September 29, 2010

Why Xmarks should go open source

Image representing Xmarks as depicted in Crunc...Image via CrunchBaseBy Joe Brockmeier

After four years of syncing bookmarks and other browser settings, Xmarks will be shutting its virtual doors at the end of the year. Before the lights are out and the servers go silent, the company should think about releasing its code under an open source license to preserve the Xmarks legacy.

Despite popularity, the Xmarks service is shutting its doors because the company couldn't find a way to make revenue from the service. It's a sad, but predictable, end to an innovative business. Xmarks' failure was predictable for a couple of reasons. First, if the feature was popular enough, it was quite likely that the browser vendors would implement a similar feature. Second, Xmarks was very popular — but mostly with "power" users that needed to back up and sync bookmarks.

That's a small market, and hard to monetize as Todd Agulnick, CTO of Xmarks, points out in the end of the road post. Advertisers didn't see value in the Xmarks offerings, and while it's useful it's hard to charge users for a service like Xmarks. Only a small percentage would be interested enough to spend money on it, and even fewer after Mozilla, Google, and others implemented a sync service of their own.

You have to give the Xmarks team some credit — they don't seem to have explored any options for revenue that would have gone against the interest of their user base. They haven't tried to implement any intrusive adware or anything to make a quick buck, even if that would have kept the wolf from the door a bit longer.

The Xmarks folks have put up a page with alternatives, but they're mostly only useful for those users who are tied into one browser. Before the company closes the door, it'd be great if they could release the source so that the cross-browser synchronization could be picked up by interested developers.

Generally, I'm not a fan of the "we tried everything else, we'll open source it as a last resort" strategy. But the code could be useful, and it seems to me that the team at Xmarks have the users' best interests at heart. If the Xmarks service is going to go dark, at least the code could be reused and maybe continue the legacy of the service past the end of life of the business.

That's good for users, but what about the company? Releasing the Xmarks code as open source allows the development team, if they want, to continue their work in public. For many companies, open source code is much better than a resume. What the developers have learned about synchronizing bookmarks, passwords, and keeping user data private, and searching the collected data would be valuable to a lot of companies and projects.

As a user of Firefox and Chrome, I've used Xmarks off and on for a few years and found it really valuable. The sync features in Chrome and Firefox fall down pretty quickly without the ability to sync between the two browsers. It's disappointing, but not surprising, to see Xmarks going away and I feel bad for the team at Xmarks. However, the company might be able to reap a little benefit by releasing the code rather than letting it collect dust where it does no one any good.
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