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MindTouch learns the open source walk

By Bruce Byfield on March 07, 2008 (7:00:00 PM)

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How do two former Microsoft employees end up heading an open source company? In the case of Aaron Fulkerson and Steve Bjorg of MindTouch, the decision was based on the wish for independence and to work more closely with customers, according to Fulkerson. The two partners suffered some initial criticism because of their past employment, but have largely survived it by learning how to interact with the free software community.

At first, says Fulkerson, "There was a lot of FUD spread about how MindTouch was these Microsoft guys who had taken over open source code and made it proprietary," even though the company had been careful to resubmit its code to the community from the first. Some, too, remain concerned that Deki Wiki, MindTouch's product, requires Mono, even though Fulkerson says that "the only sections of Mono that we're using are those in the public domain -- we don't do anything with .ASP or Winform."

However, the truth is that both Fulkerson and Bjorg never fit the Microsoft culture very well. "Steve and I have always been very passionate about open source," says Fulkerson, "and that's difficult inside Microsoft. Mostly, they just don't understand it. But openness has always been something that's really important to me, and, prior to being recruited by Microsoft, I spent a lot of time building community technology centers in various neighborhoods, using predominantly open source software. And Steve was the one who was running around inside Microsoft installing MediaWiki everywhere."

After leaving Microsoft independently, the two reunited to form MindTouch in 2005. Funded by angel capital, they began Deki Wiki as a fork of MediaWiki, changing the back end to XML, and adding Lucene and a WYSIWYG editor for the initial release. Over the last few years, they have made Deki Wiki a cross-platform, cross-programming language distributed application platform until, Fulkerson says, "I'm not even sure it's a wiki anymore." Instead, he describes it as an "agile content management system" unlike anything else currently available, being more fully featured than a wiki and offering features not found in content management systems, including collaborative features, a less structured work flow, composite applications, and data mashups.

MindTouch released the first full version of Deki Wiki in June 2007, and began marketing support services in early 2008. Meanwhile, Deki Wiki itself, which is released under the GNU General Public License, averages more than 1,100 downloads a day on SourceForge.net. Fulkerson says it is being approached by larger companies as well, a development that he attributes to the "groundswell of community support" for the product. The company is now seeking further financial backing.

The atmosphere, Fulkerson finds, is very different from three years ago. In 2005, he says, "When I told people we were open source, nobody knew what we were talking about. It was like, 'Whatever, you're smoking crack.' But I can tell you now, things are very different. People understand the business model. It doesn't seem so fantastic or crazy any more."

Learning when to walk away

At first, for all his enthusiasm, Fulkerson was at a loss about how to interact with the community, especially with the unfavorable reaction to his and Bjorg's past association with Microsoft. When somebody attacked the company, Fulkerson was often so upset by the unfairness of the attacks that he tried to respond to them.

"That was what I did wrong," he says now. "I should have just ignored it. I should have been like, 'Whatever. These people don't know what they're talking about. They'll eventually realize that we're active members of this community and not somebody sucking it dry."

Paradoxically, Fulkerson also found himself on the other side of criticism, especially on the Open Source Initiative (OSI) mailing lists.

"There have been times that OSI hasn't done things that I approved of, or other companies have done things that I haven't approve of, and I've been vocal about it," Fulkerson admits. "Because, to be honest, I'm pretty religious when it comes to open source, and I've been accused of being somewhat radical about it. So in the past I've jumped all over people. Looking back, I think there are times I should have just said, 'I don't agree with these people, they don't know what they're doing, and the market will sort things out anyway.' Or the community -- I think the community is a big factor in the market, so the two are intertwined."

Learning to walk the walk

Unsurprisingly, Fulkerson notices a world of difference between a proprietary company like Microsoft and an open source one like MindTouch. He finds that the largest difference is the relation with the community. Instead of the one-way communication and unilateral decisions about product directions in a proprietary company, he finds MindTouch much more interactive.

"We take feedback from the community, and we just facilitate what they're asking for," Fulkerson says. "We have a grander vision, in that we're looking a little farther out, but what they're recommending, we just facilitate. You don't have that kind of dialogue in a proprietary company."

To keep that dialogue going, MindTouch devotes considerable efforts at opening lines of communication. "Everybody in the company is involved with the community. Everybody answers forms and posts, and -- even if I have to beat them to do it -- everybody blogs," Fulkerson states.

In addition, while MindTouch is currently developing its corporate marketing strategy, the majority of the marketing strategy remains focused on the community -- which means largely stickers and T-shirts. These simple bits of marketing are surprisingly effective in making the company memorable, Fulkerson finds. He recalls at least one instance in which community members were convinced that MindTouch was at a convention that it missed, solely because so many attendees were wearing the T-shirts the company had sent as a promotion.

One unique way that Fulkerson engages the community is that, "when people submits code patches, bug reports, extensions, or translations, MindTouch makes a small donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation or a nonprofit of their own choosing. We always try to do that because it's about building tribe and makng them feel good about contributing. And not only that, we hope that in some small way we're impacting something else they care about, too."

For Fulkerson, the decision to engage the community was vindicated when he met Mårten Mickos, the CEO of MySQL. "I asked him what one of the smartest things he ever did was when working at MySQL," Fulkerson says, "and he said, 'Personally engaging the community.'"

Given that MindTouch is currently a 10-person startup, personal engagement is probably unavoidable. Still, it's a business method that Fulkerson seems committed to. "I don't want that ever to change. I think it so important to be involved in that capacity."

