It’s a WebThings thing: Transition of gateways is about to start

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Three years after its inception, Mozilla-bred smart home project WebThings Gateway has pushed out its 1.0 release and will now continue its life as an independent open source project.

The reason for spinning out the Mozilla IoT team’s project is down to the company’s restructuring back in August, which is supposed to ensure the company stays afloat but also went hand in hand with a “significant reduction” of its workforce. The latter was for example felt in the team behind programming language Rust.

For WebThings, becoming independent means it can now be found at community-run webthings.io, and will soon have to take care of providing remote access and automatic software updates for WebThings gateways. 

Mozilla will stop supplying said services on December 31, 2020, which is why devs who are currently working with the project will soon see an alert on their gateway’s web interface through which they can choose to transfer to the community-run services. Users who refuse to make the switch should still be able to use the gateway in their local network, though remote access via mozilla-iot.org won’t be an option anymore. They will also struggle to get security updates, since Mozilla will naturally stop providing those as well.

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Those wondering what governance will look like once ownership has been passed should take a stroll through the WebThings wiki. There it says that the “project is too big for any one person to make the decisions” so the team will look to split it into modules, whose development will then be led by module owners. 

Module owner responsibilities are said to include “improving code quality, implementing revisions and innovations as appropriate, coordinating development with that of the rest of the codebase, developing and maintaining a shared understanding of where the module is headed, developing APIs where appropriate, documenting as much as possible, responding appropriately to code contributions, design suggestions and stated needs of the community, and creating an environment where competent newcomers are welcomed and included”.

While this sounds like a lot, potential owners will be glad to hear that they “need not do all the work of managing the module themselves”, but can identify “peers” to help them. To make sure the project stays healthy, there’s also a “module ownership” module, whose owner and peers are meant to step in if things go awry. 

Initial module owners will be Ben Francis and Michael Stegman from the original Mozilla IoT team, although those interested in becoming involved in one capacity or another are asked to get in touch and “start hacking on whatever area interests you”.

With changes like that underway, it doesn’t come as a surprise that version 1.0 of the WebThings Gateway isn’t the most feature-heavy release ever. However, the changes that made it into the release are nothing to sniff at, containing things like support for Node.js 14 and Podman, and M-JPEG as an alternative to MPEG-DASH and HLS. Gateway 1.0 has also learned a couple of new capabilities that allow users to work with sensors for humidity, barometric pressure, air quality, and smoke, and finally allows users to search add-ons, which should make life a little easier as well.

Where things go from here remains to be seen, though chances are new commercial sponsor Krellian will want to have a say in the matter. Krellian is Ben Francis’ brainchild (yes the module owner), was launched way before he started working at Mozilla in 2011 and reappeared in February, shortly after Francis left Mozilla. 

Just last week Francis announced Krellian’s new role in the WebThings community, pushing roadmap plans like W3C compliance, exploring a more production-quality operating system for the Gateway distribution, expanding the cloud offering as well as looking into the development of an app and a controller. The motivation behind all of this is to “explore other enterprise use cases for the WebThings platform, to help make buildings smarter, safer and more sustainable”, providing revenue streams to keep the project going along the way.

Of course having a plan like this is necessary as WebThings’ old home shows, but it is still somewhat hard to marry the idea of a “powered by” project with the notion of independence voiced by Francis and other WebThings developers when talking about the new setup. It therefore seems to be incumbent upon the surrounding community to make sure outside contributors really do have a say in the project’s direction moving forward.

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