Tuesday, August 28, 2007

eben moglen to tim o'reilly, "you have wasted ten years"

moglen versus o'reilly video

moglen understands the ephemeral and potentially dangerous nature of web2.0 (eg. google aggregates our data centrally in exchange for free apps, its not certain what they will do with it in the future), looks behind it to more fundamental issues - freedom, property, money

his critique of o'reilly and the OS part of FOSS is spot on, IMO

some moderating commentary here from Peter Rock

3 comments:

Mark Miller said...

Wow. Well I've known for a while that there was a divide between the FSF and the open source movement. Several years ago I regarded them as one and the same. I first encountered open source software (though it wasn't called that then) in college in the early 1990s. We just called it "GNU", and we knew that the code was freely available for it, but we didn't worry about that. We just knew it was free as in beer and they were good development tools. It wasn't until the late 90s that I started hearing the term "open source", like it was a brand name. Beginning about 3 years ago almost every time I'd talk to someone about open source and Stallman I'd always get this response of "I listen to his ideas, but he's nuts." In effect they made it very clear that OSS does not equal FSF. They treated Stallman as this freak show off in the corner who they didn't understand too well. So given that Moglen is associated with Stallman, I can understand his antipathy, though I had no idea that O'Reilly had anything to do with it.

Personally I've tried to stay away from the issues of rights. I have some knowledge about copyright and patents but I've seen debates that go on forever over these issues, and personally I find them tedious and a bit out of my league. I'd much rather study software development and talk about that. I don't pay attention to what Linus Torvalds says too often as I'm not in the Linux community, but what I have heard from him I agree with. One of the things he said went something like, "Programmers shouldn't have to worry about copyrights and patents." Others clarified that saying that distribution maintainers, those managing the projects should worry about that, not the contributors. I agree.

For the longest time I didn't understand the open source movement. I had used OSS from time to time for years, and I couldn't understand why people were getting so excited about it. To me they were just tools like any other. I thought it was mainly touted by academics who didn't like Microsoft's influence, but who didn't think about practical matters like actually making money from your work. It wasn't until I joined the Squeak community, viewing open source kind of from the inside out, that I began to realize some things. One of them was that I had a big misperception that open source was non-commercial. I started seeing the same marketing influences within open source as I had seen outside of it with proprietary software. Take Ruby on Rails as an example. A lot of its popularity is being driven by marketing, and only partly on its technical merit. The same went for Java when it rose to prominence in the open source community. One of the other bloggers I read from time to time, Giles Bowkett, pointed out the difference between RoR and Seaside: RoR was built taking marketing into consideration. Seaside and Smalltalk were not, but he acknowledged that on technical merits Seaside gives RoR a run for its money, and trounces it in many cases. A lot of people like RoR, but turn up their nose at Seaside, because they have difficulty with Smalltalk. They can relate to the Ruby language, because it's a conglomeration of other languages that a lot of people have used. It's familiar territory. Developers have responded to the RoR marketing pitch, and the information that's available for it in well worn outlets. Ruby has its resources better organized than the Smalltalk community does. You can buy books to learn about Ruby and the Rails framework. You can find books on Squeak, but none on Seaside. The best resources right now are blogs, such as On Smalltalk. So there's a whole commercial operation around RoR that's actively drawing people in, and training them, and making money off of that activity.

I haven't researched it but I imagine it's much the same story with PHP, which is technically inferior when compared to RoR and Seaside, but still extremely popular.

When I was on the outside looking in, I thought that people in the OSS community cared about researching software, studying the code, and using the best tools. Looking at it from the inside I see that most people involved with OSS respond to marketing just as readily as those who use proprietary software, and don't care a wit about researching the code. In fact they're about as shallow about it as Microsoft developers I've encountered. I should speak for myself as I used to be one of them. I only changed my mind when I came to know about Squeak, because I admire the platform.

As one former Smalltalker said in a discussion recently, talking about leaving it for Python and PHP, "I just care about Getting Shit Done." I suspect that the people Moglen is complaining about have much the same attitude, not about code and development, but about the social rules of development. It seems like all they really cared about was the multi-platform nature of OSS and the fact that it wasn't from Microsoft. Though they gave lip service to "rights" in software, they probably didn't care too much about it. They cared enough about it to keep the "bazzar" going, as Eric Raymond calls it, so that they have a common ecosystem they can take part in so they don't have to be beholden to one supplier, but that's as far as it goes.