A warming reception

Perhaps the best sign that MindTouch has outlasted its early critics was its reception at the Olliance Group's last Open Source ThinkTank. "What was really nice about it is that MindTouch has been under the radar and nobody really knows who we are. Yet at that event, I was being approached by CEOs of open source companies asking me how MindTouch has managed to build up the community we have with basically no budget at all. That was the first time I'd really gotten that, let alone from people I respect."

According to Fulkerson, the mistake that other companies make is to talk a better game than they play. Too many supposedly open source companies, he says, "see open source as a check box. I can think of one competitor in particular which had everything going for it, with an amazing board of advisers, an amazing board of directors, and it was early to market, yet it took three years to release its source code and they didn't understand what open source was."

"It's nothing that you are," Fulkerson explains. "It's a process, part of your very fabric. I don't think you can fake that, though people often do try to fake it."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

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on MindTouch learns the open source walk

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MindTouch learns the open source walk

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 74.92.170.153] on March 07, 2008 10:45 PM

1) Why the hell did they move to mono outside of appeasing the Win32 crowd--the Hayes upgrade caused a lot of pain and still does because several DekiWiki components are sealed behind the mono binary wall



2) Mono, at least Deki's implementation, is memory-leaking pig--that thing dies on us about once a week until we put a crontab in to reboot it. Does this sound a little like rebooting? What's with the "restart it and it'll be okay" mentality?



3) They need to document their stuff. Yeah, the upgrade path was documented (but still a major pain). I challenge you to easily find the "welcome email" text people get it. You know where it is? It's in a file called "resources.txt" buried in the includes, or somewhere. "resources.txt, resources.txt?!!?" Go ahead, search for it on the Deki site or google for "Dekiwiki change welcome email" and see what you get.



To some the above may seem tactical. I point these out as examples of a wider mindset responsible for these design decisions.

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MindTouch claims that it learns the open source walk ...

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 74.184.93.139] on March 09, 2008 07:48 PM
But like the poster above, I can speak from experience that there are many design elements that they still need to rethink and some basic concepts that even if they think they have learned it, they need to realize that they learned the wrong thing. My experience trying out their technology has been that there is way too much "don't worry about that, its being taken cared of some where in there" and you end up finding alot of binary blobs that may or may not be the cause of major perfomance issues (not that you would ever know because I don't seem to recall being able to get to that source code).

One thing I think they have not learned yet is that for you to gain any sense of credibility in a community you need to allow that community to voice that fact. Because if you are the one who is going around telling people that a community likes you and none of those people in that community have said that, rather its others who themselves are not a part of the community that are agreeing with your assertion, then you might just be fooling yourself.

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MindTouch, Mono, etc

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.107.88.95] on March 11, 2008 01:45 AM
@Anon #1,
1). We moved to Mono because we're comfortable with the technology. More on this in a moment. It is very important to note: extending the platform can be done with any programming language you like on any platform you like running on any server you like (meaning it can even be remote).

2). I'm not sure what version you're using of Deki Wiki, but the memory leak you're referring to was fixed quite a while back and was only evidenced in certain installs with certain versions of Mono. I encourage you to update. If you're using the VMware image you can auto-update with the script we provide.

3). There are well over a hundred pages of documentation at www.OpenGarden.org. We're working hard, and so are the several thousand community members, to improve docs. Rest assured our docs are improving and are significantly more robust than most projects. Please know we've only had a product public for just over a year and a half and the docs are pretty mature for how young we are. Thanks especially to our community for this. Docs are also in Japanese and other langs I would like to add.
A key point to realize about MindTouch's Deki Wiki is that this is a distributed application platform that facilitates highly concurrent computing. Compiled code really eases the complexity of what we're doing. More info here: http://MindTouch.com/Technology

@Anon poster #2, the system is reflective . This means you can glean a lot from the system itself. You can inspect (as a machine or human) the entire functionality in fact. Case in point: http://wiki.opengarden.org/@api/deki/site/functions shows all the registered extensions to external apps and http://wiki.opengarden.org/@api/deki/@about shows the entire API. More about the API here: http://wiki.opengarden.org/Deki_Wiki/API_Reference

Finally, ALL of Deki Wiki's source code is available for download at Sourceforge.net. This includes MindTouch Dream (see Technology page), which we release under LGPL. We do pre-compile to simplify things for installation, but ALL source code is public and included (in the VM too).

If you give our technology page a read http://MindTouch.com/Technology I think you’ll have a much better understanding of what we’re building and why we made the decisions we did wrt our stack.

Thank you both for your input. We take all community input very seriously. There are thousands that provide input at www.OpenGarden.org. I encourage you to participate here and please keep the feedback coming.

/Aaron Fulkerson

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MindTouch learns the open source walk

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.107.88.60] on March 11, 2008 02:51 PM
Mea culpa on the memory issue. We've been working closely with the mono and mysql communities to identify memory leaks, which have been addressed. Since deki wiki is the end product, that's where you'll see the problem manifest itself, so I can understand why you find fault in it. But this is were the beauty of open source comes into play. We locate the defective piece of code and we submit a fix, either to our code base or to that of other communities. Everybody wins!

As pointed out Aaron, all the source code is available. There are NO sealed components. Binaries are provided for convenience only. Also, we LOVE hearing from our community, just visit http://forums.opengarden.org and voice your opinion. Positive or negative. We learn from all the feedback we get and we use to prioritize new features. If you feel we can do a better job at it, please suggest it by all means!

Cheers,
Steve Bjorg

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