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Can I make UK phone calls using Amazon Echo or Google Home? And other questions

Update: Accurate as of 10th February 2018

This Christmas an elderly relative has requested the gift of hands-free, voice-activated calling via a home virtual assistant. Much has been written about Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, and the tech press are awash with conflicting information and feature speculation. As Christmas approaches and confused buyers respond to Amazon’s advertising, I’ve provided answers for shoppers with elderly or manually impaired gift recipients in mind

Disclaimer: Both devices run proprietary software which transmits personal information into the cloud under terms which present a threat to privacy.


Q: Can Amazon Echo devices make calls to UK mobiles and landlines?

A: No. Currently Echo devices can only call other Echos, and people who have the Alexa App installed. Contacts must also be synchronised with the device doing the calling before a call can be initiated. Amazon announced in September that free calling from Echo devices to mobiles and landlines is now available to customers in the USA, Canada, and Mexico, but not the UK. Presumably this will come later.

Q: Can Google Home make calls to UK mobiles and landlines?

A: No. Google Home can currently only make calls from the USA and Canada. Calling has reportedly been activated and deactivated by Google for some users, but Google has yet to officially launch it and enable it for all customers.

Standalone operation (without a smartphone)

Q: Can Amazon Echo devices be used without a smartphone?

A: Yes, but only following initial setup and synchronisation with a smartphone and the Alexa App. Once setup is complete, a smartphone is not required. However to update contacts or reset the device a smartphone with the app will again be necessary.

Q: Can Google Home be used without a smartphone?

A: Yes, but similarly to Echos, it must first be setup and synched with a smartphone, and resynched to updated the contact book.


As things stand, neither Google nor Amazon offer proper calling of any kind for UK customers, nor standalone operation. With assistance during setup, and assuming that important contact numbers don’t change, Amazon Echo devices can provide limited app-enabled calling. Personally I wouldn’t rely on this as a primary communication channel.

Over the next few months we can expect that both companies will add free UK calling to their devices. It’s unlikely that their dependence on smartphones for setup will change however.

Free Software as a Service presentation at 33C3 Hamburg

What are the unique challenges and opportunities for businesses which sell Free Software as a service? This was the question that I tackled in a presentation at the Chaos Computer Club Congress this month. Following a period of reflection on the economics of different Open Source business models, and which requires the lowest risk with the highest chance of success, I wrote this talk and spoke in Hamburg on December 28th.

sam tuke presentation at 33c3 hamburgsam tuke 33c3 presentation slideshow

The audience was brilliant: the half hour Q&A which followed was wide ranging with 6 participants identifying themselves as Open Source business owners themselves. One comment which I’ve dwelt on since was “what’s the best way for the Open Source community and your community of customers to interact?”. Getting the answer to this right is both hard and important — it’s easy to keep these two groups of key stakeholders separately siloed, and lose the great synergy they could create. What could be the benefits of these two groups, both experts on your product, meeting and sharing knowledge and ideas?

33C3 was my first Congress and won’t be my last. After eight years of speaking at technology conferences it’s rare to have an entirely new experience, but Hamburg was that. Congress provides a sort of global leadership for the hacker scene; it both reflects and sets the focus of a wide range of technology communities, and is of unique benefit to Germany as a beacon of IT innovation and expertise.

33C3 Hamburg conference venue

33C3 Hamburg venue at night by doctore_

Awarded Entrepreneurial Scholarship by ESMT and Tagesspiegel

I’m honoured to have been awarded the 2016 Entrepreneurial Scholarship for the European School of Management and Technology‘s 2016 Executive Master of Business Administration programme by Tagesspiegel.

esmt logoTagesspiegel Entrepreneur Scholarship

From the press release:

ESMT Berlin has awarded Scholarship to the aspiring business leader Sam Tuke. The 29-year-old scholarship recipient is CEO of phpList Ltd., a company offering open source software for digital marketing.

