OpenRemote: Community will drive home automation

Co-founder Marc Fleury has a vision to leverage community to make OpenRemote successful, but it's not the kind of open-source community most people talk about.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
4 min read

Marc Fleury, founder of the successful JBoss open-source project and company, is largely considered one of the great open-source pioneers.

Not many people can claim to have have built a project that continues to inspire tens of thousands of downloads each month, plus the commercial envy of Larry Ellison and $350 million from Red Hat.

Fleury can, but he's not resting on his laurels. Having upended the application server market, Fleury is now funding OpenRemote, an open-source home automation project that was inspired while Fleury was shopping for a "geek chic" home automation system and discovered that it cost far more than he thought it should.

I reached Fleury at his Madrid home on Monday to discuss a wide range of issues. But the longer we talked, the more we focused on the value of open-source communities.

After all, how many developers do you know who have the aptitude to contribute to low-level home automation controls? This is a very different market from, say, operating systems for servers, personal computers, or even mobile phones. While many people use remotes to control everything from their TV to their lighting system, virtually no one knows how to program them.

Hence, I asked the question, "How does community even apply to this market?" His reply:

Marc Fleury

Automation is a primitive software industry, though it's advanced in hardware. There are very few standards. It's 100 percent proprietary. Everything here is deployed in a very proprietary fashion: business models, hardware, software. Everything.

Electricians are our installer community. They're great at what they do, but they're not software developers. It's a fairly rare skill to be able to develop this kind of software. But then, open source has never really been about thousands of developers, contributing to a project. It's about millions (or thousands) of users.

Yes, you need a few good guys, which we've funded through an off-shore Chinese development group. (JBoss, incidentally, was much the same: we funded the development exclusively early on.) The open-source dynamic kicks in when you have a big body of users.

I felt like I was hearing heresy, what with the dearth of paeans to community, but then Fleury has never seemed overly concerned with catering to consensus. This is the guy who dressed in Flavor Flav (Public Enemy) style at Javapolis 2006.

But Fleury wasn't disparaging the value of open-source communities. He was simply being realistic about the value and nature of such communities over the life of an open-source project. Until you have established an exceptional project, you can't hope to attract users. And if you lack users, forget about trying to find a significant body of committed developers.

So what does OpenRemote need more than anything else now? Users. And why? Because users attract installers, and the product with the most installers wins. Period.

Fleury noted:

Home automation is a highly fragmented market, which makes it hard for any company to become big. There are no standards here, so you have hundreds of little vendors. So, if you really want to have a standard, then you need to integrate all of those vendors.

But open source helps to alleviate this, attracting a user community that can hold off competitors while attracting a partner ecosystem. Open source serves as a rallying cry; a rendezvous point. We make the system modular and provide the integration points, and then work to attract an installer community to take advanage of these. It's not a short-term strategy: we're in this for the long haul.

The interest in driving a community of users is that we will breed the next generation of home automation installers. If we can scale the awareness of OpenRemote through a community of users, then we can rise above the noise and get installers to take us seriously. They don't want to spend time on a small player. As we gain mass, we should start to see some of the more traditional benefits of open source, like debugging and development assistance.

Not that OpenRemote hasn't had outside contributors. Fleury noted that as awareness of OpenRemote has grown, the project has attracted a trickle of outside contributions. He expects this to grow over time, but said he won't be concerned by a lack of significant outside contribution until the five-year anniversary of the project. (He also noted that one developer is worth 1,000 users, so he clearly recognizes the value of outside contributions.)

For now, OpenRemote employs virtually all of the developers who work on the project and has recently acquired the exclusive rights to iKNX, an iPhone stack that works with the widely popular KNX automation hardware. If this sounds like JBoss' strategy, it's because it was.

And, like JBoss with Java application servers, the time for OpenRemote may be ripe. Despite the morass of nonstandard technologies and bit players in the automation market, OpenRemote's open-source approach just might have a chance to unify the market. It's now possible to put a $200 computer in the wall, which suggests it just might be feasible for OpenRemote to open source a deeply proprietary and fragmented industry.

Would you bet against Fleury?

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.