"Where the Web Leads Us"

I just came across an essay by Tim O'Reilly, the computer book honcho, called Where the Web Leads Us. "Ding," I thought to myself, "he's pegged it."

The article was immediately followed by the usual slashdot forum discussion, most of which missed the point. Much arguing about whether Linux is, isn't, should be, or will be "beating" Microsoft. Even the people who didn't see it as a Linux-vs-MS fight said that Linux should try to "be better than" MS.

A few people did catch the point, and commented that Microsoft and the world was in fact moving on to new arenas, while Linux seemed to be stuck "fighting" the desktop and server OS wars.

I added the following. Since slashdot threads quickly vanish into the vaults of history, and I'm an egotist, I'm repeating it here.

Yes, thank you. Exactly.

Let me see if I can concretize this a little, at least from my point of view.

Right now, if I want to buy books over the Net, I go to Amazon. Now, I dislike Amazon's web site. It's carefully designed to feed me all sorts of data that I don't want. Amazon doesn't want me to buy the single book I decided to buy; if I do that, they've lost. They want me to buy dozens of books, and sign up for Amazon mailing lists, and move my book conversations from Usenet over to Amazon-managed chat boards, and put buy-from-Amazon links on my web pages.

I despise that. (Other people don't, but I'm talking about me right now.) I dislike that for many of the same reasons I dislike using Microsoft software. They're ignoring my goal, and in some cases deliberately making it harder, because their goals are totally different.

So. What if Amazon (or whoever) builds their entire web presence on Linux and Perl, and I use Lynx to shop there? Is that a victory for open-source software?

Yes and no. Yes, because they're using OSS, and that has benefits (stability, low costs, interoperability, choice of browser.) But no, because no matter what software is involved, I'm still having this crappy time buying a book.

This is O'Reilly's point: that the "no" part of that is going to get very important compared to the "yes" part. I agree; that crystallizes a whole bunch of my misgivings about the way the Net is evolving. If the OSS movement is about choice, I want choice about what I do. Five years ago, that was to run applications on a desktop machine. I still do that, but now I also buy books on the Web. Times a-change.

Here's the question, I guess: how can the principles of open software development be applied to, well, whatever the buzzword is for the Next Thing?

Obvious answer: Have Amazon offer shopping data, in a standard interchange format, so people can use it without going through Amazon's idea of a book portal. (That's what O'Reilly had in mind, and why he was talking about it on XML.com, hint hint.)

Obvious followup: Why should Amazon bother? They've got a proprietary lock on what they do, and they're making money on it. (Sound familiar?)

We need to think about what advantages an open approach offers to that -- analogous to the advantages that open-source development offers to software. Then, of course, we have to convince the web sites.

-- October 8, 1999.

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