The next big challenge for open source: rich collaboration software

There's a lot of room for improvement in file sync and share, and the open source community is in the ideal position to add the killer features we're all waiting for.
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The file sync and share movement started over a decade ago, led by the likes of Dropbox, Google Drive, and others, and became popular very fast. The killer feature was having all your files available on all your devices. No more forgetting to bring that important document to a meeting, emailing files, or handling multiple USB sticks. Files were always there when you needed them! That its growth happened with the start of the smartphone age made file sync and share even more useful.

But its popularity wasn't just about having access to your own files on all your devices: it also made sharing easier, enabling a new level of working together. No longer emailing documents, no longer being unsure whether your colleague's feedback came on the latest version of your draft, no longer fixing errors that were already fixed.

But it was always clear to me that this was only the beginning.

Very quickly, open source projects emerged that provided the same functionality as commercial products but allowed users to host their own instance. Unlike Dropbox and the like, where you had to give up control over your files in order to sync and share them, open source made it possible to host the server yourself. Home, business, and government institutions started to host their own solutions.

Federation became popular and open source projects built ways for different sync and share servers to collaborate and exchange files. I was at the center of these developments, having started the most popular file sync and share project, a community and vision we now continue as Nextcloud, and inventing Federated Cloud Sharing with Bjoern Schiessle, working with others like Pydio to get it implemented across projects.

People want more than just having files from other people popping up on their computer or changed in the background by other users.

But it was always clear to me that this was only the beginning. People want more than just having files from other people popping up on their computer or changed in the background by other users.

What is needed is context! Why do I have access to this file or folder? Who shared it with me and what are the recent changes? Is there a way to directly chat with the person who changed the file? Maybe leave a comment or even directly call the person? If you are discussing possible changes on a document, why not edit it collaboratively? Maybe there's an integration with your calendar to arrange a time to work together on the document. Or maybe integration into your email to access the latest version of a file that way. Maybe you could have a video call while working on that presentation deck together. Could you have a shared to-do list with someone or who doesn't even work in the same organization as you?

And we need all these features to work in a federated way so people who are using different servers can collaborate as if they are working in the same company, using the same infrastructure. And we need their respective IT teams to be able to ensure company policies around security and privacy are fully enforced.

Some of these features are already popularized by Office 365 and Google G Suite. But this is only the beginning; there is a lot of room for improvement and deeper integration.

Building this kind of powerful collaboration software is the next step in file sync and share, in groupware, and for open source in general. People want to have powerful features while being in control over their data and communication.

Why is the open source community in a unique position to take the lead in this space? Because it is in our DNA. Open source is built in a collaborative way using the internet, chat, version control, video calling, document sharing, and so on. All big open source communities are distributed over different continents, while working together in a very efficient way, creating great results. The open source movement was born from using the internet as a collaboration tool. In my own open source company, Nextcloud GmbH, almost all our employees work from home or co-working places.

We need to build privacy-aware and secure software for rich collaboration that are alternatives to the proprietary competitors. If the open source community is not qualified, who is?

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Frank Karlitschek is a long time open source contributor and former board member of the KDE e.V. He managed engineering teams for over 20 years and worked as head of unit and managing director at different internet companies. In 2001 he created the social network as well as,, and other 'AppStores' before AppStores existed.

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