Two-and-a-half years in the making, FrontlineSMS is finally shedding its Beta status and will soon, finally, be launched to the NGO community as a fully-blown product. Although it's taken much longer than I'd have hoped, at least we've had ample time to listen to the users and got the clearest possible indication of what we needed to add, remove, tweak and improve to make it more useful and relevant. The Beta - proof-of-concept as it was - naturally had its problems, but thanks to a great team of developers the new version is on target to exceed even my own expectations.
We're still in Beta in the new release (but at least it will get out of it this time!) and things are still a little rough in places. Many of the finishing touches are scheduled for later in the development cycle, but the software is already beginning to take shape and neatly builds on the current FrontlineSMS look and feel which we know works well.
Here's a sneak preview of just a few of the things we've been working on.
We've built two user interfaces in the new version - a Classic and Advanced view - allowing the user to determine how much functionality they want to be exposed to. Beginners will be happy with the Classic, which looks and feels pretty-much like the current release. We've also added right-click menu functionality, making things quicker, easier and more accessible throughout, and 'handles' which allow different elements of the screen to be expanded or reduced in size depending on how much the user needs or wants them.
A choice of database options are now available, allowing incoming and outgoing message data to be read and shared by other applications. Incoming messages can also be 'posted' automatically to web servers, or passed to other running programs which can then deal with them independently. There are also improved data import options allowing, for example, groups of contacts to be easily brought into the database, with generated message data more easily exportable from a number of modules in a number of popular export formats. One of the problems with the current version was that the data, useful as it was, wasn't easily accessible by anything other than FrontlineSMS. Not quite so useful.
Device installation and configuration is now largely automated in the brand new PhoneManager module, with auto-detect and auto-configure functionality. FrontlineSMS scans the host computer, looks for modems and phones (which can be internal devices, or connected via USB or bluetooth), determines whether they're any use, and then sets them up if they are. Multiple devices can be used at the same time, and each can be configured exclusively to send messages, or purely to receive, depending on what the user requires. A wide variety of GSM modems and phones will be supported at launch, with simple driver creation possible for new devices as they hit the market. Long gone are the handset headache issues of version 1.0
Additional functionality includes support for SMPP, which will allow messages to be blasted through SMS aggregators such as Clickatell. This will make it possible to send large numbers of messages far more quickly and cheaply than via any attached device, if and when an internet connection is available. The new FrontlineSMS will also be platform independent, so Mac and Linux users no longer need feel left out.
Of course, this is only half of the project. A team at Wieden+Kennedy are working hard to re-brand the software and build a simple, functional, accessible website, work which is also going fantastically well. But that's the subject of an entirely different blog post altogether...
All of this work - the application itself and the website - will be publicly launched on 8th May at Global Messaging 2008 in Cannes, where I've been invited to give a keynote speech - "Mobile messaging as a means of empowerment: How has SMS been harnessed by NGOs around the globe?".
Two weeks later, 22nd May, sees FrontlineSMS feature as a finalist in the Stockholm Challenge where it's been selected for its use in monitoring the 2007 Nigerian elections. The project then enters a new phase on 1st June as the MacArthur Foundation funding ends and a new grant from the Open Society Institute (OSI) begins.
I've always felt that FrontlineSMS had a huge amount of potential. Thanks to a dedicated team - supporters, users, developers, bloggers and donors among them - we may soon start to see it.