NearForm: The great Irish open-source success story

6 Nov 2020

Image: © Connor McKenna/Silicon Republic

Silicon Republic editor Elaine Burke sat down with NearForm founder Cian Ó Maidín at Future Human 2020 to get the full story of the open-source software titan from Tramore.

“Around 2011 or thereabouts, I had just come out of doing a start-up that hadn’t worked out very well and I was faced with a decision as to whether I’d go and get a job or whether I’d go again and start something new.”

So begins the origin story of NearForm, the Waterford-headquartered company that has recently been in the global spotlight thanks to its contributions to Covid-19 contact-tracing technology.

The world can be grateful that founder and CEO Cian Ó Maidín made the latter choice. His company, founded in 2012, has championed open source since its inception, and this philosophy combined with a talented team has helped deliver privacy-conscious Covid-19 contact-tracing software to regions around the world.

Covid Green, the open-source contact-tracing project developed by NearForm, was not the company’s first international success either. The Irish company has long been attracting major international clients due to its approach to software development.

‘We were almost at risk of being the Betamax company for a while there’

The founding NearForm team was an early champion of open-source Node.js and even organised the first Node conference in Europe. However, Ó Maidín admitted: “We were almost at risk of being the Betamax company for a while there because nobody was using the technology that we were cheerleading.”

But this changed when digital transformations at the likes of PayPal and Walmart validated the technology the NearForm team was selling.

“Our phone started ringing and we started landing big customers in the US and in the UK,” Ó Maidín recalled during a virtual fireside chat at Future Human 2020.

“Our first US customer was NBCUniversal. Our second US customer was Condé Nast,” he continued. “They were going all in, building next-generation media platforms. And so, early-stage gigs for them, we worked on Vogue magazine from Tramore in Co Waterford. Golf Digest, Teen Vogue, The New Yorker.”

NearForm grew on the back of these huge client wins. Now with a team of around 150 people, the company has not forgotten its roots in open source and continues to contribute back to this community.

“In the last few years we’ve been the biggest contributor to the Node.js project. We’re one of the biggest contributors to the JavaScript module ecosystem. And it’s personally very compelling for me,” said Ó Maidín.

“I think it’s a billion modules a month are downloaded globally that have been written by NearForm. It’s all free. We don’t get paid for open source. But everyone from Netflix to Apple to Mastercard, all these giant companies are using modules and bits of technology we’ve developed here in Ireland.”

Perhaps the company’s most valuable contribution to date, however, has been Covid Green. Born in the crucible of a global pandemic, NearForm’s source code for Ireland’s Covid-19 contact-tracing app is now part of a Linux Foundation Public Health initiative, supporting the build of contact-tracing apps around the world.

‘Everyone from Netflix to Apple to Mastercard are using modules and bits of technology we’ve developed here in Ireland’

With typical humility, Ó Maidín said NearForm simply “built a better mousetrap”. But this is more like issuing a free mousetrap design that anyone can use during the days of the bubonic plague.

The value of this source code to public health management of Covid-19 is immense. And, because it’s open source, the value of that code only goes up the more people use it and build on it.

“The first version was built in Ireland, it was open source. There was a huge amount of value in there for other governments to be able to pick up and to start working with,” Ó Maidín explained.

“But as each additional government wanted to take the technology and develop it further, all the enhancements and the new features and things, they went back into that open-source project. So government by government, customer by customer, the core technology platform gets stronger and stronger and stronger. And that’s really the power of it.”

As demonstrated by the urgency of the Covid-19 crisis, open source is a key way to advance our technology capability with the resources we have.

“The world in which we live now, there’s this exponential demand and increase in the need for software and digital technologies, and there’s really only a linear growth in people who can actually do the work. So the solution to that is that you have more of these composable building blocks as pieces of open source that people can use to get the job done and build apps,” said Ó Maidín.

“I think there’s a lesson out there as well for people in business and all that, that actually this is a new way of thinking about collaboration. It’s not about owning all the source code and not giving it to anyone and charging the most money to everyone and all that kind of thing,” he added.

“You might find other businesses would think more like that, but it’s really not in our DNA.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.