Funambol announces initial funding

Open-source mobile application server vendor Funambol has secured US$5 million in venture capital (VC) backing, the US company announced Monday. Funambol plans to use the money to hire more engineering and sales staff, according to the startup's chief executive officer.

Funambol made the announcement at the LinuxWorld show in San Francisco. The financing in the form of Series A funding comes from U.S. VCs Walden International and H.I.G Ventures.

"What JBoss has done for the Web, we're doing for mobile [devices]," said Fabrizio Capobianco, Funambol CEO. "It's impossible to squeeze the Web onto a phone, it's almost impossible to use."

What's more useful, bearing in mind mobile devices can't always connect to the Web, is providing on-the-fly provisioning and data synchronisation for applications, including calendaring and e-mail, he explained. That way, when you switch on your phone or PDA (personal digital assistant) you can access the information you need whether or not you can hook into the Internet at that point. He points to the curious nature of mobile applications. "Their lifespan can be as little as the 30 seconds between your car and your next meeting," Capobianco said, as a salesperson urgently needs to log a sale or check some contact information.

Funambol's Sync4j server is an open-source implementation of the Open Mobile Alliance Data Synchronisation and Device Management standard, more commonly known as SyncML, according to Capobianco. SyncML supports data mobility between devices, applications, servers and networks, and is included in the majority of wireless phones shipping this year. Developers, telecoms and corporations can use Sync4j to synchronise, provision and manage mobile devices, he said.

The company already has partnerships in place with fellow open source companies JBoss, MySQL and SugarCRM as well as an engineering agreement with Nokia, according to Capobianco. The deal with Nokia announced in June at the JavaOne conference in San Francisco is a collaboration to ensure interoperability between Nokia devices and Sync4j.

Capobianco doesn't expect to announce similar relationships with other carriers. "Nokia is the kingmaker in the market, we're partnering with them, but we'll target other phone manufacturers more as customers," he said. The Funambol CEO points out that Nokia approached them, not the other way around. "They said, 'You're a standard, we'd better make sure we work with you,' and they sent round a box of phones."

Currently, at an industrial conglomerate Capobianco declined to name, 2,600 sales people with devices running Microsoft's Windows Mobile handheld operating system are using Sync4j to synchronise up with an Oracle server and a SAP application. As the employees check company plant parameters to ascertain the levels of chemicals at the sites, they use their mobile devices to both alert the company of the situation through Oracle and to generate purchase orders through SAP, he said.

Funambol definitely needs to hire more development staff to deliver version 3.0 of Sync4j by the end of this year, according to Capobianco, hence the need for the Series A funding. The software available today is release 2.3. The company currently employs around 20 staffers and would like to grow to 30 by December, he said.

As for future funding, Capobianco said, "The market's so large we will definitely need more money later on. Not this year, but probably next year."

Headquartered in California, Funambol started off life in Italy where it still maintains a development center and a sales office. "Every good open source company started in Europe," Capobianco quipped, name-checking Linux and JBoss, and pointing out that Italy has "the biggest wireless penetration in the world with more cell phones than people."

Funambol (pronounced "foo-nahm-ball") is a combination of the Latin words funis (rope) and ambulare (walking) to mean tightrope walker. The company's symbol is a stick figure holding a balancing pole as if navigating a tightrope.

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