The award is made by the German Daily broadsheet newspaper Tagesspiegel, who describe the degree programme thus:

In the Financial Times’ ranking of the top 100 global Executive MBA programs, the program is ranked 34th. For the fifth consecutive year, the ESMT Berlin EMBA is ranked first in the world for career progress, which compares the career advancement of program graduates.

This is a part time degree based in Berlin, with 60 of 64 participants based outside of the city, travelling from 33 different countries to participate in each 6 day module, spaced 8 weeks apart. Studies last 18 months and cover corporate strategy, leadership, finance, decision making, operations, and more. I can’t wait to get started applying the science of business in Open Source enterprise!

esmt berlin campus

ESMT Campus Berlin on Museum Island

Goodbye Collabora, Hello phpList

It’s official: I’m the new C.E.O. of phpList Ltd.. After more than a year marketing LibreOffice products and services at Collabora, I’ve moved to managing the leading Open Source email newsletter app.

Following his 15 year term as Founder and Managing Director, Michiel Dethmers has entrusted me with the future of the project as the company reshapes to fulfil new potential.


The Open Source email newsletter and marketing solution

phpList’s history and established position give it a uniquely important role in the future of digital marketing and the promotion of Open Source. For people who value trust and transparency from their email marketing solution, phpList is already the best choice. Currently we send millions of emails each week from our hosted service, and have empowered others to send a further 21 billion messages this year using our software independently.

To have an impact on the norms of digital marketing generally however, we need to grow new services to bring our brand of permission-based marketing to broader audiences.

Fortunately, there’s never been a better time to do this, as email marketing continues to dominate as one of, if not the most, effective forms of digital marketing. The world’s appetite for email marketing services is reaching ever new heights, with The Guardian calling 2015 “The Year of the Email Newsletter“.

Look out for new services on phplist.com taking advantage of these trends in early 2016!

A little history

Back in 2008 I first set up phpList for an early client, Don’t Travel Empty (DTE), the automated vehicle-sharing service for passenger transportation companies. Tens of thousands of emails followed over the next three years while I served as DTE’s Head of Development.

Simple Christmas postcard delivered in 2009 using phpList

Simple Christmas postcard delivered in 2009 while working for a previous company, using phpList

Anna Morris joined phpList as Community Manager in early 2014. A friend and ex-colleague from FSFE, Anna opened a personal connection between me and the firm, and the door to two years of give and take, advice to and from the company, on many aspects of Open Source code, community, and commerce.

Anna Morris, phpList Community Manager, and I on Corby Beach during a visit in 2014

Anna Morris, phpList Community Manager, and I on Corby Beach during a visit in 2014

After helping out at the first phpList code sprint in the summer of 2014, I had a good feel for the project’s plugin system, and by January this year, had undertaken to develop a new REST API.

When a foreign competitor made moves to purchase the company a few months later, I reached out to Michiel, concerned to keep the business in the hands of people who understood and appreciated its Open Source roots. Soon after we hatched a plan for phpList’s new direction, and new C.E.O.. A couple of flights and meetings later, and the paperwork had dried.

Productive friends

With Collabora CloudSuite on the cusp of global launch, it was hard to leave Michael Meeks, Kendy, Andras, Miklos, and the other leading lights of the LibreOffice community who were my colleagues at Collabora. Promoting their amazing work since August last year has been an incredible privilege, as well as the opportunities to announce LibreOffice for Android, and LibreOffice Online.

Open Source business is tough, especially in the enterprise sector, and I’m grateful for the invaluable commercial lessons that Michael and Niall McCarthy have taught me in recent months. These principles are now at work in a new team, and a new market. Roll on the next phase: roll on phpList!

Notes on announcing an Open Source product

When you announce a new product you want your company to be the center of attention. All the time and resources invested in developing it must translate into exposure that you can control, and ultimately convert into business. We Open Sourceres face unique challenges in predicting and shaping public perception about our software. Simply put, we must own our own news.

In the run-up to my announcement of Collabora CloudSuite, the LibreOffice-based Google Docs competitor, the clock was ticking to announce first, and announce loudest, news over which I had little control.

