I e-met Fiore Basile of FabLab Starter and we soon became friends. He's a hacker / maker / digital man with a few startups experience and the dream of creating a FabLab network that is also sustainable business-wise. I immediately joined him in this project!
But aside of this we also started discussing another project related to OIR and makers. The idea is to create an Open Source device to host your own mailserver and connect it to your home ADSL. This is the natural development of OIR into phisically owning your online data. And which data of yours is more sensitive than your personal emails?
The recent Snowden data-leak showed that our online identity and activities are potentially subject of secret scrutiny. Regardless of your position about the Snowden data-leak though, there is another potential threat in keeping your emails on someone else's server in the cloud. What would happen if your cloud host decided to shut down their operations, or to start charging for their service, or any other more or less catastrophical, more or less planned event, or even were forced to give out your data.
That's why I decided I would explore the possibility of creating a personal mailserver that I would keep physically with me. Sure this does not guarantee me that my communications will not be spied (unless I am able to encrypt my messages and decrypt them only at the physical endpoint that is in my hands, more on this in some later post), but it gives me peace of mind about the threats I exposed above of losing or someone reading all my email history for reasons out of my control.
After I met Fiore, we discussed about the idea and he liked it a lot! I am a hacker in the broadest sense, but I don't have the expertise needed to develop such a server alone, whereas Fiore is great at it, so a partnership was born!
Here's what we plan to do, fully disclosed in the best Open Source tradition :) We are going to build a super simple mailserver to connect to your home adsl, that's it! The thing is a small computer board plus some software, we are going to discuss the architecture in the following days and we will post about it. The entire project will be Open Source so that any hacker and any FabLab can replicate it. Of course there will be a pre-assembled version for sale, with the same business model used by OpenPicus.
There's going to be an initial barebone version that will need some setup that any geek can do, but my objective is to create a fully plug-and-play product that can be installed and used by anyone.
In my opinion this is the current hurdle to take off also among non geeks for the many great developments that are happening in the maker's world. I can tell because I am not a geek but I wanted to start reclaiming my online identity anyways, and it is not-so-straightforward to do it. I'm lucky that I have some programming expertise dating back to the last millennium (8088 assembler and Pascal) plus something more recent (Python, some HTML, some very basic SQL) but I can't tell php from Ruby code ;) This basic knowledge helped me to get through the hoops and create a Jekyll website (this one) hosted on Amazon AWS, and I realise that this is practically an impossible task for anyone with less than the basic knowledge I have.
I want to bring the great possibilities offered by current technologies to all the people so that they can reclaim their online identity. But first we will have to check whether there is such a need! As Paul Graham says in his great essay How to Get Startup Ideas
When a startup launches, there have to be at least some users who really need what they're making—not just people who could see themselves using it one day, but who want it urgently. Usually this initial group of users is small, for the simple reason that if there were something that large numbers of people urgently needed and that could be built with the amount of effort a startup usually puts into a version one, it would probably already exist.
Paul Graham suggests to start with a small community of people who would really use it and who are able to work out the initial usage hurdles. It looks like the hackers community could be our first customer! If we see there is interest in this community we will be able to make the product more usable and start verifying interest from a less geeky community.
In the next OIR post the basic specs of the project an its further development plan.