Open Source: the Ultimate Insurance Policy

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News that the tr.im service was shutting was hardly a surprise; as the announcement itself noted:

Twitter has all but sapped us of any last energy to double-down and develop tr.im further. What is the point? With bit.ly the Twitter default, and with us having no inside connection to Twitter, tr.im will lose over the the long-run no matter how good it may or may not be at this moment, or in the future.

So, in summary, there is simply no point in continuing to operate or work on tr.im, and we are moving on to greener pastures. We appreciate all the support and kind words about tr.im we received over the past 12 months, but change is ultimately good, and bit.ly can more than accommodate your URL shortening needs.

So far, so conventional. But it was at this point that things became interesting. There was a huge wave of concern – outrage, even – that tr.im was simply abandoning its users. In the old days, that was the norm, but as software is woven ever-more tightly into people's lives, simply shutting down a service on which they depend is close to irresponsible. This is especially the case for a URL-shortening service, which provides a historical record of linked material – something that needs to be there for, well, more or less ever.

The people behind tr.im were unable to ignore the strength of feeling the closure of tr.im provoked, and decided to reverse that decision:

We have restored tr.im, and re-opened its website. We have been absolutely overwhelmed by the popular response, and the countless public and private appeals I have received to keep tr.im alive.

We have answered those pleas. Nambu will keep tr.im operating going forward, indefinitely, while we continue to consider our options in regards to tr.im’s future.

That second post was called “Resurrection”, but that's misleading: tr.im wasn't really resurrected, just placed in some kind of limbo, neither dead nor alive. Recognising that this was not a long-term solution, tr.im's creators finally took the next, inevitable step:

Everyone involved at Nambu would like to apologize again for the hastiness in which we acted last Sunday, announcing the shutdown of tr.im by the end of the year.

As a commercial URL shortener, however, we still believe that tr.im would not be able to reach enough scale to justify additional investment against the bit.ly/twitter embargo. Therefore, starting today, tr.im will begin its migration into the public domain, becoming 100% community-owned, operated, and developed.

Of course, that's not a new idea: it's been used for well over a decade, starting with Netscape's decision to open up the code for its Navigator browser. Indeed, it's become almost a cliché that open source is the last refuge of failed software. But I think that the tr.im experience shows that there is something more positive going on here.

Nambu was quite prepared just to shut down tr.im; it only chose open source when it recognised that there was a responsibility to its users to provide some continuity, and that open source was a perfect fit. It enables the software to continue to develop, but only as long as there is interest in doing so. If and when the software truly dies, so will the open source project.

However, there's a good chance that won't happen in the case of tr.im. As the latest blog post rightly notes:

It is our hope that tr.im, being an excellent URL shortener in its own right, can now begin to stand in contrast to the closed twitter/bit.ly walled garden: it will become a completely open solution owned and operated by the community for the benefit of the entire community.

Another thing that the tr.im experience has taught many people is that it is unwise to depend too heavily on the goodwill of companies when it comes to critical software infrastructure, and therefore on the perpetual existence of such products.

Again, open source is the obvious way to go here, since it can always be picked up by interested parties if the demand is there, and it is independent of any company's needs or problems.

For this reason, I think we're going to see a lot more services open-sourced in this way. Users will come to expect it as a kind of insurance policy: if the company no longer wishes – or is able – to continue development of a product or service, its users will want to know that their investment of time will not be lost.

Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if companies start promising explicitly when they launch a service that in the event that they can't continue its development, they will give the code and data to an open source project. Governments might even legislate that this would happen as a consumer protection measure.

That shouldn't be a problem (except, maybe, for certain companies still ill-at-ease with open source in general), since it's really a win-win situation.

Companies don't need to worry about losing their customers' goodwill if they have to stop providing a service or developing software – it actually gives them more freedom to operate as think best for themselves and their investors; users, meanwhile, can be sure that the time and energy they put into these new services and software are not being thrown into a bottomless pit, whence they will never emerge. What's not to like?

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter and identi.ca.

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