the very end of 2009. But I accepted the conditions were somehow something I could accept in exchange for the possibility to work on free open-source software full-time. Well… It wasn’t really full time at first (more or less 10 hours a week), then it became full time in 2006 and became an unbearably high load in 2007, then I started hiring people to help me.
Hiring people is not easy. You have to find the right ones… the chosen ones. The ones that would do the things exactly like you under the same conditions, or that would do them differently, but with the same results. Or even without the same results but for the same reasons. Anyway… it is a wonderfully complicated process. Even more when you want to achieve something for the software you are desperately involved in. That’s what I did. That’s why we are now a 12-people strong company that’s producing more FLOSS than any other company here in Perú (and possibly than a whole lot of supposedly open-source companies around Latin America). That’s where following a dream can lead you, and that’s also why accepting conditions opposed to your dreams is not an option when you reached that level.
Dokeos was a very simple application when I started working on it. And I was a very unskillful developer at that time. In 6 months time, I managed to get much more qualified and understand the complex processes of PHP and HTTP. In one year time I was Zend Certified and started writing articles about PHP and web development. In two years time I had become Dokeos’ lead developer.
In 4 years time I had become the leader of a development company that would represent Dokeos and spread the Dokeos trademark and quality image throughout Latin America, injecting all benefits into the open-source software. Then, apparently, the Dokeos company considered this wasn’t as good enough for them, so instead of them embracing the opportunity I was offering (of showing off a very productive international extension), I was asked to contribute a fee to use the trademark (that we had been developing ourselves since 2007 – see Google Trends).
Then, right in the middle of 2009, we reached breaking point. We argued (me and the Dokeos leadership) about the very principle of using and developing FLOSS and the fact that it wasn’t worth upsetting the community by removing a bunch of useless features to appear in a “professional” version rather than “adding” true, worthy features in a special compilation.
The problem was an ethical problem all along: removing existing features, be they only in the beta version of Dokeos, implied people from the community had already contributed to these features through feedback or patches, and we were just stealing their work to get a few more lines on a marketing folder about the pro version. Just not worth it in my point of view. I remember commenting (I don’t know if in June or later in September) that if he really wanted to move things like that, then I couldn’t see why I should follow him, and that I would probably launch a fork to avoid the software dying this way (which was an unweighted comment at the time – obviously not that far out).
A little bit later, and in an unrelated aspect, as a group of three main providers for the Dokeos company, we asked for better communication and planning in our work with Dokeos. All denied. It became worst. Less communication, less planning. We wouldn’t know when someone new was joining the team or leaving it, except by talking with the person itself. We wouldn’t know when a customer was a customer. No information about what type of contract he had or the remaining amount of hours of support. This became a nightmare to manage.
In response to our requests (or should I say suggestions), the Dokeos company asked for all the developments to be planned and a budget to be established. Sadly, this implied bigger investments still, to work for Dokeos (where I don’t object about planning and budgeting, we had so far pretty much tried to get full agile, developing and reporting frequently, with less long-term planning, as a reflection of what customers needed). Several of us calculated the cost of providing services to Dokeos were actually higher than what we charged (in short, we were investing in Dokeos instead of providing profitable services).
This would all have been more acceptable to me if we had received some kind of guarantee that we would have our word to say on the future of Dokeos as a free software, and that we wouldn’t be working our asses off for a trademark that belonged to someone else, to be finally kicked out when it so appealed to the owner.
And so emerged two possibilities: keep doing the same and bend to the rules of someone with whom I didn’t share opinions (and I had already started bending for a while), or find another way to both continue doing what we were doing best, as well as kicking that trademark problem away. After many discussions, with many people involved both inside the Dokeos community and inside other professional communities, it appeared to me that, all in all, we had nothing to lose, and that our community of users and, more importantly, our own customers, would be better served by a split (actually, we were already doing 95% of the technical work, organizing yearly and monthly events much more successfully – in terms of attendance – than the ones organized by Dokeos, writing our own documentation, having our own localized support service, contributing to the Dokeos community much more than the Dokeos ever did, etc).
However, I was hesitant. Mostly because changing the name of a product you’ve worked so hard to promote is just like burning your house down right after you built it. But if this house had a fundamental flaw that made it unstable? We couldn’t live in there, neither could we invite our clients for lunch. Just too dangerous.
