The growing importance of GNU/Linux, with its relative information security advantage and other benefits enjoyed by organisations that deploy it, raises questions about the business opportunities in the Linux sector. With employers placing a high value on Linux expertise, there are many opportunities for entrepreneurship, innovation and employment within the Linux sector.
One programmer who has made it into entrepreneurship is Kai Hendry, Chief Programmer and Founder of Webconverger, a Debian-based Linux Distribution used as a digital signage and web kiosk operating system, with an emphasis on security and web applications.
Currently based at Hackerspace in Singapore, Hendry is a graduate of the University of Helsinki, with an MSc in Computer Science. He is the founder of the Bath University Network Computing Society. His professional portfolio includes stints as a Researcher at the University of Helsinki, followed by Access, Aplix Corporation and Vodafone UK.
Webconverger has been used in different sectors, ranging from retail banking to F&B outlets, casinos, libraries, universities and hotels. Webconverger started life as a replacement to Windows for accessing online resources in public places. Unlike typical web kiosk deployments of Windows, Webconverger is more secure and easier to manage, due to running on the Linux kernel. It has also gained a reputation as a digital signage platform.
Excerpts from e27’s chat with Hendry:
What compelled you to initiate the Webconverger project?
The short story is that I was backpacking around Southeast Asia and I honestly thought the cybercafes were really bad solutions for going online. There were problems like viruses, a lack of updated browsers and people snooping on my online activities. The web terminals were slow, inconvenient and lacked security. But the main thing that really bothered me was the lack of privacy and malware.
What made you choose to fork from the Debian distro as a base?
I was familiar with Debian at the time. I’ve been involved in the Debian community as a coder, so I networked with people who could contribute to the development of Webconverger. You can’t know everything, so I made friends with people who knew more than I did, which helped a lot. The same goes for any industry you participate in really.
What were the challenges in developing Webconverger?
In general, I had to be very focussed for long periods of time; that was probably the biggest challenge. I never had ambitions for Webconverger to be a business when I first started. I simply saw a problem that needed solving. It’s just that over time, people started asking me to do things with Webconverger. I offered it as a free, open source solution. In the end, I had people come to me asking for customisation. When that happened, I automated it and started a business based around Webconverger.
So who are some of your biggest customers?
I don’t name them due to the fact that I don’t want to name-drop. But in terms of volume, there is a UK fitness chain that deploys it extensively, as well as a healthcare provider based in the US. There’s no specific company or industry that I can bring in the most revenue. As I was saying, sometimes you’ll find that companies have one amazing customer, a ‘sugar daddy’ to take care of revenue. I have multiple SMEs composing the foundation of my customer base. I don’t have any really big customers, so if I started losing many big customers, I’d worry.
What does Webconverger bring to the table, specifically to retail banking and educational institutions ?
With regard to retail banking, I’d say Webconverger is the most secure web kiosk software. I’ve had security experts review it and feedback that it’s a rather secure environment. It’s also a part of the solution that complies to the standards of the PCI
(Payment Card Industry) Security Standards Council. For education, it locks down browsing to a certain web page. This makes students more focussed on a catalogue or an exam. There’s no education standard that it passed; Webconverger simply provides streamlined, highly specific access to online educational resources.
What is your view on the Linux ecosystem and the developer community?
Well there is a community, but it’s very fragmented. There’s no single forum or centralised platform for users and developers. There are so many words that can be used to describe the ecosystem. There’s a lot of activity occurring around the GNU/Linux kernel. As a whole, the community is very diverse, very fragmented and you need a thick skin when participating in technical discussions. Know your code and be competent before even considering going into Linux development! It’s really quiet competitive.
Do you think open source software provides a viable business alternative for proprietary solutions like Apple and Microsoft?
Well, that’s a tricky question. Microsoft and Apple use a ton of open source software to build their business, as I do for mine.
Well, Apple is the lead developer of WebKit, a leading open source browser engine and was used in Safari and in Chrome a while back. Microsoft uses a fair bit of Linux software to power its cloud services (i.e. Microsoft Azure) as well. They’ve also contributed code to the Linux kernel as well.
What are the benefits of open source software to tech businesses that you’d want to highlight?
It’s a good foundation to build a business upon, as you learn a lot from using it to establish your IT infrastructure or your own business. Running a Debian server is all you need to get your business running in many ways. If you use open source software, you learn to leverage it over time. With Microsoft, if you run into a problem, you’re simply a slave to the support agreement and license terms, same as Apple, which is a sealed box. A Linux base grants flexibility, security and vendor independence.
Any potential downsides?
There’s a lot of noise and bad projects happening within the Linux ecosystem, which usually suffocate from a lack of time or resources. And if you’re a business that isn’t tech-focussed, or have staff without experience, then you’ll find it tricky when dealing with the Linux ecosystem.
What are the biggest obstacles in presenting open source software as a business IT solution in Asia?
I don’t have any Asian customers,even though I’m based in Singapore. Well, not yet. My customer base is in the EU. The challenge lies in pricing. I know people use my software in Asia, but none of them has forked out any cash for it. And from a technical standpoint, supporting Chinese and Japanese input methods is a pain.
What has been your greatest challenge functioning as a businessperson together with being a software developer?
Well, I guess having to switch between development and marketing. Honestly, I’m more comfortable with development as marketing is frustrating. There’s a lot of talking back-and-forth and tedium; checking that the website looks good, that there is search engine optimisation, that the website is well-ranked and reviewing the referrers where the traffic is coming from.
What are the Linux prospects for ASEAN?
There are a lot of open source projects being used in Southeast Asia. Generally, I think that the volume of people using open source within the region will increase. For example, most cloud computing products and services use open source software. In many cases, most people don’t even realise that they’re using open source. I generally wouldn’t choose open source just because it’s open source, though open source allows me to gauge the quality and gives me flexibility. There have to be other considerations as well.
How do you see Linux developing as an alternative to Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X, given the introduction of Valve Corporations’ SteamOS last year?
I’m excited. I think it’s great for the Linux ecosystem. If you’re creating a game console and assembling a product from scratch, and if you’re faced with developing your own OS or using Linux, Linux is a good and safe choice. It’s been reliably tested, has got great hardware support and has proven itself in the marketplace, aside from working well.
I don’t want to go on about Linux since there are other kernels that one might consider, such as BSD, which is technically simpler and makes more sense in targeted software environments. For example, I think that the iOS kernel is based at least partially on BSD.
With game consoles, you need an entire hardware package working together reliably. They have a host of operations going on, and Linux has a range of hardware support available.
Given your involvement in the Hackerspace.SG community,what would you say to programmers, business people and entrepreneurs looking to be part of the community?
Humans are social beings and it’s really good to be able to share experiences with other people. I think that often, the biggest problem is working alone. Being able to work in a community environment can help. Or it can be a major distraction. Overall though, I enjoy being part of Hackerspace, as I get bored working at home, and it adds a fun social element to working life.
Image Credits: Kai Hendry