Do We Need A Bill of Rights for Web Services?

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Tim O'Reilly
Jun. 04, 2003 05:53 PM

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I've felt for years that the open source community hasn't been thinking enough about the paradigm shift towards internet-based applications.

This "paradigm failure" can be seen in the discussion of Linux and ease-of-use. When Linux is criticized as hard to use, Linux advocates point proudly to progress with Gnome and OpenOffice, but fail to point out that many of the killer applications of the Internet era -- applications like google,, and -- all run on top of Linux or FreeBSD. And yes, these applications are incredibly easy to use.

But even though they run on Linux, and may make heavy use of other open source stalwarts like Apache, MySQL and PHP or Perl, these applications are not themselves open source. But it's also not clear just what it would mean for them to release their source code. After all, these applications are not just software, but vast databases that are constantly being updated. While the source code to an Amazon or a google might be nice to have, it wouldn't give you a complete working application without a major investment of time, storage, and money.

The most forward thinking of the next-generation internet applications, like google and amazon, have have realized that the best way to enable re-use of their functionality is not to distribute their source code, but to release web services APIs (google; amazon). The result has been a ferment of innovation, with developers creating all kinds of cool google- and amazon-based hacks and even full-featured applications.

You can think of these APIs as a kind of "open data" initiative, and optimistically, as fellow travelers with open source. Like open source, they lower the barriers to innovation and re-use of existing functionality. But unlike open source and free software, they leave all the control in the hands of the original developer.

You can think of open source as a kind of "bill of rights" outlining key protections for software users and developers. As we move into the world of web services, in which software is no longer distributed as either binaries OR source code, but instead performed on a remote server, what kind of bill of rights is required to protect users? What kind of agreements will provide web services users and developers with some of the freedoms that we have come to expect from open source? In short, how do we translate the open source definition to the new paradigm?

I'm planning to do a panel discussion on this subject at the upcoming O'Reilly Open Source Convention, and I'd like your help. What kinds of terms of service do you think would create open-source-like freedoms in the web services world?

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media Inc. Considered by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world, O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, Strata: The Business of Data, the Velocity Conference on Web Performance and Operations, and many others. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim is also a partner at O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, O'Reilly's early stage venture firm, and is on the board of Safari Books Online, PeerJ, Code for America, and Maker Media, which was recently spun out from O'Reilly Media. Maker Media's Maker Faire has been compared to the West Coast Computer Faire, which launched the personal computer revolution.

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