So, during the long months from September to December 2009, I gave an agreed period of three months (from a meeting on the 11th of September in Brussels) to the Dokeos company to propose a change in its structure. I reminded the expiry date to Dokeos a few days before it happened, but I was ignored, pretty much the same way so many of the users that ask Dokeos for quotes regularly are ignored because they don’t look professional enough… At this point (is was the 11th of December), I decided it was time to move on.
We stopped submitting code patches and new features to Dokeos that same day (so the current Dokeos was still one month back in terms of developments in comparison to the Chamilo version 220.127.116.11 when it was released in January 2010). I professionally announced my intentions and the ones of my company and finished the pending tasks we had been assigned, and officially stopped working for Dokeos on the 1st of January 2010.
The sad thing about Dokeos was that the project lost, in just a few months, all of its full-time developers, its lead developer (myself), all of its development community and most of its active forum contributors. The good thing is that they were now all gathered inside the Chamilo project. Dokeos was also now free to free itself from its community chains (which apparently is what it wanted).
What does this mean? This means that if you were a community member of Dokeos in the past (not only a customer), you will be better at home in the Chamilo community now (or at least from the end of January 2010, when the website will be [editor note: now “was”] much better equipped to host a series of interesting services). If you were a Dokeos customer… well you can hold to your hosting contract in Dokeos. Maybe you will be upgraded to a free Chamilo version within 6 months, or maybe there will be a new Dokeos version within that time, with half the features there are in Chamilo (but hey, some people say that less is better) and double the bugs… The only thing I can assure you is that if you were happy with my work in the past (which basically means the leadership of versions 1.6.5, 1.8.0, 1.8.2, 1.8.3, 1.8.4, 1.8.5, 1.8.6 and 18.104.22.168 of Dokeos – or all of them in the last 4 years), you will be happy to follow the Chamilo project.
To let you get a taste of what’s inside this new (minor) version, you can have a look at our demo portal: http://campus.chamilo.org
We have already received a lot of e-mails to support us in our initiative, and I thank you for that. Not having collected the authorizations to publish them in full with names, I’m just quoting a few:
“Hi Yannick, I think you’ve done well. Greetings and all my support to you in this new project” – from Italy
“… and as much as I was telling you this for the Dokeos project, I would like to contribute in the limits of my abilities to the Chamilo project” – from Spain
” Congratulations with this important step! I think this will help this nice electronic learning environment much better.” – from The Netherlands
“… sounds exceptional to me…” – from Argentina
“Best of luck with this new branch-project!” – from Mexico
“I’m starting to collaborate with Chamilo and I’m happy for your enthusiasm in the the new enterprise. I hope I will be carried away by the enthusiasm.” – from Italy
It goes without saying that we didn’t use the Dokeos database to send this e-mail (that would have been an ethical mistake in my opinion). We rather contacted about 1000 contacts we made through events, blog posts, social networks, bug reports, etc.
Now let’s go to the practical topics…
What about Dokeos Pro and Dokeos Medical? Will they have equivalents in the Chamilo project?
The short answer is NO. Chamilo will be a free package. Additional extensions might be sold separately in case they require important investments that need to be covered, but the politics will be specific to Chamilo providers.
That question, though, has been worrying a lot of people since the creation of these “versions”. The truth is… it’s very easy to understand. In Chamilo, we want software to be free and accessible. If you want the videoconference or Oogie, you can get them from the sources of Dokeos. Any competent developer + sysadmin should be able to install it and get it running. Obvioulsy a lot of people have done so. You can find very cheap services on the internet of people that will do it for you. Furthermore, the Chamilo administration documentation will include clear installation instructions for all these, where the Dokeos installation documentation hid them to mark the difference between the free and the professional packages.
The software, however, is not everything in an e-learning project, and if I have to work for you, then I will charge you. On one side because I need to pay my bills, on another side because I couldn’t help everybody at the same time if I were helping for free. Easy enough to understand, I think.
Now the second point is that, as much as we’d like everything to be free, there are some things that nobody is actually willing to pay, like the development of a new tool that *we* think that will improve your e-learning experience, but that *you* don’t want to pay for (because you want to see it before you buy it). In this case, we’ll develop the extension and charge for it until the expenses are covered. This way, we allow people to get the exclusive use of a tool for a reasonable period of time (ahead of their challengers). This means that there *will be* professional versions of Chamilo, yes, but they will not be based on software options, but rather on a set of services (training, invitations to events, unlimited support, free course content and much more that we will soon detail on our website).
