The Open Web: A New Old Meme

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One of the surprising evolutions in the open source world has been the rise of Mozilla as a philosophical organisation. By which I mean that moving beyond crafting fine software, the Foundation is now consciously *thinking* about what it is trying to achieve on a larger scale. An early stage of that transformation can be found in the Mozilla Manifesto, and in the Mozilla Foundation Statement of Direction, which includes the following:

The mission of the Mozilla Foundation is to create and promote the Internet as an open platform that supports the principles set out in the Mozilla Manifesto.

This idea of the Open Web was picked up more recently in a series of blog posts, as Mozilla's Chief Lizard Wrangler, Mitchell Baker noted:

There’s a bit of a discussion underway about what the Mozilla Foundation might do to become an even more effective organization in achieving its mission. Mark Surman and Dave Eaves had some thoughts about this mission in possibly the broadest possible formulation — a social movement for the Open Web (or Open Internet). David Ascher has a nice follow-up, pointing out a few areas beyond the products we shipping today that are in need of serious attention for an Open Internet to be real.

It's fascinating to see this meme of the Open Web starting to rise to prominence, not least because it first made its appearance during the First Browser War. Evidence that this is not some passing fashion is provided by the recent founding of the Open Web Foundation, no less:

The Open Web Foundation is an attempt to create a home for community-driven specifications. Following the open source model similar to the Apache Software Foundation, the foundation is aimed at building a lightweight framework to help communities deal with the legal requirements necessary to create successful and widely adopted specification.

So why exactly do we need yet another foundation (apart from offering the chance for someone to get the hot new job of Executive Director)? Well:

every grass roots effort, whether OpenID, OAuth, or something yet to be dreamt up, needs to work through a whole lot of issues to go from great idea to finalized spec that companies large and small feel comfortable implementing. In particular, large companies want to make sure that they can adopt these building blocks without fear of being sued for infringing on somebody’s intellectual property rights. Absent the creation of this new organization, we were likely to see each new effort potentially creating yet-another-foundation to tackle what is essentially a common set of requirements.

More specifically:

for small, independent groups to work on open specifications (n.b. not standards!) that may eventually be adopted industry-wide, there needs to be a lightweight and well-articulated path for doing the right thing™ when it comes to intellectual property that does not burden the creative process with defining scope prematurely (a process that is costly and usually takes months, greatly inhibiting community momentum!) and that also doesn’t impose high monetary fees on participation, especially when outcomes may be initially uncertain.

So much of the problem comes down to the usual intellectual monopolies, and the way they muck things up. Indeed, some would say that the reason we need yet another foundation to handle this stuff is that the present ones have become hopeless vitiated by precisely these issues:

The W3C is a pay-to-play cartel that increasingly gets nothing done. Open source developers can’t even participate, as a rule. It also has an IPR policy that’s just as crap as everything else we’re trying not to emulate. So, not a realistic alternative.

The IETF is much better, but its main problem is that it has no IPR policy at all, other than “tell us what you know”. In practice this often works out OK, but there have been some notable instances where the outcome was pretty amazingly ungood

Against that background, it will be interesting to see how this latest instantiation of the Open Web meme pans out. Certainly, if it helps genuinely useful new open specifications to be formulated as successfully as the Apache Software Foundation has managed to nurture really handy new open source projects, we will all have much to be grateful for.

Still, I can't help feeling it would be a much neater - if somewhat more challenging - solution just to sort out the underlying problems with intellectual monopolies....

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