Dare Obasanjo just put up a posting with the title Open Source is Dead. Dare does happen to be a Microsoft employee, but his posting is none of the standard anti-Linux/OpenOffice/Apache/Firefox FUD. Instead, he voices a question that’s been floating around for a while:
… how much value do you think there is to be had from a snapshot of the source code for eBay or Facebook being made available? This is one area where Open Source offers no solution to the problem of vendor lock-in.
Let me out!!!
In other words, as the Web replaces Microsoft Windows as the world’s favorite desktop/laptop software platform (it may be there already), what good is Open Source to ordinary computer user? Even if a web site happens to be built on Open Source software (like the LAMP stack), I’m still locked in:
- How can I move my address book and archived e-mail from Hotmail to Yahoo or GMail?
- How can I move my blog (with all postings and comments) from Blogger to Bloglines or WordPress?
- How can someone move her contact list and comments from MySpace to Facebook?
- How can a buyer in Yahoo’s auction thingy verify my reputation on eBay?
- How can I move my old flight plans from Aeroplanner to FBOWeb?
- How can I move my sales contacts and data from Salesforce.com to Highrise?
- How can I move my pictures with their tags from Flickr to Smugmug?
A crack of light under the door
These are huge problems, and the solution is probably going to have a lot more to do with Open Data than with Open Source. There are already a couple of minor successes:
- Blog reading sites almost universally support OPML import and export, so that you can save the list of blogs you read from one site and move it to another.
- Online wordprocessors and spreadsheets, of course, support the Microsoft Office formats and/or the OpenDocument formats and/or RTF and CSV.
That’s not much, though. Open Source (and its predecessor buzzword, Free Software) have been very important over the past couple of decades, giving us choices beyond the Microsoft/Apple duopoly that chained our desktops (and forcing the duopoly to open up a lot) and smashing the big-iron vendor cartel that owned our servers, but as the world shifts from desktop to web-hosted software, it can’t take us much further.
Your data is the next big battle
Open Source will still matter, of course (especially for server-side work), but it won’t be an important battle ground any more. Until we can convince (or force) web sites to embrace and standardize on Open Data formats — XML, JSON, or even CSV, as appropriate — we will be in some ways even more locked in than we were in the bad old desktop days. Celebrate Open Source’s victory, by all means, but get ready for an even bigger and bloodier battle over the next 10-20 years.
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I think it’s precisely on the client side, where software *is* distributed, that Open Source still matters very much. A browser like Firefox or an IM client like Gaim can only exist because of Open Source, and without them we’d be in lock-in indeed. Server-side Open Source increases efficiency, but client-side Open Source increases freedom.
flickr is less of an offender than the others on your list, because at least we can download XML of all the data we’ve entered into their site. For Open Data, let’s not forget to hold up del.icio.us as an example of doing things properly, because their API lets us download XML versions of the data we’ve entered there. This is why, after Tim Bray wrote (http://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/200x/2007/03/18/Cloudy-Paranoia) that he “get[s] nervous sometimes about outsourcing my calendar to Google and my data backup to Amazon and my email to Yahoo and my pictures to Flickr and my bookmarks to Del.icio.us”, I understand his feelings about the first three, but not the last two.
You guys worry too much.
As demand for services grows, so there will be people offering data translation services and data transfer services. Savvy users will make sure they only work with sites offering them the chance to download (and thus backup) their data in a standard format.
The reason that Open Source matters is that it encourages competition in the marketplace — low barrier to entry, anyone can make an eBay or a blogspot. Once you have genuine competition then you get a lot of new ideas into the mix and the popular sites have no choice but to satisfy consumer demand if they want to stay popular.
I wrote an essay on a related subject in 1999, called, “People, places, things, and ideas”:
It’s on the GNU Project web site as well:
My concern at the time was that the *software* would be inaccessible if it was locked up inside a server, rather than with the information in it.
Last year, I wrote a draft of an essay discussing a related problem, entitled “the equivalent of free software for online services”:
This was in response to Jamie McCarthy’s Slashdot article, “Web Services and Open Source at OSCON”:
Julian Cash has a project called “MoveMyData” to try to ameliorate the data problem a bit:
There was some discussion of my draft essay on okfn-discuss, in which Rufus Pollock and Francis Irving opined that the data was more important than the software:
And Mike Linksvayer wrote a good blog post along the same lines:
In response to Luis Villa’s post about “open source is doomed”:
In summary, we need a better alternative than “set up Drupal on your own web server” to solve this problem. As long as it’s a battle between traditional isolated desktop apps (which may be free software) and provider-hosted web apps (which aren’t free software in any practical way), the web apps will keep winning.