Whether these professional version of Chamilo will be endorsed by the association is something we still have to discuss, but we (BeezNest Latino aka Dokeos Latinoamérica) will definitely be at the cutting edge of e-learning technology, and will provide both new developments for the free version and productivity-improving packages that will first need to be covered financially to ensure more innovation comes faster in the future. This being said, most of our business will be generated from services, and we will not redirect development resources towards non-free products.
On a side note, the Chamilo Association, defending the open-source project and the safe use of the Chamilo project name, will be promoting contributions to the open-source software through the allocation of grants. These will be considered part of the financial cover for our possible non-free modules (i.e. you will not have to pay yourself to get high value solutions delivered to your door, as long as you support the association).
Will the videoconference and Oogie tools be free in Chamilo?
As explained a few weeks ago, they have always been. What isn’t free is the service to install them, but the code of both tools is GPL, and as such is public. I have personally contributed considerably to both, so in virtue of the General Public License, I am free to re-use it and re-distribute it. So as far as I’m concerned, the tools will be made available more obviously when time allows (the change of name is considerably time-costly, so you’ll have to be patient).
This being said, “Oogie” is a trademark, so we won’t be using that name either. Rather something like Chamilo-Office.
Why would you work so much for something that is free? Wouldn’t it be easier to just abandon and work for Microsoft?
Points of views are things that might change quickly over time, but personal beliefs tend to be more permanent. It is my belief that the open-source model works (sell the services, not the software), and it is my intention to be a personal proof of that. Now that doesn’t mean it’s easy money, and I’m certainly not doing it to become rich. I believe that by getting involved deeply in the open-source software development, I can help people and do my “social responsibility” move as well as develop a stable and comfortable professional career. Comfortable is not exactly the correct adjective for my current situation, as I’m working an awful lot of overtime to kick-start this project, but I think that getting through 2009 with a company of 12 and without a single budget-based lay-off shows just how strong we could be in a strong economic context. 75% of our work has been open-sourced in 2009. We hope we can maintain that rate through 2010. And yes… it would be easier (but more boring) to work for Microsoft, certainly.
Now is time to give you a nice and short conclusion:
- we were many unhappy amongst the Dokeos community
- 90% (at least) of the active contributing community agrees and is moving with us to the Chamilo project
- the Chamilo trademark is defended and shared by an association, as part of its goals, so the same split will not happen again
- we (my company and I) used to develop the Dokeos software for 65% in 2008 and 2009, and it reached 85% with other developers coming along with us
- if you were our customer, the service to you will only get better
- if you were part of the Dokeos community, you will feel a bit lonely staying there, most probably
- I will not work for the Dokeos company in the future, unless deep structural and philosophical changes are made
I hope to see you join the Chamilo community soon. The best you can do right now is register on our website: http://www.chamilo.org and let us know that you are willing to give us a hand, or just let us know you are supporting the initiative, morally (that’s good enough for us). You will receive notifications later this month on how to best contribute to the project and make it a success. If you are our customer, don’t contact us, we will contact you very soon with more details.
This blog will continue existing for the sake of continuity, but I will be slowly moving on to the more professional BeezNest’s blog soon: https://beeznest.wordpress.com as I should probably have done since the very beginning… :-)
- The Chamilo project is now used in 180 countries around the world
- Our community reached 1,000,000 (self-registered) users this month (we do count reductions in numbers as well)
- We have customers with Chamilo campuses ranging from 200,000-employees to 50-customers
- We have been interviewed *many* times by radios, podcasts and magazines (printed and web)
- We are organizing around 10 events per year (both in-person and virtual) and participate to around 50 others per year, promoting Chamilo and how to use or contribute to the project
- Chamilo received 2 open-source awards in 2011 (Packt Publishing and Portal Programas)
- The Dokeos project closed its development repository to the public less than two months after we left and created Chamilo (in an attempt to prevent us from re-using fixes they would possibly develop – in the end we returned the system and they are now re-using most of our fixes and ideas, because we remained open to all). This also removed the possibility for us to “compare” our development speed with them through tools like Ohloh’s.
- Chamilo now has local national (and official) groups in Belgium, Spain and Peru (and is currently preparing one in France and one in Venezuela)
- Chamilo now integrates key usability features for the teachers directly from the browser: recording your voice, generating voice from text, drawing, photo retouching, drag & drop of documents, etc.
In terms of what our first goals were in 2010, we certainly reached them. The business around Chamilo took time to launch though, but we have now reached a step where our customers come pretty much on their own. The future is bright.