The folly of programming closed source after opening up WWW.


Over a year ago there had been some excitement in August 2009 what with the Open Source Awards being announced and a certain software house offering "free software up to 100k". The software isn't really free though as you can be restricting yourself to their file formats and paying for it later.

On the 1st of September 2009, I went along to hear Robert Calliau talk about the internet at the Runrev conference.

The talk was entitled "Tale of Two Revolutions".

It was a very interesting talk that resonated with a high percentage of the audience. Robert summarized the pre-history of the web and how it got to the initial stage of hypercards, the World Wide Web etc.

However, the most important part of the speech was about what Calliau did that was most important for the World Wide Web. He spoke to CERN's Lawyers and persuaded them to let the protocol and development be opened up. So that everyone could develop tools to use it and access the data on it. When Robert told us this, a sudden rousing round of applause came up. Mr Calliau was gratified by that.

I'm not entirely sure he understood why he got that round of applause though.

There were many Open Source users and developers within the room. More than a few were ruby developers who had heard of the event from Techmeetup.

So later on when Robert started talking about how programming language syntax can be a real bind and how good RunRev was, it caused a bit of disquiet among some of the developers. RunRev is a natural language programming language. You can get free compilers for it. However, the underlying engine is closed source. RunRev is a small Edinburgh company with over 20 employees. Within any proprietary language, there is always a danger that the company can get taken over and the language or product disappears after acquirement by another company.

At least with Open Source, you can look at what's under the code. You have freedom of choice as to whether you develop a program using that code or paying a developer to do it for you.

I'm concerned that we are going to repeat 30 years of history again. I'm all for making computing easier for the masses and helping startups. But perhaps instead of using tools like RunRev and offers of proprietary software for free for a long trial period, we are locking in the next generation again to only having a few very expensive choices. I do not mean just in terms of expense in cash, but expense in time with trying to get old formats to talk to new formats. Especially if the standard that they are based on is locked up within Intellectual property. Free Software does not just mean free as in no cost. It means the freedom to do what you want with the information that you are using.

Look back to my post about the user who was very excited about Open Source. It was not the cost aspect. It was the possibility of being able to access her data in a meaningful way for her. Not what a programmer thought was meaningful.