The race to announce

As Jeremy Irons says: “to make a living in this business, you must be first, be smarter, or cheat.” As he concludes in the movie Margin Call, being first is the best out of three. When operating in the open, announcing your work first is critical to set the backdrop, framing, and focus of the news, and to capture all available traffic for yourself (and your lead forms).

Yet public Git repositorious can be accessed by anyone; source code can be built, unstable code tested, and unfair assessments made. Collabora develops LibreOffice in communitiry repositories — in January, journalists knew about LibreOffice for Android before I had announced it. The more astute among them had followed the commits, and responded to my release announcement with “what’s new about that?”.

Pre-emptive statements can be very effective at fertilising the ground of your future work: announcing that work has begun, or your direction has been set, can help establish yourself as the authoritative source for what comes next. Announcing earlier than you’d like to is better than re-announcing yesterday’s news. However this cannot protect you from another threat: your own engineers stealing the limelight. 

We want our engineers to be community leaders, well-known contributors and constant communicators. The coder who routinely showcases their own work in blogs, videos and social media is a powerful asset indeed.

But the affect can be powerfully antagonistic when uncoordinated with a new product announcement. Finding an impromptu preview of a hot unannounced feature in my G+ timeline more than once elicited a “wow” followed by “oh shit”, followed by rapid-fire emails to the esteemed hacker responsible. Keeping engineers aligned with announcement timelines is a critical ongoing task to encourage their valuable engagement without compromising wider goals.

Working in the open entails giving up control that proprietary software companies enjoy. It’s nigh on impossible to keep big secrets among a large developer community. But by working harder, planning better, and managing relationships more closely than closed source rivals, Open Source product announcements can impact the right people at the right time.

Interview on Collabora deal with UK Government

UK Authority, a publication dedicated to digital public sector news, published an article this evening after interviewing me by telephone in the afternoon. Happy to be quoted in this decent piece:

Crown Commercial Service strikes deal for open source office suite

Agreement with Collabora provides fresh momentum to use of open source in public sector

Sam Tuke, marketing manager for Collabora, told UKAuthority that the deal is similar to those previously arranged by the CCS with proprietary software suppliers such as Microsoft and Oracle.

This follows several articles yesterday which picked up yesterday’s press release, including:

  • The Register (“Oh dear, Microsoft: UK.gov signs deal with LibreOffice”)
  • The Inquirer (“UK government deals blow to Microsoft with LibreOffice love-in”)
  • Silicon Angle (“U.K. gov embraces Libre Office, kicks Microsoft into touch”)
  • Golem (“UK authorities to license commercial LibreOffice”)
  • Pro-Linux (“Great Britain relies on LibreOffice”)
  • OCS Mag (“LibreOffice officially made available for all UK Government agencies nationwide”)


Serious baggage: the best laptop backpacks for professionals

I don’t usually write posts like this. Product reviews etc. are outside of my Open Source realm. Over the last month however, my quest for an elite laptop backpack has revealed a chasm between the best that the market has to offer, and the bags that review websites typically recommend.

Screw PCAdvisor. To hell with T3. Thule, HerschelFjällräven, and Wenger all make nice bags. But for a certain class of commuter, aesthetic articulation and identity originality are just as important as inspired design and practical features.

Perhaps it’s because they’re newly released. Maybe it’s because those who’ve discovered them guard their secret. But for some reason, the following bevy of bags lack the coverage that they deserve. Thanks to John Ngo for pointing me at several of the products below.

