Quick note on ‘Openness’

The word ‘Openness’ is attractive as the keystone of the book‘s title. And yet it is controversial.

It may even be inaccurate. The ‘Open’ word as I am using it first came to me when I read interviews with Paul Baran in which he talked about two startling things: first, how RAND published his secret research because they believed it necessary to share it with the Soviets, and thereby limit the possibility of a nuclear conflagration; and second, how his papers, though written for Air Force readers, foresaw the immediate application of the technology to a common user plant for the public. I remember thinking how remarkably open his perspective was on both counts.

Thereafter, as I drew the theme of empowering individuals from the 1960s onward, the idea seemed to remain valid. As Richard Stallman recently reminded me, use of language is important. My use of ‘open’ and ‘openness’ does not have allot to do with the specifics of any particular period. Nor am I sure that openness is the right word for what I’m trying to describe.

‘Centrifugal’ seems to almost work too. I have kept this vague because I have not yet arrived at the perfect definition. For example, I am currently working on a chapter that describes the Dean Campaign in 2003-2004, and its strategy. ‘Openness’ and ‘Centrifugal’ seems to broadly apply here as it does elsewhere. This book is not about any one period or aspect, so the language is broad. It is not chosen to come down on any side in the the post 1998 debate between the ‘free software’ and ‘open software’ parties that grew from projects that used the GPL license.

The question is, in the context of free software v open software – is ‘Openness’ a loaded word?

For the record, Stallman defined ‘freeness’ in 1983 (in his post to net.unix-wizards and net.usoft newsgroups, announcing his intention to develop a ‘New Unix implementation’ on 27 September 1983).

If I like a program I must share it with other people who like it.  I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement. So that I can continue to use computers without violating my principles, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free. I’m looking for people for whom knowing they are helping humanity is as important as money.

‘Freedom’ is pretty straight forward, where as ‘Openness’, as Dave Crocker told me in an Email (April 2009), ‘has gradation:  Development vs. Publication.  Interface vs. Protocol’:

One can have an entirely proprietary effort, and publish only the API, and sometimes get away with calling that ‘open’.  This was what IBM did for NetBios and it engendered alternative protocol implementations, eventually leading to an openly developed standard for the protocol, that wasn’t from, or controlled by, IBM.  (RFC 1001, RFC 1002.)

Retaining proprietary control over the specification (whether protocol or API) but publishing the detail is often accepted as open.  Sometimes the control is a closed consortium, rather than a single company.  The Internet community often still accepts that as open.

Even fully open (protocol specification development and publication) efforts can  be highly constrained by initial efforts that are not open.  (e.g., java, jabber/xmpp, dk/dkim, mpls(?), ssl/tls, …)  Start with something that really is proprietary; deploy and gain traction; move to an open standards process primarily as a means of gaining incremental adoption.  For this approach, the technical development work during the standards process is usually small.

Google has carried this discussion farther… see Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior Vice President for Product Management at Google who blogged on openness in December 2009.


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