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Taking on Twitter with open-source software

Evan Prodromou thinks Identica, his microblogging alternative, can take the genre to the masses by offering stability, flexibility, and choice.

Earlier this summer, just as Twitter started to really pick up steam, the microblogging service began to have major stability problems.

The more users who signed up, the more the site seemed to be down, and it became nearly as commonplace to see the so-called "fail whale"--signifying that a desired operation wouldn't go through--as it was to have the service work properly.

For countless users, this was extremely frustrating, as Twitter had become the live conversation medium of choice for many early-adopters. And into this vacuum jumped a series of other microblogging services, each trying to pick up where Twitter seemed to be leaving off and hoping that large numbers of users would migrate to these new choices.

Evan Prodromou
Evan Prodromou Evan Prodromou/Indentica

One such service that seemed to come out of nowhere and get instant buy-in from influential digerati around the Web was Identica, an open-source microblogging alternative from Montreal resident Evan Prodromou, who in 2003 had co-founded Wikitravel, a wiki-based travel service that gained a widespread following and that has since expanded into printed guidebooks.

For Prodromou, Identica began as a side project that leveraged his experience with open-source software and free software projects and quickly became a popular place for people looking for a stable microblogging service to go.

Now, Twitter has regained much of its footing, and it has a huge name recognition advantage over any of its competitors, but Prodromou thinks his model could eventually take the microblogging genre to its natural next evolutionary step.

Q: What is Identica?
Prodromou: Identica is a microblogging service, a way for people to publish small messages about themselves. The messages are limited to 140 characters or less, so one to two sentences, maybe three sentences about what you're doing, what you are interested in right now, and you can broadcast it to your social network. I launched Identica in July, and of course, microblogging has been around for probably about two to three years right now with some leading services like Twitter, Jaiku, and more recently Pownce and Plurk.

How do you differentiate yourselves from Twitter and the others?
Prodromou: Recent numbers show there are already around 110 microblogging services, and with others that have been announced, there are probably 200 different services right now. What we've seen with other kinds of social software is this kind of fragmentation and we are seeing that now with microblogging where you are on Twitter, and I am Jaiku, and we can't be friends and we can't send each other messages. That's not the way the Internet is supposed to work. We are seeing these information silos happen around microblogging just like we're seeing them in other social media and my goal is to see that not happen with microblogging because I think it's a very valuable kind of communication.

Isn't that where something like Friendfeed comes in, to aggregate all the different services into one place?
Prodromou: Friendfeed is a great way to listen to multiple places, but to me, that's a stop-gap solution where we've got lots of silos, so you can listen to lots of silos. I want one microblogging place, where if I'm on one and you're on another, we can still communicate and still be friends. That's the long-term solution to the problem. It should be up to the services to talk to each other. That's really the difference with Identica. I made the software open source, so you can take the software that runs Identica and install it on your own server. Maybe you're involved with a Web community or you have a group of friends that like to talk or maybe you're in business and you want people in your business talking to each other in the enterprise. You can install the software and tailor it just for your group. I built a protocol called OpenMicroBlogging, so if you take the software and install it on your server, people on your server can still subscribe to other people on Identica and vice versa, so we're no longer having these little silos that are fractured and different from each other.

So will Indentica users be able to communicate with Twitter users?
Prodromou: That's my goal. If we get enough people using these open standards and open systems, perhaps Twitter sees it as a business advantage to join this kind of open network. We've seen that before on the Internet. In the early 1990s, there were lot of silos around e-mail and if you had an AOL e-mail address and I had a CompuServe e-mail address, we couldn't send e-mail to each other. But e-mail became so ubiquitous that even the companies with the biggest groups and users had to allow their users to send and receive Internet e-mail and I think that that's going to happen with microblogging, too. But it means that we have to grow the rest of the system.

It seems you had the good fortune of launching Identica last summer right when Twitter was having major stability and scalability problems.
Prodromou: Yeah.

But as Twitter solidifies itself, why won't people just say, Okay, Twitter is working, I'm just going to stick with that because most of my friends are there? How do you fit into that dynamic?
Prodromou: I'm a big openness advocate and I want to make sure that we follow the winning solutions. With social-networking sites, in around 2003 or 2004, Friendster was probably the only one worth caring about. But they had big scalability problems. That gave openings to alternatives like MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, and so on, all the ones that have become very big since then. Twitter's gotten back on its feet, but there are other players now, and some Twitter users got accounts on Identica and others went to Plurk. A lot have gone back to Twitter, but as we saw with social networking, the growth wasn't in those early adopters, the early, say 2 million, that are using Twitter. There are a billion people online, and there is a lot of room for growth in that billion people. You can't just have a bunch of players fighting over the same small pie of early adopters. Eventually the market grows, and the MySpaces and Facebooks grow beyond the early adopter market, and I think that's what's going to happen with microblogging.

Explain what Laconica is?
Prodromou: Identica is the name of the service and, it's open source. I'm very interested in ways that service providers can give their users the same kind of autonomy as people have using open source software. So, one thing I did when I started Identica was made the software open source. It's called Laconica. The software is available for download from Identica and it's pretty easy to set up. It runs on PHP and MySQL, which you can get on pretty much on any hosting service. So my goal is to make it very easy to install and have lots of people installing their own systems and using it. I believe that if that becomes the case, as the network grows and gets stronger and it's advantageous to everyone.

What's your business model?
Prodromou: I have four possible revenue streams. The first is a premium services model. Some things cost us money, like file sharing, or heavy SMS use, so we have to limit that. But we may let people buy their way out of those limits. The second is enterprise deployment. A lot of companies are interested in microblogging but they're concerned about putting their company data out on third-party Web services. But if they install Laconica inside their firewall, they can have more control of access to the data. The third business is the model, where we provide hosting for online communities using this open-source software, like if, say Boing Boing wanted to provide microblogging services for its community. And the fourth one, which is probably not as attractive to me right now is advertising. One other thing that I think could be very good, is helping companies or brands have a presence on the open microblogging network. So if Levi's wanted a new campaign, we could help them set up and they could have people subscribe to their messages.

Which of these models are you going to follow?
Prodromou: I'm actively pursuing all of them, except for the advertising one. I've already started approaching people for doing white label hosting. I'm already talking to people about doing pilot enterprise deployment and we're at a point where we're going to be doing some multimedia file sharing later this month so I should be pushing it out. I hope to push it out for trial on Identica soon. So that will be a point at which we would start talking about premium services.

So you founded Identica by yourself?
Prodromou: Yes. My background is in creating open content. I started a Web site a few years ago called Wikitravel, which is the Wikipedia of travel sites. I've also been involved with conversations about open network services and running free software on Web services. I wondered what I could do with this, and at the time, the most popular Web service with the digerati was Twitter. So I decided to try writing an open-source Twitter. I really did it in my spare time and invited about 150 people to check it out. But one morning Twitter was down and so the time was right to have the users start blogging about it, and TechCrunch and Mashable and ReadWriteWeb and CNET did, and we had a big explosion right at the time when Twitter was having a hard time. We're about two months in right now and it's looking like we're just about feature complete compared to Twitter. We've got a really good group of 50 people on our developers mailing list and we've got an IRC channel that usually has about 50 or 100 people in it all the time.

Do you have investors?
Prodromou: I'm definitely seeking investment right now, I've got some very strong leads, I haven't finalized anything yet. So my hope is that I'm going to have an announcement to make probably in less than a month.