History of the Zulip project

Zulip at the PyCon Sprints in Portland, Oregon. Over seventy-five people sprinted during the four day event.

Startup inspired by MIT's messaging system

Zulip was originally created by Zulip, Inc., a small startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Zulip, Inc. was founded in August 2012 by the MIT alumni team that previously created the Ksplice software for live-patching a running Linux kernel. Zulip was inspired by the BarnOwl client for the Zephyr instant messaging protocol, and the incredible community that Zephyr supported at MIT.

Early acquisition by Dropbox

Zulip, Inc. was acquired by Dropbox in early 2014, while the product was still in private beta, which put Zulip development on hold. However, because they loved Zulip's topic-based threading experience, Zulip's early customers continued using Zulip all through that time.

“We strongly prefer Zulip to other options for several reasons – its message threading being a key one.”

Nick Bergson-Shilcock, Recurse Center co-founder and CEO, September 2015

Zulip released as open source!

In 2015, a year and a half after the acquisition, Dropbox generously decided to release Zulip as open-source software.

A group of Zulip's developers and early users spent Dropbox's Hack Week preparing Zulip's code base for release. The entire product, including the server, Android and iOS mobile apps, and desktop apps for Mac, Linux and Windows, was released under the Apache 2 license with complete version control history.

The Zulip community is incredibly grateful to both Dropbox and those enthusiastic early users for making the Zulip open source project possible. Dropbox has no ongoing relationship with the Zulip project.

Zulip's second founding

At first, the Zulip open-source project was maintained by the project's founder and leader Tim Abbott on nights and weekends. In the months following the open-source release, the project quickly gained contributors and users.

It soon became clear that guiding the contributor community in developing a world-class team chat product would require leadership from a dedicated team. Thus, in April 2016, Tim Abbott founded a mission-driven company, Kandra Labs, to steward and financially sustain Zulip’s development. Incorporating as a business has helped Zulip attract top talent, and has made Zulip eligible for large innovation grants from the US National Science Foundation, which Kandra Labs was awarded in 2017 and 2018.

Early days as an open-source company

In its early days, the Zulip community was focused on three main goals:

  • Turning an innovative product (that had been in private beta when its development was put on hold) into a polished application, complete with enterprise-ready features like single sign-on options and hundreds of integrations.

  • Making Zulip more widely available. In mid-2017, Kandra Labs launched two products: a hosted Zulip Cloud service, and an enterprise support offering for self-hosted deployments. Zulip’s original customers were migrated from Dropbox’s servers to the new Zulip Cloud offering, fully preserving their chat history. Despite the acquisition by Dropbox, Zulip's customers have thus enjoyed uninterrupted service since 2013.

  • Building a vibrant community around the project, with effort and care dedicated to making it easy to get started contributing to Zulip. The Zulip development community gathered at PyCon sprints in 2016, and led the largest PyCon sprint ever in 2017, with over 75 developers contributing to Zulip over course of the 4-day event. By late 2016, more than 150 people from all over the world had contributed almost 1000 pull requests to the software, and the Zulip project was moving faster than when the original startup employed 11 full-time engineers. Zulip also began mentoring Google Summer of Code contributors in 2016, and continues to mentor 15-20 outreach program participants every year.

We are proud to have achieved those early goals for the project.

Zulip continues to thrive

These days, we regularly hear from users that they prefer Zulip's user experience to that of team chat products produced by some of the world's largest companies. More than 1000 people have contributed a total of over 60,000 commits to the Zulip project, which has more than 16 thousand stars on GitHub.

In 2020, Zulip experienced an extraordinary increase in usage as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic changing how people work. During this extremely difficult time, we found joy in hearing from users about how Zulip has helped them make remote work, research collaborations, teaching, and events and conferences successful.

Starting August 2022, Slack’s free plan change caused an exodus of open-source projects, researchers, and a wide variety of other negatively impacted communities to Zulip and other chat platforms. Data imports from Slack into Zulip Cloud increased an incredible 40x in the month after Slack’s announcement.

Press highlights

“In fact now it seems strange to me to just fire off messages in Slack with no subject – that's chaos, madness. The genius of subject lines is that you can quickly and easily catch up on the messages you missed in your off-hours... This feature alone saves me hours a week.”

Zulip review in The Register

“Every day, dozens of like-minded mathematicians gather on an online forum called Zulip to build what they believe is the future of their field.”

Quanta Magazine, “Building the Mathematical Library of the Future“

Major server releases and product announcements

“Zulip has the best user experience of all the chat apps I’ve tried. With the discussion organized by topic within each stream, Zulip is the only app that makes hundreds of conversations manageable.”

Tobias Lasser, lecturer at the Technical University of Munich Department of Informatics [customer story]

“This has been an unusually long release cycle, because I took a few months off work on Zulip to welcome my new daughter Zoe. Coming back to work was a great stress-test of Zulip’s asynchronous model: I received over 20,000 messages in chat.zulip.org during my paternity leave. I really enjoyed reading everything and replying to the hundreds of topics where I had something to contribute or someone to thank. Systematically reading months of history would have been impossible with any other tool!”

—Tim Abbott, Zulip founder and lead developer, Zulip 4.0 release blog post