Strong opinions, weakly held

Web 2.0 vs Open Source?

Are Web 2.0 and Open Source headed for a collision? Here’s Stephen O’Grady:

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.”

It’s a very interesting discussion, and not least of which for the reason that Web 2.0 is built on Open Source. That’s a bug in the system. The GPL and other licenses were built for an age when you distributed software, and work because they require you to distribute the source code for your software along with the binaries. These days, most new applications are not distributed. You just provide access to them on your own server, and you’re not obliged to distribute any code.

So everybody these days is building Web applications using Open Source, but they’re keeping the code to themselves. When the innovation is returned to the Open Source community it’s out of charity rather than obligation.

That said, I don’t see the pace of innovation slowing at all. Leave out JavaScript, where the pace of change is incredible but everything is “open source” even if it’s not Open Source. We’re seeing huge progress in all areas of server side development. There are more and more Open Source applications, frameworks, and libraries every day, and the ones most people rely on keep improving. Just in the past couple of years, we’ve seen the rise of innovative platforms like Ruby on Rails and Django, and now we’re seeing their innovations rolled back into the platforms that preceded them like Java/J2EE and PHP.

It seems to me that even if Open Source licenses are, to some degree, obsolete, the Open Source culture has deeply and permanently taken hold in the Web development community. Developers are sharing code and knowledge, and Web applications keep getting more powerful and easier to write.


  1. Web applications are being built with frameworks, most of which are Open Source. If innovation isn’t slowing down (from what I’ve seen it’s only picked up as the frameworks improve from the contributions of the community) and people are contributing code without a legal gun to their head…what exactly is the problem that the FSF has that needs to be dealt with?

    Freedom? The code that gets contributed back now is Free. The frameworks will stay Free. The frameworks allow you to build your own works.

    Do we need Flickr to open their source or do we need Flickr to contribute back to MySQL and PHP and so we all can benefit? (Feel free to insert your favorite Web app in place of Flickr, it’s still the same)

    This is just me, but I would rather have one solid, constantly improving framework than the source of 100 “Web 2.0” apps.

  2. Please don’t equate Open Source with Free Software (as defined by Stallman and friends). Ruby on Rails, for example, is released under an Open Source license that doesn’t require you to contribute back your changes, namely the MIT license. It encourages you to do so, and people have indeed overwhelmingly done exactly that, but there’s no legally binding obligation.

    I much prefer that kind of license myself, but I fully respect the right of software creators to pick exactly the license they see fit (so if you write software and choose to share under the GPL, more power to you!).

    Many big Open Source projects are created under licenses that are similar to the MIT. Like the BSD or the Apache licenses. So pitting “Web 2.0” against Open Source is a false fight. Pit it against Free Software if you must, but realize that plenty of “Web 2.0” stuff doesn’t change the applications they use (I’ve never patched MySQL, for example). So they don’t have anything to contribute back anyway.

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