Open Source: The Model for Collaboration in the Age of the Internet
Pages: 1, 2, 3
Changes in the Architecture of Software
- Moving away from the farming metaphor, there is a
fundamental change in the architecture of the Internet that will have a
profound effect on open source. This is probably the most important point I'm
going to make, so pay attention!
- In the "old days," software needed to be distributed in
order to be used. In the new world where the network is the computer, this
is no longer true. The most powerful new applications are not traditional
software applications, but web-hosted services: think MapQuest, Amazon, eBay,
e*Trade, and you'll realize what I mean. These new-style applications, which
I've elsewhere called "infoware" applications have profound implications for
the open source software movement:
- Traditional open source licenses depend on software
redistribution as the key to their requirement for source disclosure. What
happens when software no longer needs to be distributed in order to be
widely used? Oh GPL, where is thy sting?
- Rapid prototyping lowers the barrier to entry -- software
becomes ever more of a conversation and less of a product. MP3.com says they
try to introduce 20 new features every day. But on the other hand, this
means that the traditional incentives to redistribute software don't exist.
I've talked with developers at major web sites who've developed all kinds of
cool internal tools for their sites, but they don't feel they have the
resources to support those products, and they don't see the benefit of
redistributing them. Since the web represents a key part of the future,
it's essential to create an open source culture at leading web sites, even
though they no longer need to redistribute software in order for it to be
- Returning to my point about open standards -- many of the new
applications are being written at a new level above the old open standards
stack. Where are the APIs that will allow an application to make use of
Amazon's database, for example? These things will come, but they are likely
to be proprietary unless we think through the benefits of standardization.
XML offers promise, but because it's a commercial battleground, there's no
assurance that the standards will be open, and that independent developers
will be able to participate as they have been in the traditional
architecture of Unix/Linux and the Internet.
- One of my biggest concerns about open source is that it has
been slow to embrace these changes in the architecture of the Internet. Much
of the attention of the Linux community, for example, has been focused on the
recreation of a Macintosh- or Windows-style desktop environment, while Mozilla
languishes. Microsoft is far ahead in the development of APIs that will allow
developers to use other web sites as if they were software components. (For
more information on this idea, see Jon Udell's keynote at the last Python
Conference, The Next Generation
Object Web.) Open Source is dominant on the server side of the web, but
Microsoft now dominates the client side. There are good signs, though. The
folks at Eazel grok the web at a fundamental level. Open source web developers
are starting to grasp the new paradigm. But time is short.
- I haven't talked at all about software patents, which many
of you know I've been spending some
time on lately. I'll be glad to talk at length about patents during the
question period, if we have time, but I do want to make a few short
- Given my concern for open source, you can quickly see why I
believe that software patents are destructive to the Internet and open source
culture. Where the essence of open source is collaboration, a heightened,
speeded-up framework for sharing and communicating ideas, the essence of
patents is to fence off ideas, and create monopolies on their use. In theory,
patents result in the publication of ideas that would otherwise be kept
secret, but in the world of software, the opposite is true. If you know of
"prior art" you are supposed to disclose it in your patent application. If you
don't know it, you can claim an idea as original. Therefore patent applicants
go to great lengths not to know about prior art! Because so much prior art is
not documented in the databases that are usually searched by patent examiners,
this results in a huge transfer of rights from the collaborative community to
unscrupulous companies that are patenting anything they can, in hopes of
extracting royalties. At this point, even well-meaning companies realize that
they need to file patents defensively, lest the tools of their trade be taken
away from them.
- It's ironic that the patent examiners think that software
patents will encourage innovation or protect the rights of inventors. In fact,
patenting often sets in after the initial burst of creativity in a field has
- When you're working on the fringes, without aim of
commercial gain, you don't typically think to patent.
- In periods of rapid innovation, no one has time to patent.
Faced with a choice between implementing a truly useful feature, and filing
a patent on that feature, most developers would rather build software.
Better to be imitated, improved upon, and then to leapfrog the competition,
than to erect fences and hope they don't find their way around them.
- This situation is changing. The environment and the
architecture we take for granted is seriously at risk.
A Few Big Picture Conclusions
- The environment in which open source and the Internet have
flourished is changing and is at risk. We are moving from a situation in which
developers scratch their own itches to one in which they try to please the
market; we are moving from an architecture in which distributing code was the
natural way to share ideas to one in which displaying the results of your work
no longer requires distributing it; we are moving from a situation in which
ideas were freely shared, and the best implementation won in the marketplace,
to one in which patent licensees are laying claim to fundamental ideas (ideas
not necessarily even their own).
- We need to take lessons from the environmental movement!
We need a Sierra Club for the Internet. If we value the environment
that brought us the Internet, we need to act to protect it.
- This starts with a realization that we could lose what we
value. It's easy to think that it could never happen. My cousin, who is a
fisheries statistician up here in Canada, tells the story of how fishermen
will protest limits on their catch, saying "Why, we used to be able to take
ten fish a day out of here." They don't realize that they get less now,
because they took too many before. Problems take time to build, and by the
time they are recognized, it's often too late.
- The next step is to build a bigger constituency. We
need to tell the story of how we got the great benefits of the Internet from a
particular style of cooperation. Open source and Internet-enabled cooperation
should matter to people who will never write a line of software.
- We need to use our collaborative power to let those who
threaten our environment know that it matters to us. This is the lesson of
my protest over the
Amazon patents. We can make a difference. I want to urge all of you to get
involved in letting the world know that the culture of the Internet, the
culture of open source, matters to all of you. Use it or lose it.
Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly & Associates, Inc. He is also on the boards of ActiveState Tool Corp, Collab.Net, Invisible Worlds, and EPit.
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