I contacted, A.J. Venter, the Chief Developer of ZybaCafe, a South African developed open source cyber cafe application. He was happy to answer a wide range of questions about the beta product and FLOSS in general. Here's what he had to say.
OpenFree: What is ZybaCafe and who is it best suited for?
A.J. Venter: ZybaCafe is time and system management tool for internet cafe's. It is not an accounting package, or anything else - but it does provide a very powerful plugin architecture so it can integrate with such. What it does is to do timed access to computer desktops, the client side is highly multiplatform so your server can power Linux, Windows and other desktop machines, and we are even working on a wireless captive portal that authenticates through it.
OpenFree: What are the main features of ZybaCafe that would make a reader want to use it? How does it integrate with other Open Source business packages?
A.J. Venter: Well firstly, ZybaCafe is built on the history of DireqCafe, which was for a long time the most popular Linux based internet cafe management system available. However DireqCafe had a few crucial shortcomings, firstly it had performance issues for large user numbers, and secondly it could only run if your internet cafe used exclusively LTSP based thin-clients. ZybaCafe is a the next generation of the idea, the OS dependency is stripped out, and it uses a highly abstracted library so it's easy to create new interfaces. Thanks to a very powerful plugin architecture mapped into every single part of the library - you can integrate as much or as little with other software as you want. We are actually working on a plugin to automatically create invoices in quasar accounting when time is sold in ZybaCafe.
OpenFree: What prerequisite software is required for ZybaCafe to operate?
A.J. Venter: You need a running postgresql server somewhere configured to allow network access. All ZybaCafe components require the postgresql client libraries for you platform. On Linux the graphical components all require gtk1.2 (2.0 is not required - which is useful for dedicated KDE distros), it should run on almost any distribution. The Windows client renders GUI directly through the Windows API and doesn't need any other libraries.
OpenFree: What prompted you to create ZybaCafe? What have been the most rewarding experiences of doing it?
A.J. Venter: Well to answer this I have to go back to DireqCafe's birth about 5 years ago. At the time I had just joined OpenLab and was on my first trip to Nigeria where we were running on of the first ever thin-client school lab roll-outs. One challenge we faced was how these schools could pay their monthly internet access bills. The solution we came up with was to run the labs as internet cafe's after school hours. But we were stuck by the lack of internet cafe management software (OpenKiosk was several years away) - so one night, after another fruitless search, I sat down (it was about 11pm) - and the first prototype was working by 3am. DireqCafe was released, included with LinuxFormat and basically took the world by storm. For several years I worked very hard at growing it, and had such wonderful experiences as walking into a cybercafe in Sao Paulo Brazil and seeing my software powering it. About two years ago the last major release was done, and apart from a few maintenance releases - I didn't focus on it much more however. When OpenLab decided however to partner-up and start a retail section (Zygo) with a large internet cafe as part of it - it opened the door to revisit an old favorite. The world had changed since then - the internet cafe market had evolved, and needs had changed. I knew the DireqCafe base was too limited, so I started from scratch, using only some of the old ideas and built the best internet cafe manager I could - this time, designed so it can continuously and cleanly evolve new features. The most rewarding part thus far however, must have been the preparations for opening the shop, some wonderful new people joining us - who have been invaluable in growing this program.
OpenFree: What have been the most difficult challenges you have faced with ZybaCafe?
A.J. Venter: Wanting to be multi-platform, this meant some features are impossible to do. Some looked so at first, but I found ways of doing them (though it remains much more difficult to do some things so it worked everywhere). That is without a doubt the worst of it, but to be honest the only hard part is the gigantic amount of things Windows(tm) simply cannot do (because the OS just has no such concepts) and the massive amount of development tools that just doesn't exist.
OpenFree: Where is ZybaCafe being used today?