It sounded as if Moglen was running circles around O'Reilly. He was just sitting there kind of bewildered, and Moglen finally got frustrated with his lack of understanding.

I can kind of relate to the frustration from a different perspective, which I've told you about before. I can see that Smalltalk has been a resource that more popular technologies have drawn from, and continue to do so, but most people don't draw the connection, and so don't see that things are converging towards it. They reject Smalltalk because it feels too restrictive to them, not seeing it for what it truly is. In much the same way, Moglen is saying that he and Stallman see what's coming down the pike, and are trying to head it off, but others in the OSS community can't relate to the measures they're proposing, seeing them as too restrictive.

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

I've read some of the background material from Richard Stallman, Eben Moglen (free) and also Eric Raymond (OS). I have a reading list here ( economics of information resources ) but have not gone on with it due to other priorities.

Unfortunately, I have some trouble keeping up with the issues but from what I've read by Eben Moglen, I reckon he's great. (link to his website ) I would have liked to have written a more analytical blog about the confrontation but not sure whether I'll be able to find the time.

Here's a link ( Eben Moglen Plone speech, annotated ) to a commentary about a talk that Moglen gave to the Plone community, which was quite inspiring - the post contains links to a video and also an annotated commentary of the transcript.

Nevertheless, last I heard there is some sort of united front between the free and open source forces. But in a united front its important for people to speak out for their true position and that's what Eben was doing. Anyway, it was refreshing.

Worth reading Tim O'Reilly's follow up post, my tongue lashing from eben moglen , where he concludes:

"Meanwhile, I continue to feel that the focus of the free software movement on "software" rather than on "freedom" is the real lost opportunity. In the first era of the computer industry, lock-in was provided by hardware; in the second era, it was provided by software; today, it is provided by centralized databases driven by winner-takes-all network effects. Focusing only on free software is as limiting as focusing on free hardware. It's freedom that matters. I would have thought that Eben and I could have found common cause there, and would love to have a real conversation about these issues."

Your comments about ruby being more commercial than smalltalk are interesting. I've sent them to a friend, for comment, who frequently espouses the virtues of ruby.

Mark Miller said...

@Bill:

I agree there is a united front, but it definitely sounds like they have very different goals. The concern with freedom WRT databases is something I predicted a year or two ago. When people were saying, "Hey isn't this great? People won't have to worry about losing their data anymore," I sounded a cautionary note about data ownership and the freedom to move it from place to place. What's been going on is typically called "stovepiping" (imagine cylinders, each separate with no connections). This has happened with identity as well. There have been attempts at "federating" it, but I haven't seen anyone pull it off yet. The one entity that had some limited success with this was Microsoft, but it's my understanding that that has since faded. A couple years ago there was some talk of somehow getting agreement on identity with the major service providers, but I predicted this wasn't going to happen. What's the incentive? The whole idea with stovepiping is lock-in, and building community around it. If you're a for-profit business why would you give that up? The incentives just aren't right. Personally I think there should be a way to establish unique, secure identity on the internet, but that identity information should be held on your computer(s), not a server. Once you put it on a server there's going to be a price tag and a profit motive attached to it. That's what I've been saying. So on this I'm in alignment with Moglen.

I pondered what Moglen said about "this whole thing you're talking about will just be noise very soon" and I think he could be right. The reason centralizing information on the internet has happened is due to the bandwidth bottleneck with network access. P2P networks aren't very practical in this system, though there has been some success in that arena with Skype, BitTorrent, etc. where the connections established with any one machine are low in number, so it doesn't overload the slow network connections. Where servers have been practical is if you want to provide one service (from one point) to thousands or millions of clients.

Higher consumer bandwidth is coming, at least in the U.S. It's been available in Asia for years. From what I hear in the next couple of years well start having 100 Mbit connections here, so it'll be much more feasible to turn a laptop or desktop into a server as well as a machine where people can get productive work done right on it. Then P2P could really take off. At that point there will be less need for storing personal information and data you produce on centralized databases. People can store it on their PCs and use centralized storage for redundancy (backup). It can become a commodity. The economics will have to be right for it, but centralized backup has been around for years. So I think it'll happen. One of the problems with it right now, again, has been the broadband bottleneck. The uplink speeds are a lot slower than the downlink speeds, so backups have been slow. That should improve as well.