The Endless engineering team’s journey and transition from for-profit to nonprofit.
Endless previously operated as the for-profit entity Endless Mobile for around 7 years, before completing the transition to the nonprofit Endless OS Foundation in April 2020.
This transition did not involve a change of mission – even as a for-profit we were built around the social impact goals of empowering the world through technology – but the strategy and the approach to making our mark changed significantly.
It took us a good amount of head-scratching and going back to the drawing board to really grasp what it means to run a streamlined nonprofit organisation, especially while carrying around years of history from a different structure. I’d like to share some of the challenges faced by our engineering team during this transition, and show how we have adapted for our new organisational shape.
Breaking away from the for-profit model.
Previously, as a for-profit, we sought to build a thriving social enterprise where our success as a business would provide plentiful resources to further grow the impact and reach of our work. This did have an impact on our execution. For example, it entered us into the competitive platform game, where our business was reliant on people adopting Endless’ own software in order to bring possibilities for commercial growth (for example, by offering premium features or extra educational content at very low cost).
This led to our earlier focus on building Endless OS, our own Linux-based PC operating system, which provided exclusive access to our own education solutions and content. In some circumstances though, this all-inclusive product approach presented potential adopters with an awkward “us or them” question, where they could adopt either Endless’ platform or an alternative from another provider. Having to choose one solution would exclude them from receiving the benefits offered by the others. Ultimately, this aspect of our business model was holding back our ability to deliver social impact in some cases.
Our commercial business model was holding back our ability to deliver social impact in some cases. Now engineering impact is maximized when value is created that extends beyond our own platform.
Focusing our work on our mission & strategy.
Now as a nonprofit, our focus is not on achieving commercial success to sustain future growth. Instead, our prospects for success depend on delivering on our mission around the world, creating the maximum amount of impact for social good.
It took us a couple of rounds of discussions to grasp what this means in a comprehensive sense, with such conversations leading us to an entirely new strategy. In essence, we realised that it is no longer necessary for us to “win” at the platform game; in fact Endless’ impact can be maximized if the value created can extend beyond our own platform to a much wider audience.
With that in mind, we derived new initiatives around the 4 digital equity barriers that we wish to overcome:
Devices, where our innovations around making laptops more affordable increases access to PC ownership.
Engagement, where our work increases the quantity and quality of free educational material available for offline use to everyone.
Our revised, nonprofit strategy opens up significant new opportunities for impact that we would have been unlikely to consider in our previous commercial structure. While we continue to believe in Free and Open Source personal computing as the most scalable way to extend the benefits of education & learning on PCs into all corners of the world, we can now also seek to benefit existing audiences of alternative platforms. One such example is our recent Endless Key initiative which specifically targets students with access to a Windows PC. Under our old for-profit mindset, our solutions would have been focused exclusively on our own platform instead of Windows.
Now as a nonprofit, our team's focus is on delivering our mission around the world via our work, creating the maximum amount of output for social good.
Community & transparency as an ingredient for growth of social impact.
Endless has always been a strong proponent of building software in open source community settings, but there was formerly a need to make some elements private in order to retain control over business opportunities. Now, as an impact-focused nonprofit, we have little reason to keep anything private. On the contrary, we want to enable and encourage others to take, adapt and build upon our work in any way that brings benefit to the world.
To go about this, we are working to provide full, open access to Endless OS’s code and surrounding infrastructure. As one step here, we recently released the Endless OS Image Builder which is the tool that we have used for years to offer tailor-made, custom versions of Endless OS for specific deployment contexts.
We’re also seeking to increase our transparency. On a technical level, we’ve taken steps here such as opening our Debian package repository and providing access to the latest, bleeding-edge Endless OS development version. We are currently looking at improving communication about our development direction and providing public access to our bug & task tracker.
We hope that our efforts towards increased transparency and access to our technologies will continue to support a growing community where we enjoy receiving independent impact deployment reports, development contributions, highly-skilled technical assistance, user guides, and more.
As an impact-focused nonprofit, we have little reason to keep anything private. On the contrary, we want to enable and encourage others to take, adapt and build upon our work in any way that brings benefit to the world.
Increasing engineering efficiency & streamlining product focus.
