Having managed to produce five blog posts last week, I’ve taken a few days break from blogging A) because I’ve been busy with other stuff and B) because I ran out of stuff to talk about! However, now I’ve thought of something to write about…
Wow, that title is a little overwhelming. Basically this post is about what I’m going to term the Open Cloud, the problems with it and how treating The Web differently might help. I suppose I should start by defining exactly what I mean by the Open Cloud…
The Open Cloud (A.K.A Free as in AGPL)
Like it or not, cloud computing is here to stay despite what Richard Stallman might have to say and for most of us it’s going to be great. Now, I respect RMS as much as your next Free Software supporter, but I fear he’s way off the mark here. I share his concerns over companies that don’t really care about your data or your privacy. However, Cloud Computing itself isn’t inherently bad – how can it be, its just a technology and technology is only as moral or immoral as those who wield it. So, what do privacy respecting, Freedom loving, FOSS advocates do. We do what we do best – start coding! We start building an Open Cloud.
“But Surely we already have an Open Cloud?”
Yes we do, but shouldn’t confuse this Open Cloud with the Open Web. The modern web, for the most part is built on standards which are completely open, from TCP/IP right up to CSS, HTML, RSS and other glorious acronyms. However, most of the applications that live in the cloud most certainly aren’t Free or Open. They are as closed as your average binary blob, more in fact because you don’t even have access to the running binary code (oh, and APIs don’t count guys). When I say Open Cloud, I’m referring to FOSS applications running in the cloud, preferably under AGPL (other licences are available), which is specifically designed for this.
“Hang on, aren’t there loads of FOSS web-apps out there?”
Well, yes there are, this blog is running on one of them, WordPress. Then there’s Drupal, Joomla, Roundcube, Davical, etc. The problem with most all of these is that they miss out one of the prime benefits of Cloud Computing in that they all need hosting by individual users (OK, so WordPress was a bad example as there is a hosted option). What I’m really talking about is hosted applications, that people can just use, but can also be installed on your own server. These can be really small things and would preferably start with replacements for popular closed web services.
“Hang on, don’t we have a few of those already?”
Right again, but the emphasis should be on A FEW. We don’t have nearly enough of them. So far we have identi.ca/StatusNet, Libre.fm and Libravatar and that’s pretty much it (please let me know of any more), although I guess Diaspora is coming. Ideally, we would have a replacement for every proprietary web app and more, but we just don’t seem to be getting there.
So what’s going wrong…
Basically, web apps are different to desktop apps. Apart from using different technologies, they require hosting to actually run them. If you want to run your shiny new FOSS web app that you’ve just come up with as a hosted service, you yourself have to find this hosting. For small FOSS developers who might otherwise build these services this could initially put them off. However, it you’re just starting out then your hosting costs wouldn’t be huge, but as your service grows this is likely to be an increasing problem. I don’t think it’s any surprise that identi.ca (which is probably the most successful free web service) is backed by a commercial company.
So what do we do about it…
An Application Distribution Platform?
The web already is an application distribution platform. It has been for ages, but up until now those applications haven’t been very discoverable. This is starting to change. I guess most people have heard about Google’s Chrome Webstore. This is their attempt to bring the App Store/Package Manager model to the web, basically its just a catalogue of web apps and some scripts that create short-cuts to them. Whether you think this equivalent to installing an application or not (I actually don’t think it matters) the idea is great, at last there will be a place to go to find web apps that you want to use. Mozilla are also jumping in with their Open Web Apps project. This is more of a specification for doing this across multiple sites and is the tech that I’m backing (personally I’d like to see web app stores that automatically discover new apps and add them to their catalogues). If one of these app stores makes its way into a future version of Firefox then that would be the perfect platform to push FOSS web apps to the masses.