Tim O'Reilly: 'Whole Web' is the OS of the future

The Web is the future and is built on open source, says Tim O'Reilly, but threatens to gift a chokehold to a few savvy companies like Google.

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

SAN FRANCISCO--Open-source developers and businesses are focused on the wrong opportunity, according to industry luminary Tim O'Reilly. The future isn't programming for Linux or MySQL. The future is programming for the "whole Web."

And it threatens to be controlled by open-source savvy, data-rich companies like Google.

Tim O'Reilly
Tim O'Reilly O'Reilly Media

On Wednesday in San Francisco, O'Reilly closed the first day of the Open Source Business Conference by shaking up some comfortable assumptions of the open-source commercial ecosystem, which has tended to focus on commoditizing established markets with low-cost, high-value distribution, all driven by open-source licensing.

This is nice, according to O'Reilly, but a pale shade of the real value that open source provides. It also conveniently forgets the real operating system of the future, which is the "whole Web," according to O'Reilly, and not Linux.

Linux, of course, has been essential to the economics and technological underpinnings of the Web. But it's a means, not the end. Indeed, while open source has been critical to the creation of cloud computing it may, as O'Reilly warned, "change the world in some ways that are inimical to the ideals that gave birth to open source."

The basic idea is that open-source software is being used to create the on-ramp to data lock-in on the Web, in the cloud.

But it's not just open source that is fueling the data gold rush. O'Reilly sees the cloud future filled with intelligent sensors (Fitbit, iPhone, etc.) that feed data to the cloud, where it is processed and accessed via the Web, generally using open-source software. Over time, these online services will connect and collaborate in the cloud, making the data even stickier.

In other words, more lock-in, as O'Reilly declared: "The lock-in of today is through massive databases that are so hard to re-create because they get better the more people use them."

To be a player in such a market requires huge resources and massive amounts of data. As Peter Norvig, chief scientist at Google, suggests, "We don't have better algorithms than anyone else. We just have more data."

Traditional open-source vendors and projects, according to O'Reilly, have lacked the resources to manage such data, preferring instead to fritter away too much energy on arguing how many open-source licenses would fit on the head of a pin (and still be compatible).

"Open source is the tool of the underdogs, helping open and expand markets, and whoever is trying to break into a market will tend to support open source."
--Tim O'Reilly, founder,
O'Reilly Media

O'Reilly pointed, instead, to the open-source principles that have fueled Google and other data-rich companies, and argued that such principles offer a better way forward for the "open-source industry."

The danger, however, is that while open source is "the tool of the underdogs," helping Google to use Android to threaten the iPhone, for example, the underdogs eventually become top dogs and may use the power granted them by open source to lock in customers.

According to O'Reilly, Google appears to be "trading for its own account," using its services to drive other Google services to the exclusion of third-party providers, which may make Google an open-source paved one-way street into lock-in.

It's a problem of rising concern to free-software advocates like Eben Moglen.

In sum, while "the operating system of the future is the whole Internet," the lock-in of the future may well be open source-enabled data. Hardly the house that open-source developers from the Linux, MySQL, and other communities intended to be built.