Being an effective nonprofit includes sustaining our team & efforts in the most efficient way possible, to maximize the resources that can be directly focused on executing our core mission.
Through our previous activities in a commercial context, where we had adapted and refined our software for use in specific environments and locations, we had accumulated a lot of miscellaneous features. In the engineering world, the existence of features carry a continued maintenance overhead, even if the aim is just to retain them in their existing state without developing further improvements.
At a fundamental level, we build upon a Free and Open Source software base, developed and supported by large worldwide communities. In some cases, our activities had led to us making modifications to some of these components. Just like product features, these deviations were generating a maintenance burden. We knew we had to reconsider the amount of effort put in these areas, and prioritizing our team’s time toward our new strategy became the lens for our re-evaluation.
With our efforts refocused around the specific impact areas detailed above, we took a step back to look at everything we had built, and decided to reduce and remove a significant amount of features and deviations that were not critical to achieving our mission.
We reduced our software to a simpler and leaner form, leaving only the key features that have a direct connection to our strategy and initiatives. This included removing integration with Android smartphones, our prototype offline news-feed for discovery, and our limited solution for managing websites and web links.
We dropped most of our modifications to Open Source software components, such as support for obscure hardware platforms no longer of relevance and our own printer driver manager.
We revised our processes for increased efficiency, including greatly simplifying the Endless OS build process to use Debian’s software repository directly, rather than building thousands of components.
We consolidated and reduced our server infrastructure and services, and for new initiatives we have been calling upon serverless solutions instead, which require less maintenance.
This far-reaching streamlining of our efforts turned out to be more work than anticipated, but the team recognised the sustainability gains at play, embraced the task, and everyone is feeling pleased with the results.
Direct collaboration with upstream partners.
Combining the threads of maximizing impact, increasing sustainability and streamlining the software, we made some bold strategic shifts to work more closely with related technologies instead of creating our own solutions to some problems.
The most visible example is our handling of educational content. During the platform game years, Endless built an elaborate cloud-based system for ingesting content and generating offline content apps, exclusive to Endless OS. However, with our new strategy in mind, we made the difficult decision to turn that system off entirely and dedicate our educational content efforts towards Kolibri, a learning system produced by our partner Learning Equality.
Our users frequently praise the usability of our software, which we built from years of research amongst first-time PC users in emerging markets. To reduce the engineering cost of sustaining usability features, we have re-engaged the GNOME desktop computing community and contributed to usability research and redesign efforts that became part of GNOME 40. In the long term we hope to improve the GNOME desktop usability to the point where it is no longer necessary for Endless to maintain its own design; this would be a win for both sustainability and impact.
Combining the threads of increasing sustainability and streamlining software, we made some strategic shifts to work closely with related technologies and organizations — instead of creating our own solutions.
Getting closer to our users.
While transitioning to launch the Endless OS Foundation, we also identified the need to retain and improve our strong connections to our end users and the partners who take our work out into the world.
We experimented by creating a Deployment team within our Engineering division, responsible for the communication and technologies needed to support our partners. However, we later realised that this structure was creating distance between engineers and users, and moved to a structure where the responsibility for ensuring our software’s relevance for our users is something that explicitly belongs to each and every engineering team member.
Frequent user testing was one of the original pillars of Endless’ design and engineering efforts, and this must be kept amongst our regular engineering activities. We recently performed PC desktop usability testing on multiple continents, and tested our new Endless Key design and content with students across the US. Our engineers join these testing sessions, which aids them to relate better to our end users and make optimal engineering decisions.
Our software’s relevance for our users is a goal that explicitly belongs to each and every engineering team member.
There’s still work to be done after our team’s successful transition.
After years of operation under a different business structure, we faced many challenges in the transition to a nonprofit. However, after several demanding strategic discussions, we’ve been able to make significant changes to the structure and activities of our Engineering group directed towards greater social impact. These changes brought exciting progress through in 2021 and I’m excited about our team’s continued growth along these lines as we look towards a highly impactful future in the coming years.
Daniel Drake is VP of Engineering at the Endless OS Foundation. He is passionate about extending the positive impacts of technology throughout the world and holds a specific interest in free & open source software.