My criteria

I use my backpack virtually every day of the year. Whether fetching groceries, hauling gymwear, stowing shirts for a conference on the continent, or ferrying laptop, headphones, ergonomic peripherals, and myriad cables to the office, my backpack is my stalwart companion, on foot, on train, and on bicycle. Therefore I  judge the bags on the following merits (in no particular order):

  • Airflow to one’s back (for comfort and sweat)
  • Reflective panels / night visibility
  • Quality of craftsmanship
  • Quality of materials (especially zips)
  • Aesthetic design
  • Distinctive appearance
  • Layout originality
  • Easy access pockets (e.g. for water bottle and umbrella)
  • Multiple large compartments (to separate clothing from tech)
  • Waterproofing
  • Comfort of wear
  • Multiple carry options (e.g additional carry handles / packable straps)
  • Balance of size and capacity
  • Secure accommodation of laptops of multiple sizes

My best backpacks

Booq Cobra Squeeze

Beautiful and distinctive bag made from high quality recycled materials, with good access, excellent size to capacity ratio, and good laptop compartment padding. Unfortunately it’s made for macbooks only with a very tight fit. My Dell XPS 15 didn’t stand a chance; the bag went back.

Book Cobra Squeeze

Book Cobra Squeeze

Côte&Ciel Isar Twin Touch

Incredible, distinctive design from one of the highest quality backpack companies around. I generally prefer vegan wearables, but the calf leather frame on this beauty is in a class of its own.

Côte&Ciel Isar Twin Touch

Côte&Ciel Isar Twin Touch

Mission Workshop Arkiv VX /R8

A striking, militaristic bag with extreme practicality, with the unique benefit of customisability via velcro accessory system. “Build your own bag” and attach and detach components as necessary. From the Mission District of San Francisco (their store is a thing to behold).

Mission Workshop Arkiv VX /R8

Mission Workshop Arkiv VX /R8

Incase Halo Courier

Incase had to have a bag here, but choosing which was hard. Customers rave about their design and attention to detail, and clearly this company is doing many things right (especially their EO range — see their brilliant but boxy offering in the honourable mentions). Unfortunately aesthetics have been lacking across their range however, with square monochrome bags coupled with limited colour choices. This bag however breaks from this trend with a flash of neon yellow, and though the ICON and City bags offer more structure and better size to capacity ratio, the Halo Courier introduces the critical component: handsome looks.

Incase Halo Courier

Incase Halo Courier

Honourable mentions

These bags didn’t quite make the cut, whether because they prioritise good looks a bit too much (in the case of the Côte&Ciel Nile), not enough (the Osprey Nebula 34), or have too much, or too little capacity (the EO Travel / Evoc Commuter, and Boa Squeeze respectively). They are noteworthy nevertheless, and deserving of your attention.

What stops small Open Source businesses selling to UK Government?

On June 26th Open Source leaders met in London for a gathering called by the Community for Open Interoperability Standards — the UK arm of Open Forum Europe, the European Open Source software advocacy group. At a beautiful venue beside the Museum of London, we were hosted by Worshipful Company of Information Technologists at Barbican station.

Ostensibly intended to determine the organisation’s top political goals following the victory of a majority Conservative Government after the general election last in May, themes covered a number of areas where Open Source has made progress, and should make more.

Time Title Speaker
10:20-10:30 Introduction Chris Francis, Chairman, OFE/COIS, Government Relations, SAP
10:30-10:50 Digital Single Market Common Themes EC/UK Graham Taylor, CEO OFE
10:50-11:10 Local Government IT: Future Directions John Jackson, Assistant Director (ICT) Camden Council ICT
11:10-11:30 Small and medium enterprise role in Government IT Sam Tuke, Marketing Manager, Collabora
11:30-11:50 Education IT: Future Directions Matthew Dovey, Principal Consultant, Jisc, Chair, EGI Council/Executive Board
11:50-12:10 The role of CCS in Open IT Standards Richard Archer, Deputy Chairman, OFE/COIS, CEO Bramble Hub
12:10-13:00 Round Table: Conclusions/Future Plans of OFE/COIS Chris Francis, Chairman, OFE/COIS, Government Relations, SAP

I spoke mid-morning, identifying hurdles currently preventing small and medium enterprise successfully selling to the British Government, highlighting opportunities presented by these challenges, using my experience of marketing LibreOffice products at Collabora Productivity as an example.