A.J. Venter: Well ZybaCafe is new and still in alpha so until Zygo opens on Saturday, I doubt there are any real sites. DireqCafe however has at least 3000 verified sites around the world, nearly all of them in developing countries. I know of sites in Mexico, Brazil, India, Bosnia, Kenya, Uganda and even some countries I cannot spell Since there is quite a lively mailing list community among DireqCafe users, I have little doubt most of these sites will be upgrading as soon as we hit stable.
OpenFree: How can OpenFree readers get a copy of ZybaCafe? What type of documentation and support is provided?
A.J. Venter: The core program with everything needed for Linux is available as a GPL'd download from http://ZybaCafe.silentcoder.co.za, there is a user manual there, complete but growing. The Windows and wireless clients won't be available for download, but will be for sale at a fair price with a fair and ethical license once stable.
OpenFree: What sort of support do you get to assist your efforts financially or otherwise? How have you been marketing the product?
A.J. Venter: OpenLab funded the development so far to a very large extent with out Zygo partnership making up most of the required feature list. I basically just told the DireqCafe mailing list, updated freshmeat.net and posted a blog item. The news sites picked up sure enough - so I'd say that worked. While some parts are meant to be for sale, to fund continued development - those may well receive some additional marketing of course - but probably the biggest marketing drive will be Zygo - people will be able to see us using it.
OpenFree: If a reader wanted to start a cyber cafe business in their neighborhood, what tips would you provide to help make it a success?
A.J. Venter: Firstly, I would say you should seriously look at Linux and FOSS solutions - they can lower your layout costs, maintenance costs and thus allow you to provide a better quality of service. Make sure you have good bandwidth - there is no faster business failure than an internet cafe without internet - so make that investment even if it is expensive. Finally, talk to us, we may just be able to find some sort of partnership.
OpenFree: What important trends do you see in the development of open source software for retailers? Apart from ZybaCafe, what products in this area do you find interesting and why?
A.J. Venter: The embedded open-source market is set for a massive amount of growth in the very near future. Linux on iPods, on cell-phones ... these projects are changing the way people do computing - and I think there will be some very good opportunities coming out of that soon. Even the upcoming playstation3 is a Linux running system. Software wise, projects like quasar is starting to push Linux capabilities in markets where it has never really been able to fit before - and that is the thing about FOSS - it's like water in a bucket - it flows into every space. For FOSS - the lowest energy state is the state where it can do every computing task imaginable - and we're still on our way.
OpenFree: South Africa has been the epicenter of a number of Linux projects in recent years. What factors contribute to its success in open source?
A.J. Venter: Well a major factor is a growing entrepreneur market. Entrepreneurs need opportunities to play on an equal playing field, and ever more they want that playing field to be international. Proprietary software is by nature exclusionary, FOSS is inclusionary - and that creates an equal playing field. It allows entrepreneurs from here to take on any software company in the world in terms of price, quality and support. An opportunity that has never existed before - and that above all is what has the proprietary software companies in such a panic state.
OpenFree: Ubuntu is a well known open source product from South Africa. What other projects are there from the area that the world should know about?
A.J. Venter: Heh, correction. The total number of South African Ubuntu developers = 0. It is not South-African nor from South Africa, Mark Shuttleworth is, and he's a cool guy - but he is not Ubuntu, he just happens to own Canonical . If Ubuntu is South African, then so is NetBSD (Theo De Raadt was born in SA). More interesting to me is the projects that are created here and built here. OpenLab of course (but I'm biased there). Neil Blakey-Milner's excellent KnowledgeTree, Paul Sheer's midnight-commander editor (one of the first major FOSS projects to come out of SA), Kewl. Nextgen from the University of the Western Cape. Projects founded here, and then built up by collaboration with the rest of the world. Africa has had too many hand-me-downs already. What we need, and what FOSS is sadly almost unique in starting to achieve - is genuine participation on equal grounds. We can do it, we are doing it - and that is my single greatest source of hope for my people.
OpenFree: Thanks AJ. I'm sure the OpenFree membership will find this interesting.
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