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Web services must be on free software, says Gnome chief

Web services must be on free software, says Gnome chief

LinuxCon: Stormy Peters "embarrassed" at lack of web services on free software

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Stormy Peters, executive director of the Gnome Foundation, called on LinuxCon attendees to build and use web services based on free software.

Peters said that while much progress has been made on the free software front at the desktop through Gnome and other efforts, free and open source software backers should be "embarrassed" at the lack of available web services based on free software. Peters made a distinction between free Web services, like Gmail and Flickr, and web services based on free software, like Identi.ca, a free software alternative to Twitter and other microblogging services; Gnome's Tomboy Online note-taking service; and Firefox Sync (recently called Weave).


"We all should be really mad about the web services that we use," Peters said during her keynote address at the annual Linux Foundation conference. "The web services we use don't preserve our freedom. And yet none of us feel embarrassed. I sat there in the front row checking my Gmail account…"

Using such web services can make people lazy, Peters said, though she applauded attendees who through a show of hands did largely take steps to safeguard their data on web services by backing it up. She said that because Gmail and other web services tend to work so well, free software developers haven't been as motivated to build alternatives as they were on the desktop, where they were fed up with getting the Blue Screen of Death.

In the meantime, Peters recommended that people using web services consider the following points:

  • Your data: "You need to know what's happening to your data," Peters said, since often in the terms of service you're giving a copy of your data to the web service company and they can do various things with that data even if you unsubscribe. She illustrated her point with an anecdote about a couple on Facebook who were surprised when the wife's photo showed up on an ad for a dating site. Peters got a good laugh from the crowd when she said: "You can imagine a lot of things you wouldn't want your pictures in for an ad. Imagine if it was a Microsoft Windows ad."
  • Backup: She urged attendees to back up any data they put on web services since you just never know if you someday might get locked out of your account.
  • Vendor lock-in: web service users should figure out if there's a way to migrate data from one service to another, to avoid lock-in. She said it's up to technically savvy users of web services to push providers to make backup and data transfer easy.
  • Licencs: The Affero General Public License (AGPL) is a good first step in that it says if you provide a web service you are actually distributing software and you have to make the code available to anyone using the software

In addition to encouraging developers to build new free software-based web services, Peters said free desktop software needs to be better integrated with web services. One challenge is that more developers are building for the web and could use tools to build desktop apps that work with the web.

She also said more hosting is needed to support free software web services since even if such services are built, they need someone to host them to provide widespread access. She pointed to free software text editor Gobby, which could use a host. 

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