I concluded that by working together we can overcome some of the most serious barriers to UK public sector contracts, such as the current government’s “cloud-first” strategy, and buyers continued preference for solutions from incumbent ventures. You can find my slides below.

My presentation on SMEs role in UK Government

My presentation on SMEs role in UK Government


Whitelisting subdirectories using Git’s .gitignore

Git’s handling of directories and wildcards doesn’t follow bash conventions. First glance at a .gitignore file can easily mislead you into thinking that typical directory references will work recursively and allow whitelisting of many directories at a time. But directories don’t really exist for Git, or at least not as you’d expect.

Here’s how to whitelist a subdirectory multiple directories deep in your file-structure, keeping all other files and directories blacklisted.

The problem

Assume that we’re working on a WordPress plugin on a local development server, and that we want Git to only track changes to our plugin, and not to WordPress core files, or other installed plugins. Note the following directories (all paths are relative to the repository root):
wp-includes # we want to ignore this core wordpress dir
wordpress/wp-content/ # a parent of the dir we want to track
wordpress/wp-content/plugins/ # also a parent of the dir we want to track
wordpress/wp-content/plugins/my-new-plugin # the dir we want to track

Of these, all should be ignored except for the last — we only need to track changes to files in “my-new-directory/”. The following .gitignore file might be your first attempt. This won’t work:
# contents of .gitignore -- won't work
* # ignore everything
!wp-content/wp-content/plugins/my-new-plugin/* # whitelist the contents

The above will result in all files being ignored, including the ones we want to track.

The solution

Every directory between the repository root and the subdirectory that should be tracked must be whitelisted separately, without recursion, and with trailing slashes, plus an additional recursive path to that subdirectory, in order to whitelist its contents. Here’s what that looks like:
# contents of .gitignore -- works
* # ignore everything
!wp-content # whitelist parent directory
!wp-content/plugins # whitelist the other parent directory
!wp-content/plugins/my-new-plugin # whitelist the actual directory
!wp-content/plugins/my-new-plugin/* # whitelist the contents

Good luck adapting this to your needs; improvements and extensions welcome!

Marketing mechanics: first day at phpList

Today I start a new job writing Open Source marketing tools for phpList – the email newsletter sending app. Like MailChimp and SendGrid, phpList lets users design, write, send, and track emails to large numbers of people from a simple web interface.

Specifically, I’ll be working on a new API to allow other apps to connect to phpList securely and handle subscribers and newsletters, and send mails. Once that’s done, I’ll be implementing the API in new software, but we’re saving those details for later. Suffice to say that managing newsletters using phpList should become increasingly convenient and accessible over the next two months. Stay tuned.

Email marketing

“What is email / newsletter marketing anyway?” you may be asking yourself. “What does Open Source have to do with it?”. Email marketing remains the most effective form of digital marketing, and is a central component of any promotional campaign. That makes it critical to all forms of business, especially when users have actively sought newletter membership. When campaigning for digital rights at FSFE, GnuPG, LibreOffice, and others, I’ve used such tools to spread the word about political developments and engagement opportunities. Hundreds signed up to receive news about the GPG crowdfunding campaign in winter 2013, for example, allowing me to notify them of new rewards and opportunities as the campaign progressed.

The software that performs these functions must be reliable and effective. Furthermore it must be trustworthy, which makes the availability of strong Open Source contenders in this field particularly important. Mailing list managers, as the apps are sometimes called, typically manage hundreds of thousands of email addresses, sometimes with other identifying information as well. This data is valuable – first and foremost to the people it identifies. Information must be stored securely, yet remain transparent and accessible to newsletter subscribers (allowing them to update details or opt-out, for example).

Kicking off

For more than a decade phpList has provided a competitive solution in an Open Source package, allowing organisations to host their own email campaigns and keep their user’s data local. I’ve used it since 2008, and trained companies I’ve worked for to use it too. Having dipped into the codebase in June last year at the API sprint event, I’m grateful to finally have the opportunity to work more consistently on the project and functionality. Let’s say it’s an itch I’ve had for quite some time.