I’m an open source developer, because I think that open source makes for safer, better software for the whole community of users. I also think that, by making more software available to a wider audience, we improve the quality, safety and security of every user out there, and as such I will always push for more, and more open, software. This is why I support the Public Money, Public Code campaign by the FSFE for opening up the software developed explicitly for public administrations.
But there is one space that I found is quite lacking when it comes with open source: business-oriented software. The first obvious thing is the lack of good accounting software, as Jonathan has written extensively about, but there is more. When I was consulting as a roaming sysadmin (or with a more buzzwordy, and marketing-friendly term, a Managed Services Provider — MSP), a number of my customers relied heavily on nearly off-the-shelf software to actually run their business. And in at least a couple of cases, they commissioned me custom-tailored software for that.
In a lot of cases, there isn’t really a good reason not to open-source this software: while it is required to run certain businesses, it is clearly not enough to run them. And yet there are very few examples of such software in the open, and that includes from me: my customers didn’t really like the idea of releasing the software to others, even after I offered a discount on the development price.
I want to show the details of an example of one such custom software, something that, to give a name to it, would be a CRM (Customer Relationship Manager), that I built for a pizzeria in Italy. I won’t be opening the source code for it (though I wish I could do so), and I won’t be showing screenshots or provide the name of the actual place, instead referring to it as Pizza Planet.
This CRM (although the name sounds more professional than what it really was), was custom-designed to suit the work environment of the pizzeria — that is to say, I did whatever they asked me, despite it disagreeing with my sense of aesthetics and engineering. The basic idea was very simple: when a customer calls, they wanted to know who the customer was even before picking up the phone — effectively inspecting the caller ID, and connecting it with the easiest database editing facility I could write, so that they could give it a name and a freeform text box to write down addresses, notes, and preferences.
The reason why they called me to write this is that they originally bought a hardware PBX (for a single room pizzeria!) just so that a laptop could connect to it and use the Address Book functionality of the vendor. Except this functionality kept crashing, and after many weeks of back-and-forth with the headquarters in Japan, the integrator could not figure out how to get it to work.
As the pizzeria was wired with ISDN (legacy technology, heh), to be able to take at least two calls at the same time, the solution I came up with was building a simple “industrial” PC, with an ISDN line card and Asterisk, get them a standard SIP phone, and write the “CRM” so that it would initiate a SIP connection to the same Asterisk server (but never answer it). Once an inbound call arrived, it would look up if there was an entry in a simple storage layer for the phone number and display it with very large fonts, to be easily readable while around the kitchen.
As things moved and changed, a second pizzeria was opened and it required a similar setup. Except that, as ISDN are legacy technology, the provider was going to charge up to the nose for connecting a new line. Instead we decided to set up a VoIP account instead, and instead of a PC to connect the software, Asterisk ran on a server (in close proximity to the VoIP provider). And since at that point the limitation of an ISDN line on open calls is limited, the scope of the project expanded.
First of all, up to four calls could be queued, “your call is very important to us”-style. We briefly discussed allowing for reserving a spot and calling back, but at the time calls to mobile phones would still be expensive enough they wanted to avoid that. Instead the calls would get a simple message telling them to wait in line to contact the pizzeria. The CRM started showing the length of the queue (in a very clunky way), although it never showed the “next call” like the customer wanted (the relationship between the customer and the VoIP provider went South, and all of us had to end up withdrawing from the engagement).
Another feature we ended up implementing was opening hours: when call would arrive outside of the advertised opening hours, an announcement would play (recorded by a paid friend, who used to act in theatre, and thus had a good pronunciation).
I’m fairly sure that none of this would actually comply with the new GDPR requirements. At the very least, the customers should be advised that their data (phone number, address) will be saved.
But why am I talking about this in the context of Open Source software? Well, while a lot of the components used in this set up were open source, or even Free Software, it still requires a lot of integration to become usable. There’s no “turnkey pizzeria setup” — you can build up the system from components, but you need not just an integrator, you need a full developer (or development team) to make sure all the components fit together.
I honestly wish I had opensourced more of this. If I was to design this again right now, I would probably make sure that there was a direct, real-time API between Asterisk and a Web-based CRM. It would definitely make it easier to secure the data for GDPR compliance. But there is more than just that: having an actual integrated, isolated system where you can make configuration changes give the user (customer) the ability to set up things without having to know how the configuration files are structured.
To set up the Asterisk, it took me a week or two reading through documentation, books on the topic, and a significant amount of experimentation with a VoIP number and a battery of testing SIM cards at home. To make the recordings work I had to fight with converting the files to G.729 beforehand, or the playback would use a significant amount of CPU.
But these are not unknown needs. There are plenty of restaurants (who don’t have to be pizza places) out there that probably need something like this. And indeed services such as Deliveroo appear to now provide a similar all-in-one solution… which is good for restaurants in cities big enough to sustain Deliveroo, but probably not grate for the smaller restaurants in smaller cities, who probably would not have much of a chance of hiring developers to make such a system themselves.
So, rambling asides, I really wish we had more ready-to-install Open Source solutions for businesses (restaurants, hotels, … — I would like to add banks to that but I know regulatory compliance is hard). I think these would actually have a very good social impact on all those towns and cities that don’t have a critical mass of tech influence, that they come with their own collection of mobile apps, for instance.
If you’re the kind of person who complains that startups only appear to want to solve problems in San Francisco, maybe think of what problems you can solve in and around your town or city.