Keys To The Future

Thoughts on a new phone keyboard from an organization that is making a convincing case we need to rethink our discussion around FOSS and self-hosting.

By Ernie Smith

The last time I wrote about Louis Rossmann I got a full-on video response from Louis that suggested my take was too reverent of him, that he shouldn’t be centered in the conversation. I get that.

But I will say that he is one of the best no-BS communicators around. And the debate he’s been driving in the FOSS space right now is actually pretty interesting. A little while back, while still maintaining his namesake repair business and popular YouTube channel, Rossmann took his first-ever day job. He is now the director of community outreach for an organization named FUTO, which specializes in developing and supporting transparent, privacy-minded, user-empowering tech. (While it doesn’t call itself a company and is organized under a .org domain, it does not appear to be a nonprofit—I did not see a 501(c) filing anywhere online—so if Louis happens to do a response to this, maybe he could make that business designation clear. Is it a B Corp? A foundation? A for-profit startup? Does it pay taxes?) Its primary founder, Eron Wolf, is an early funder of WhatsApp and a key developer of Yahoo! Games, so as a result, he has a ton of money to throw around—and he’s used that money to fund major open-source projects.

FUTO has also built a number of apps of its own, and has acquired some (including the very good photo-storage app Immich, which I personally use, and whose acquisition allowed Immich’s developers to go full-time). And this past week, FUTO saw a little virality around one of its products—FUTO Keyboard, an Android-based keyboard whose entire conceit is “kinda like Gboard or Swiftkey, except it doesn’t phone home.”

Rossmann makes for an extremely compelling evangelist for FUTO, if a somewhat non-traditional one. In a video announcing FUTO Keyboard’s release—done not with a slick, pandemic-era-Apple-style presentation, but with Rossmann speaking in front of a podium—he talked about how he felt when he discovered that Google Takeout had been saving his voice answers since 2009, including 15-year-old fights with his then-girlfriend. Despite the relatively basic presentation, his pitch was fairly compelling: Given that our phones are good enough to handle this on-device, there’s no reason we should put up with that.


Want a byte-sized version of Hacker News? Try TLDR’s free daily newsletter.

TLDR covers the most interesting tech, science, and coding news in just 5 minutes.

No sports, politics, or weather.

Subscribe for free!

It’s a great start. While the keyboard makes more spelling mistakes than Gboard does for me at this point, it’s extremely fast. On top of that, its voice function (using Whisper, the voice-recognition tool that is one of the few things OpenAI has open-sourced) is spectacular. You download the models or dictionaries you need, and it does all of its stuff on the device. As a case for FUTO’s approach, it is an excellent calling card. I want to see more things like this, because for people not convinced that privacy-minded tools are the right choice, this is the kind of stuff that will convince them.

The challenge with FUTO from a FOSS standpoint is that the organization, while supporting open-source projects, wants to change the dynamic around what we’re comfortable with in this context. This has been a far harder sell, though Rossmann has made a valiant effort on this front. In one video, he argued that FUTO existed to change the conversation around open-source software into something that deserved financial support to ensure long-term sustainability.

“The beauty of having your own open source server is that nobody can take it away from you, and I would prefer to pay not when I'm dealing with a cloud-hosted solution—I want to pay when I'm dealing with something that cannot be taken away from me,” he said.

Of course, this raises some complicated questions: Where is the line here? When it comes to FUTO Keyboard and GrayJay, a pretty good Android video-viewing app that aims to specifically separate creators from platform, the idea is essentially a throwback to the shareware model: This software costs money, but we’re not going to force you to pay.

(FUTO is not alone on this broader rethink of software and payment: 37signals, which spent much of the past decade calling itself Basecamp, has been selling people on a software concept called Once, where you buy or download self-hostable packages outright.)

But things get complicated when it comes to the licensing picture. Recently, FUTO drove a debate around the fact that it called its software open-source, despite having a source-available license that gave the company the right to change the terms as desired. Anyone who has been following open-source knows that this debate has been a massive hot potato in the world of FOSS. When tools like Redis, Terraform, and Red Hat changed their licensing approaches, it led to massive blowback.

For FUTO’s part, it says it wants to avoid a FFmpeg/YouTube dynamic, where a tool becomes fundamentally valuable to a major project or platform, but there’s little of an attempt to support the project. FUTO, changing its approach based on community feedback asking the firm to not call what it’s doing “open-source,” hopes to reshape the discussion around what it calls source-first, in which the code is openly distributed and shared, and can be reused, up to the point of commercial use. Rossmann, for his part, has proved a major resource in this discussion, with a comment on a Brodie Robertson video which honestly is a masterclass in how to thread this needle.

(Sample line: “Frankly, as I've told my boss personally many times, you can be technically correct, and still be a complete dickhead.”)

My thought on the matter basically comes down to this. At some point, we have to look at the motives around organizations like these and ask ourselves if we can trust them as far as we can throw them. And to me, at least at this juncture, the answer is yes. Did they handle this flawlessly? No. But unlike a lot of other orgs in a similar position, they actually took steps to handle it.

There is a real argument that open-source can become exploitative at public-company scale, though on the other hand it can be beneficial—Meta, as much as they frustrate me, has released some useful open-source tools and frameworks over the years. But the exploitation does not a healthy ecosystem make—and it leads to messes like what we’re seeing with Adobe. Rossmann’s reputation is such that you can’t reject this idea that the traditional open source model has limits out of hand, and that makes his voice in this discussion useful.

FOSS is usually seen as shorthand for “software with integrity.” FUTO wants to make and support software with integrity that can’t be exploited by companies that can afford not to exploit it. Is that a winning argument? We shall see.

Nonetheless, awkward debate or not, I think this approach is more likely to get us to a better software ecosystem than leaning too hard on whether one app or another is open-source. And if a great smartphone keyboard built around a simple promise opens up that discussion further, even better.

Keyed-In Links

I finished Animal Well this week (minus the floor-is-lava puzzle which I will need to spend about 100 hours trying to get) and I have to say, it is worthy of your time if you haven’t played it. The puzzles are insane but fascinating.

I mentioned John Moschitta Jr., a.k.a. the Micro Machines guy, in my issue about advertising, and I really enjoyed this Great Big Story video on him from a few years back. It really shows how if you have a skill specific enough, you can make a real career out of it.

Shout-out to FreeDOS, which just turned 30 years old.


Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And back at it with a weekend piece in a couple of days.


Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

Find me on: Website Twitter