Constitutionally open services

Luis Villa provokes, in a good way:

Someone who I respect a lot told me at GUADEC ‘open source is doomed’. He believed that the small-ish apps we tend to do pretty well will migrate to the web, increasing the capital costs of delivering good software and giving next-gen proprietary companies like Google even greater advantages than current-gen proprietary companies like MS.


Seeing so many of us using proprietary software for some of our most treasured possessions (our pictures, in flickr) has bugged me deeply this week.

These things have long bugged me, too.

I think Villa has even understated the advantage of web applications — no mention of security — and overstated the advantage of desktop applications, which amounts to low latency, high bandwidth data transfer — let’s see, , including video editing, is the hottest thing on the web. Low quality video, but still. The two things client applications still excel at are very high bandwidth, very low latency data input and output, such as rendering web pages as pixels. :)

There are many things that can be done to make client development and deployment easier, more secure, more web-like and client applications more collaboration-enabled. Fortunately they’ve all been tried before (e.g., , , , others of varying relevance), so there’s much to learn from, yet the field is wide open. Somehow it seems I’d be remiss to not mention , so there it is. Web applications on the client are also a possibility, though typical only address ease of development and not manageability at all.

The ascendancy of web applications does not make the desktop unimportant any more than GUIs made filesystems unimportant. Another layer has been added to the stack, but I am still very happy to see any move of lower layers in the direction of freedom.

My ideal application would be available locally and over the network (usually that means on the web), but I’ll prefer the latter if I have to choose, and I can’t think of many applications that don’t require this choice (fortunately is one of them, or close enough).

So what can be done to make the web application dominated future open source in spirit, for lack of a better term?

First, web applications should be super easy to manage (install, upgrade, customize, secure, backup) so that running your own is a real option. Applications like and have made large strides, especially in the installation department, but still require a lot of work and knowledge to run effectively.

There are some applications that centralizaton makes tractable or at least easier and better, e.g., web scale search, social aggregation — which basically come down to high bandwidth, low latency data transfer. Various P2P technologies (much to learn from, field wide open) can help somewhat, but the pull of centralization is very strong.

In cases were one accepts a centralized web application, should one demand that application be somehow constitutionally open? Some possible criteria:

  • All source code for the running service should be published under an open source license and developer source control available for public viewing.
  • All private data available for on-demand export in standard formats.
  • All collaboratively created data available under an open license (e.g., one from Creative Commons), again in standard formats.
  • In some cases, I am not sure how rare, the final mission of the organization running the service should be to provide the service rather than to make a financial profit, i.e., beholden to users and volunteers, not investors and employees. Maybe. Would I be less sanguine about the long term prospects of Wikipedia if it were for-profit? I don’t know of evidence for or against this feeling.

Consider all of this ignorant speculation. Yes, I’m just angling for more freedom lunches.

15 Responses

  1. Wes Felter says:

    I care not just about my data, but the names (URLs) by which my data is known. The only URLs that I control are those that live under a domain name that I control (for some loose value of control as defined by ICANN). This allows what Simon Phipps calls “freedom to leave” by changing the DNS to point to a different service provider.

    So I would feel better about services that let me point my own URLs at them; e.g. if my photos were hosted by Flickr under instead of somewhere in So far, Amazon S3 is a pioneer in this area.

  2. […] Mike Linksvayer responded to one of my posts with a post about ‘Constitutionally Open Services‘. It needs a catchier name, but his thinking is dead on- we almost definitely need a server/service-oriented list of freedoms which complement and extend the traditional FSF Four Freedoms and help us think more clearly about what services are and aren’t good to use. (See also, tangentially, flickr’s potential decision to grant zoomr API access in a GPL-like share-and-share-alike way.) […]

  3. […] Luis Villa on my constitutionally open services post: It needs a catchier name, but his thinking is dead on- we almost definitely need a server/service-oriented list of freedoms which complement and extend the traditional FSF Four Freedoms and help us think more clearly about what services are and aren’t good to use. […]

  4. […] I don’t know if this goes far enough for “open services” — certainly not far enough for the service equivalent of free software. However, it might be nice if “open” meant something substantially different than “free” or “libre” for services, c.f. open source software and free software. […]

  5. […] Beyond the purely practical, ease of customization and upgrade is important for openness. […]

  6. […] And of course community participants may want to consider what allowances they require from a community owner, e.g., open licenses, data, and formats so that at a minimum a participant can retrieve and republish elsewhere her contributions if the owner does a bad job. […]

  7. […] less than worked up because I see proprietary RIA as a rearguard action (NB web applications are complicated for open source completely independent of their use of “rich” frameworks), albeit one […]

  8. […] been meaning to comment again (see constitutionally open services from last July) on free services as in free software, discussion of which has picked up noticably […]

  9. […] for the GNOME Online Desktop project. Luis takes care to catalog excellent references to earlier work as well. There’s a healthy conversation on the Open Knowledge Foundation’s okfn-discuss […]

  10. […] irony (long recognized by many) is that while web applications pose a threat to user freedoms gained through desktop free and open source software, they’ve also greatly […]

  11. […] written about the subject of this group and statement a number of times on this blog, starting with Constitutionally Open Services two years ago. I think that post holds up pretty well. Here were my tentative […]

  12. […] I’ve mentioned several times in passing, such practices will facilitate open web applications and other network […]

  13. […] Chris F. Masse February 5th, 2009 Mike Linksvayer again. […]

  14. […] In Q&A someone asked about centralized cloud silos. Gettys doesn’t like them, but said without long-term secure alternatives that can be deployed and maintained by everyone there isn’t much hope. I agree. […]

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