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Open Source and Web 2.0

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With a headline like that, I get the most buzzword-conscious award for the day. But I can't help myself; I'm currently sitting in the O'Reilly Radar Executive Briefing, listening to publisher Tim O'Reilly give the opening remarks to the small audience of about 150.

If you're here at OSCON, this all-day event is the one that you had to shell out another grand for to attend. The format of the presentation is O'Reilly sitting on a comfy chair and interviewing his guests sitting on a comfy couch.

Think Oprah meets TechTV.

O'Reilly's opening remarks were interesting, and essentially a very condensed version of his keynote remarks at the Ubuntu Live conference down the hall yesterday. His thesis is that the current successes of Web 2.0 companies (Google, Facebook, Flickr, etc.), which were all built using open source technologies, are not exactly maintaining the four freedoms of free software. Or, perhaps they do, but in unexpected ways.

For those not familiar with the four freedoms, here they are, from the Free Software Foundation web site:

  • "The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).

  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).

  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this..."

O'Reilly's contention is that for projects like Google, only some of the four freedoms may apply. Freedom 0, the ability to run the program, is pretty much rendered moot, because we all can run Google or Flickr or what have you, as users. Of course, I'm not really running these programs on my machine. I don't have an umpteen-processor server farm in my basement.

Freedom 1, adapting it to your needs, could be argued, because some of these Web 2.0 platforms allow for some adaptation. But that adaptation is only within the confines of the programmed settings, so really, Freedom 1 is not met at all.

Freedom 2, redistribution, is something that is very moot. If everyone has access, then you don't need to redistribute. It's pointless.

Finally, O'Reilly maintains, Freedom 3 is being achieved, but not in the strictest definition. Do we have the source code to these projects? No. But the single common factor of all of these successful Web applications is that they all get better as users add more data. Link to something, Google gets better. Twitter more, Twitter gets richer. So, in a way, users are improving the program, but really only on the level of usability.

During the keynote yesterday, O'Reilly seemed to use these points to make a case that Ubuntu developers should try to use these Web 2.0 characteristics in their own applications. In other words, build applications that become more useful as more users participate.

Today, he seemed to be issuing more of a cautionary to the Web 2.0 guests he was interviewing. Were they opening the source? Is that really something they needed to do? Is free as in beer ultimately more important than free as in freedom?

O'Reilly seems to be advocating treading the line between the beer and the freedom as much as possible. He's not anti-freedom; he shared with the audience the concerns of an Intel employee who is worried that acceptance of binary modules in the Linux kernel is a slipping of the values of free software.

Another warning about the real freedom of software-as-services, gently delivered by Tim O'Reilly.

Update: Of course, then Eben Moglen gets on stage and starts to completely kick O'Reilly's butt on this whole "Web 2.0" concept, which Moglen essentially sees as the fad of the week.

For him, the fact that O'Reilly is only finally now talking about freedoms is a conversation that is far overdue coming from an open source advocate. That, Moglen strongly asserted, is what we should be worrying about, and what will ultimately matter, not the so-called commercial success of Web 2.0.

Moglen came out swinging, tossing out verbal jabs at the notion of Web 2.0 and the apolitical notions of open source. Moglen asserted that he was being grumpy this morning because certain people had left the free software movement early to make money and left the free software folks to do all of the heavy lifting.

O'Reilly was gracious, but a bit disarmed, because he didn't seem to expect such a combative interview. Moglen asserted that his words are meant to stimulate debate for a conversation about freedom and rights and responsibilities, and "put all of this [Web 2.0] stuff aside for a while."

Moglen emphasized that Web 2.0 is nothing new under the sun, that the questions that O'Reilly was posing were coming up 10 years ago, and that the GPL v2 gave people like O'Reilly enough time, 10 years, to go off and make their millions and enjoy the fruits of free software's labors. And, Moglen added, the FSF, by releasing the GPL v3, just gave software vendors another 10 years to grow up and figure out what was really important and get freedom back into the conversation.


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