Open Source and the Future of Network Applications

There’s a lot to see at OSCON, so it should come as no surprise that you won’t be able to personally see everything you’d like to. I seem to have missed one of the most talked about events though.

“Tim has a television show under production where we get told in advance what we are going to say and how it will reflect Tim’s underlying idea,” Moglen told us. “I decided not to go with the program.”

Moglen’s performance turned into the stuff of legend.

Regrettably, we missed the assault. Stories needed to go out, and we assumed the chat would follow familiar, boring lines. After about ten people later asked if we caught the spectacular show, The Register contacted the OSCON audio staff to obtain a recording of the session. “No problem,” they said, “It will just take a couple of minutes, but you need to get O’Reilly’s permission first.” O’Reilly corporate refused to release the audio, saying it would cause a slippery slope. (We’re still trying to understand that one.) They, however, did add that Moglen appeared to be “off his meds.”

So what exactly happened?

Moglen attacked O’Reilly for wasting his time promoting Web 2.0 darlings, when he should be focusing on the core issues crucial to free software.

“I decided to say that we’ve reached a stage where we ought to be able to tell the difference between daily business news – X is up, Y is down – and the stuff that really matters, which from day-to-day is not racehorse X is running faster than racehorse Y.

“I think what time has done with this forum in general is to emphasize the trivial at the expense of the significant.”

According to published reports, Moglen described O’Reilly’s current approach to open source software as “frivolous.” He also chastised O’Reilly for chasing money, billionaire chums and “thermal noise” like Facebook.

“We still have serious problems to correct in public policies made by people propping up business models that were dying and wasting time promoting commercial products,” Moglen said, during the session.

As Stephen O’grady points out, you may not agree with the tactics Eben used (I also don’t), but the conversation is an extremely important one.

First and most obviously, this is a call to arms. Join us, pleads Joyent, before we trade one dictatorship for another. Underlying the recruiting attempt, however, are a set of implicit assumptions worth extracting.

1. Microsoft’s desktop dominance is threatened
2. The primary source of the threat is free but non-open source SaaS offerings from Google, MSN, Yahoo
3. The predicted outcome will see users forced to trade one dominant provider for another
4. Open source is the last, best defense against that future

Speculative and reactionary though these comments may be, they are reasonable enough in my opinion to be warrant further debate. But not here, and not now.

Suffice it to say, for time being, that the Joyent folks are not the only ones concerned by the prospect of future technology landscape dominated by the likes of Amazon, Google, eBay, Yahoo, et al. As evidenced by developments like Joyent’s decision and the GNOME Online Desktop efforts, it’s increasingly apparent that open source and Web 2.0 are on a collision course.

While these two dominant technical trends or directions have much to learn from each other, the convergence is likely to have its painful moments if OSCON is any indication. Indeed the talk of the conference was the somewhat shocking public swipe at Tim O’Reilly by one of the GPLv3’s chief architects, Eben Moglen. As documented elsewhere, Moglen absolutely dropped the hammer on Mr. Web 2.0, arguing that “that the FSF has ‘done the heavy lifting’ and ‘carried your water’ for the last decade, and that the era of Web 2.0 distraction (buzz about who is making money, who will get acquired, etc) will need to be replaced by a serious conversation about freedom.”

We’re still in the early stages of this discussion, but it’s encouraging to see that the right people are paying attention and the issues are slowly being iterated through. The right questions are starting to be asked. There’s still a lot to decide and much debate will surely follow, so if this is a topic that interests you (and it should be), make sure to join the conversation.

–jeremy

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