Software used to be a necessity to sell computer hardware, and it was Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who were the early pioneers, leading the monetization of software with the introduction of the licenses and patents with which we are familiar today. The last few years has seen a shift in power from this traditional base towards companies like Facebook and Google. The licence has been usurped as the most powerful tool for software monetization by personal data. Apple is still the king of luxury hardware, and Microsoft still owns the API to most operating environments and end user software worldwide, but Facebook owns our family pictures. And Google owns what we do on the Internet. In the words of Eric Schmidt, Google CEO: “We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”
So where does open source come into the picture?
In 1989, Richard Stallman wrote the GPL, and enabled Linus Torvalds‘ Linux to grow to ubiquity. Without Linux, there would be no Facebook, no Google, no Android, and no Amazon Web Services. Open source software underpins the web and cloud as we know it today, and closed, proprietary systems would never have allowed the web to grow to the scale it is at today.
If you were a PC user in the 1990s, running a Windows environment, built with Borland C++, and networked by Novell products, possibly with a Netscape Browser on top, then the most inﬂuential piece of software on your machine would have been Microsoft‘s Windows operating system. Fast forward to today and you are likely running most of your work on top of another platform entirely, the Internet itself. You are no longer tied down to a specific device, operating system, or even browser.
But there is only one Facebook. And one Google.
Apple‘s defeat in its mapping disaster was only marginally due to the quality of its service. Apple executives had not considered that what they are up against is so much more than a map. An accurate map can be freely bought from any number of navigation systems manufacturers. What Google had and Apple did not was a virtual image of the world, and the Google users that populate it. And even a company with $150Bn in the bank could not match this. We are in an age where data has become more powerful than money.
The troublesome fact is that Google, enabled by and running on open source, is a private company. And its position, carrying the world’s data is, unique. Even with dataliberation.org, a fantastic service offered by Google, to give away all the data anybody could wish for, where would we put it?
Openness requires data, but also the ability to manage it. And Google’s data is just so much more than anybody could replicate, and as a result, nobody else is in a position to replace them.
The only other player coming close to Google in the data stakes is Facebook, but what those arguing for privacy on Facebook don‘t seem to understand is that all of the data on Facebook belongs to Facebook. Their terms grant Facebook the rights to anything we upload to their service and what this means is that by deleting our Facebook presence, we are only terminating our end of the deal. Facebook’s primary asset is user data, and no public company will ever throw away anything which makes them valuable in the first place.
What Facebook and Google have done is create highly polished products and services, for the most part freely available, and made it attractive to populate their systems with your data. They have created online personal portals that define how you interact with the internet. To their users, they have become almost like a personal cloud; the truth is, however, that they are anything but personal.
So openness must be found elsewhere. And the simple answer is that we must be prepared to be in control of our own resources. We are prepared to spend heavily on hardware, but less so on services that we use every day that define our computing experience. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and we can use these resources to store our data, and to manipulate, share, delete, and keep it private at our discretion. The key to this is the ability to run the software we buy on more than one platform, locally via your browser.
This is the foundation of openness. Not openness to overcome the PC ecosystem, but an openness for end users. In Apple and Facebook and Google there is no openness.