The post open-source world (already here?)

Most of us don't want to tinker with source code, but if we completely close off access to source, in the devices we use and the cloud services we consume, we're in for trouble.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

In a cloud and iPad world, does open source even matter?

Much as we in the open-source world may not like it, progress doesn't necessarily look like a heavily customizable system. In fact, it might just be the opposite. At least, once a market matures.

As Nick Carr elucidates in his response to Cory Doctorow, Tim Bray, and others who argue against the closed nature of the iPad, closed (and easy) may well be a signal of real progress:

What these folks are ranting against, or at least gnashing their teeth over, is progress - or, more precisely, progress that goes down a path they don't approve of. They want progress to, as Bray admits, follow their own ideological bent, and when it takes a turn they don't like they start grumbling like granddads, yearning for the days of their idealized Apple IIs, when men were men and computers were computers....

While progress may be spurred by the hobbyist, it does not share the hobbyist's ethic. One of the keynotes of technological advance is its tendency, as it refines a tool, to remove real human agency from the workings of that tool. In its place, we get an abstraction of human agency that represents the general desires of the masses as deciphered, or imposed, by the manufacturer and the marketer. Indeed, what tends to distinguish the advanced device from the primitive device is the absence of "generativity."

We in the open-source world need to understand that most people don't tinker. Even if they had the ability, they wouldn't want to, either. The very thought is anathema.

Some even question the motives of developers, as this commentator to Carr's post does:

What they uber-geeks fail to realize is that what they are pining for is actually the exclusivity of power and ability available only to those who gave up their lives to their geek driven avocations.

True or not, it's clear that we're rapidly nearing a post open-source world where interfaces matter more than source code. This is natural as we become less concerned with making such services/software and more concerned with making it useful.

The iPad is one example of this trend, but it has a bosom buddy in cloud computing. The irony is that the cloud (and probably key components of the iPad) is made up of open-source software, yet is very much closed in terms of what developers can do with cloud applications.

Do we care?

On one hand, clearly not, as consumers are rushing headlong into the iPad while enterprises are increasingly aggressive with the cloud. I spoke Wednesday with the head of enterprise applications for a large enterprise who told me that he is expressly designing out customizability from his IT infrastructure in an effort to make it easier to maintain.

But on the other hand, yes, we should care, because otherwise we'll end up in Lock-in 2.0 Land, where our data is tightly controlled by our vendors.

One solution to this may be to accept the fact of closed devices like the iPad even while marrying them to open cloud services, as ReadWriteWeb recently highlighted. Apple tries to tightly tether (literally) its customers to Apple-sponsored peripherals and applications, but an open cloud, accessed through the browser, could free them.

Simplicity is progress, even when it closes off options by reducing the hackability of a system. But if we simultaneously simplify both cloud services and the devices we use to access them, we may end up with a perfectly integrated system...which leaves us frustrated that our options are hopelessly constrained by one or a few vendors.

We may really want that iPad, in other words, but we'd better bet on open clouds to complement them. Or open devices to hook up with closed clouds. One or the other needs to be open. Closed-in-part may be progress, but closed-in-full is not.