As we rush to purchase Apple products and services on Cupertino’s monochrome treadmill of shiny shiny I can’t help thinking the open web community is losing something vital - a commitment to net neutrality and platform openness.
If a single company can decide what plays on the network and what does not, in arbitrary fashion, how can that be net neutrality? According to Wikipedia
A neutral broadband network is one that is free of restrictions on content, sites, or platforms, on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and on the modes of communication allowed, as well as one where communication is not unreasonably degraded by other communication streams.
Does that sound like the environment we’re currently buying into? Is the AppStore a neutral network? Should it be?
Is Comcast, the company net neutrality proponents love to hate, really the only company we should be wary of? Pipe level neutrality is surely only one layer of a stack. The wider market always chooses proprietary wrappers - every technology wave is co-opted by a master packager. Success in the IT industry has always been about packaging- doing the best job of packaging technologies as they emerge. Twas ever thus.
- IBM System/360 – the first true mainframe was a packaging exercise.
- The IBM or Wintel PC was a playing field that said – let the best packager win. Step forward Compaq and latterly Dell.
- Windows packaged the TCP/IP stack and brought standard network technology in the enterprise.
- Unix was an academic operating system, but packaged up in a system, generated billions of dollars for firms like Sun, in the era of the Unix Wars. With systems packaging came less application portability.
Packaging is great – its how we take things to the mainstream. But packaging also has a cost. Successful technology packaging invariably involves extending the standard componentry being packaged, in order to improve the overall user experience.
It seems to me that Apple is building a Permission-based Web, where we have to ask permission to play, or to sell apps, or whatever. It makes me nervous. But what really makes the current Apple sales explosion so interesting to me is that was initially driven by the Alpha geeks, who normally stay ahead of the curve on the margins of the mainstream.
Alpha geeks and web communities have talked a lot about openness since the very inception of the network. We claim we want open. We throw stones at those we perceive as trying to impinge on that openness.People practically had heart attacks at the idea Microsoft might be in control of our name space when it first talked to Hailstorm. In Europe, which used to be ahead of the USA in terms of mobile services, until Apple came along, the talk was about how to have Open, rather than Walled, Gardens.
Sun has arguably been more open than any other enterprise vendor over the last five years and how did the industry respond – with disinterest, if sales are anything to go by. Tim O’Reilly said a while back that open source in effect no longer matters - the new frontier is data; “The Intel Inside” as he calls it. Tim has an unerring sense of what comes next, and he also has an unusually strong social conscience.
Tim saw the future back in 2004.
Sites such as Google, Amazon, and salesforce.com provide the most serious challenge to the traditional understanding of free and open source software. Here are applications built on top of Linux, but they are fiercely proprietary. What’s more, even when using and modifying software distributed under the most restrictive of free software licenses, the GPL, these sites are not constrained by any of its provisions, all of which are conditioned on the old paradigm. The GPL’s protections are triggered by the act of software distribution, yet web-based application vendors never distribute any software: it is simply performed on the Internet’s global stage, delivered as a service rather than as a packaged software application.
Apple didn’t make the list in 04, but it would now. Tim seems surprisingly passive in his analysis. But I think Open Source and open standards and neutral networks are worth fighting for – because of the potential for transparent development. Learning and pedagogy: “view source”. We need to agitate for open. So much of what makes open source great are the social aspects of the technology. Lower barriers to participation.
Android Coda: Maybe Open Source is the charm after all.
I suspect that Google’s open source Android play will prove Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer right. It was Ballmer that argued that Microsoft had beaten Apple once, and would do so again by being more open, running on a ranger of devices and growing a larger ecosystem. Right analysis of the situation- wrong pick of the winner. With Acer, Asustek, HTC and Samsung Electronics, Motorola, SonyEricsson on board things look very rosy indeed for Android. I myself have an Android-powered HTC Magic. The hardware may not offer the performance and responsiveness of an iPhone, but that’s really just an implementation detail. The Droid is a spec beast.
Since I got the Hero I have been less worried about the Permission-based Web. Or maybe Google’s packaging is so good that I forgot myself. I still think we need to be vigilant about Net Neutrality, and believe it may be time to think of it as a layered architecture. I think the FTC is right to be looking to extend net neutrality to web service providers. They are as much gatekeepers of the web, and controllers of the last mile, as anyone. Especially as the mobile web kicks in. The open source model of Android potentially fragments The Permission Based Web, and associated data ownership-based business models. Perhaps there is life in the old FOSS dog yet.
photo courtesy of sportsilliterate.