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The Silence of the Squirrels: An Open Source Cautionary Tale

by  David Dwyer on  11/12/2018

It’s entirely possible that you have never heard of Squirrelmail.  It was never intended to be a corporate tool and it is one of a number of web-hosted mail applications that can be deployed onto your server via cPanel.  

Open Source Squirrel Mail

It’s written in PHP which may ring bells with those of you who are regular readers of our Insights.

Fewer of you will hear of Squirrelmail in the future as it is no longer supported and there hasn’t been an update released since May 2013.  So why are we dedicating our valuable time and resources to this?  The answer to that is to be found in the origins of Squirrelmail, its uses and the reasons for its ultimate demise.  It’s a story that is not unusual and it is a useful lesson.

What, where, when?

Squirrelmail was the product of two brothers, Luke and Nathan Ehresman, who released the first version in 1999.  Their aim was simple; to produce a webmail application that was easy to use and administer and which made as few demands on computing resources as possible.  Their projection was that Squirrelmail would meet the requirements of around 5% of the then web’s mail users.

Squirrelmail grew beyond its initial intentions and found a wider audience.  Being written in PHP and being an open-source application, others developed add-ons and plug-ins that increased its functionality beyond that originally envisaged by its developers. In 2015 Squirrelmail could still be found at the top of lists of recommended webmail clients, at a time when it hadn’t seen an update for two years.

How can that happen?

The rise and fall of Squirrelmail is the story of open source software in microcosm.  A developer has a bright idea and codes like a demon to realise that vision.  It’s released as an open-source application and others, sharing vision and enthusiasm, develop the core application and write add-ons that improve functionality.  The application finds many users, some as enthusiastic as the developers, others looking for either function or cheap options and all seems well.

Unfortunately, enthusiasm wanes and the web eco-system evolves, sometimes rapidly and radically.  Developers who were willing to dedicate their time to the project find that they have other, more profitable, things to do with their time.  The flame that sustained the project flickers and dies.  This seems to have been Squirrelmail’s fate.  By 2013 there were no more updates, the application was based on older versions of PHP which in their turn were reaching their end of life and were no longer supported.  The world changed and Squirrelmail was left behind.  In October 2018 cPanel rang its death-knell.

That’s not good…
This path potentially lies before all products and technology, does anyone remember IBM’s MCA – micro-channel architecture?  No?  We’re not surprised.  Back in the dim and distant past of personal computers, IBM developed a new PC architecture, radically different from what was common in PCs then in use.  They probably assumed that because they were IBM it would thrive and come to dominate the market – and it was very good.  But the market just wasn’t interested; the price was too high, alternatives appeared, and MCA disappeared.  Likewise their OS2 operating system – far better than the early versions of Windows - but there was insufficient market interest.

Although similar, the big difference between these instances and open source software is the commercial consideration, or lack of one.  Big Blue made a series of business decisions that ultimately failed, but Squirrelmail just ran out of steam or puff if you will.  Other open source projects suffer the same fate, look at the numerous iterations of the Linux operating system and how many have survived in any meaningful way.

Can you rely on open source software?

As we have said before, the web largely exists on the LAMP stack – Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP.  All of those components are open source to some extent – MySQL is developed and supported by Oracle but made available under an open licence, all the others are open source applications.  There is a market for them and money is there to be made by supporting them and further developing them.

Additionally companies may offer to write bespoke applications for them or to develop new functionality.  The source code and the applications derived from it are free, but if you intend to use them extensively expect to pay someone along the line.

Probably the key difference between the components of the LAMP stack and Squirrelmail is the size of the vested interest.  With something like 80% of the world’s websites running on a variation of the LAMP stack model, no one is going to lose interest any time soon.

Squirrelmail provided a single service, webmail, and was not the only option available.  As a result of competition, of improving options in other applications and a lack of development, it became less attractive both to users and to its founders.  Its demise is evolutionary, not a singular disaster.  The sudden demise of the LAMP stack in contrast doesn’t bear thinking about.

Does anyone make money from open source applications?

They certainly can - development, consultancy, provision of binaries (compiled programs), documentation and especially support are key revenue streams.  Much open-source software is community supported which means that you will eventually get an answer but perhaps not when you most need it.  

WordPress, on which so many of the world’s websites are built, (approx 55%) is an open source application that can be taken off the shelf and edited to make it do exactly what you want it to or you take a paid for theme off the shelf that does what you want it to do.  Companies either pay consultants to maintain and develop their site or employ such skills in-house.

Should I stay, or should I go?

As outlined above, some of the most critical software running our digital world is open-source and there is no reason to think that will change.  Squirrelmail is an example of what happens when customers and developers lose interest in a product rather that a damning indictment of the open-source model.  Being closed or open source is not the only determining fact governing the future of an application.

If you are concerned about whether or not a piece of software is appropriate or suitable for your business, having the opportunity to discuss it with someone who fully understands the ins and out is invaluable.  That’s why here at Inspire we offer a free 20-minute initial consultation, allowing you to explore your options without obligation.

To talk to one of our team, contact us or call 01738-700006

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