Social vs Capital Part 3

Have ‘Open standards’, ‘Free’ and ‘Open Source’ software started to win against their commercial, proprietary, copyrighted, closed source rivals? Apple OS X is based on FreeBSD and has gained market share. Google’s Android and Chrome OS are based on the Linux kernel and UK school’s new hardware-darling, the Raspberry Pi runs a selection of Linux distributions so children will be able to compare the advantages of Windows and Unix-style systems for themselves. The UK government recently announced that it intends to increase it’s use of Open Source software. If the ‘battle’ was between closed and open source software then we might conclude that the tide had turned.

Doesn’t that seem a bit too easy to you? Wouldn’t you expect the old leaders of the IT industry to be trying to fight back? They are. They have the commercial acumen to see that they cannot win the last battle. Their old price model won’t work against good providers of Free software. Free software and markets drive the price down towards the cost of production. As sectors of ‘The Open Source Community’ go into self-congratulatory mode, the money men are trying to take back control. If you can no longer use a monopoly position in hardware or software to control the behaviour of your customers, where do you go next? Services. If you can utilise the cost savings of Free software for the bulk of your infrastructure but add a thin layer of secret, closed software to provide the differentiating aspect of your service, then you can go on printing free money as normal.

Let’s look at a classical Internet services. Email was one of the first commercial successes of the Internet. Early leaders like AOL and Demon connected normal people to the Internet to use services such as email from home for the first time. They supplied software based on Open Standards and competed aggressively. Soon, software companies like Microsoft and Netscape were also competing to supply email and browser software. Microsoft gave their products away free, forcing Netscape to morph into the open source organisation Mozilla in order to survive. Then Google launched Gmail. The web was becoming ‘the platform’. Free software fans got very excited. Their open source software was an equal on the web. Google were clearly the good guys. They even used Free software widely within the company.

Many open source fans saw Google as kindred spirits, sharing the ideals of the community. They moved their email into the web for Google to run, at zero cost, if you ignored the matter of surrendering the total privacy of your information to Google’s robots.

The open source, open systems community had been developing a standard for instant messaging, Jabber. Google adopted Jabber as it was standardised as XMPP. XMPP-based Google Talk was released. Facebook had become a power to be reckoned with. They used a lot of Free software behind the scenes too and they signalled their intention to support XMPP. Soon, Google and Facebook were going to be co-operating, excluding Microsoft and Yahoo! The old guard hastily formed an alliance and connected their IM networks. Oddly, I have seen no sign of easy XMPP gateways to connect Google Talk to Google’s competitors. Instead, Google’s chat has moved inside the Google Plus network. Google even started to ‘extend and improve’ on open standards, offering innovative new capabilities, just as Microsoft had done before them.

Facebook had become a threat to Google’s advertising revenue. The technical press were reporting on the growing value of Facebook’s knowledge of their customers’ social map. Whereas Google profited from what we were looking for and what we talked about, Facebook was earning ‘social capital’. It was learning about our personal relationships. Google Plus launched. Clearly a battle for ownership of the social network was underway and many service providers were competing to be users’ first point of entry to The Internet.

Google Plus appears to be ‘a descendent’ of the Free Software project Diaspora*. The stated aim of the Diaspora* team was to produce Free software, to be run in a distributed network, like non-web email and Jabber, on ‘pods’ operated by competing service suppliers. Data on Diaspora* belongs to users and their anonymity and confidentiality are under their own control. This was in part a response to growing concerns about Facebook’s intrusion into users’ privacy. Google did not adopt the D* privacy features, nor the anonymity. Instead, Google Circles store each users’ social connections and information about the cirles of others is only available to Google. At the launch of Google+, it became a condition of service to use your real name. This was for your protection. Some of Google’s Chinese customers were unconvinced.

What mattered about Free and Open Source software? It wasn’t the ‘free as in beer’. The provision of a service costs money. It will always have to be recouped somewhere in the value chain. Was it the open source code? Access to source code is highly desirable but not essential. If a service conforms to a known open standard then it can be replaced by an alternative supplier as long as the cost of entry to the market is not too high. What really mattered was the ‘freedom as in speech’ and the ‘openess’ and we are in the process of losing both while deluding ourselves into believing we have won.

Each disruptive technology that has entered the field of information systems has represented a step change in price reduction. For a while, a company supplying a sufficiently innovative new technology  can compete fairly and win. Customers flock to them. They grow fast and become rich and powerful. At some stage they start to consolidate their victory, to lock in their customers to reduce the risk of having their riches taken away by the next young pretender. They find a market segment they can carve off and attempt to exploit their near monopoly position. This is not in the interest of consumers.

As IBM moved away from mainframes to make Unix machines to hang on to as many customers as possible, so Microsoft and Adobe are moving their key software to a web subscription model. It’s important to know when you’ve been beaten and minimise your losses.

They have recognised that the current wave of innovation is in web-based services and relationship networks. If you still care about being Free and Open then FOSS alone is not the answer. As usual, Richard Stallman spotted the danger and warned us. As usual he was dismissed as an idealistic alarmist. A younger team of idealist hackers at Diaspora* even started to build a solution but work pressure is believed to have cost team member Ilya Zhitomirskiy his life.

This is even more of a tragedy because the Diaspora* team were aiming for the right solution. We need service provider independence as much as we ever needed the hardware provider independence that led to Unix or the software provider independence that led to FOSS. We need any service that we as organisations or as individuals depend on to (ideally) be built completely from Free and Open Source software and always to be available from multiple, independent service providers. Or we will be exploited by monopoly suppliers. Business As Usual because “No one ever gets fired for buying IBM”?


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