LinuxUser Column 9

“Web 2.0, baby.” That’s the new catchphrase for venture capitalists. If you’re not hooked up on what the new jive is let me tell you… “Web 2.0, baby” (Drop the baby talk – Ed) alright, alright “Web 2.0” is essentially the idea of a second version of how we use the web. We’ve already got Internet2 which is about creating the fundamental ultra-high-speed network infrastructure of the future.

Web 2.0 is much more about richer more responsive web applications, it’s also about enabling social interactions and lots of other neat things like RSS feeds, wikis and web APIs. A lot of the sizzle has been around dynamic web interfaces that are far more responsive and swishy looking than ever before. This is thanks to a potent mix of technologies including JavaScript, CSS, DOM and XMLHttpRequest (which lets your browser update part of a webpage without reloading the whole thing), this mix has become known as Ajax. Which is all well and good, certainly used well this stuff can be pretty compelling and it works well in Firefox, not just Internet Explorer. But many older browsers just can’t handle this stuff so it’s by no means completely mainstream yet and won’t be for a while yet.

What’s interesting is that much of the Web 2.0 buzz is around web-based services: Photo sharing sites like Flickr, project management tools like Basecamp, business networking sites like LinkedIn, geographical services like Google Maps; the list goes on. These services are usually built with FLOSS tools like MySQL, PHP, Apache and so on. Yet they themselves are not FLOSS. They are paid for or advertising supported services. As bloggers are beginning to comment, yes offering an easy-to-use interface to Google Maps is cool but so many people are creating very clever mappy stuff off a corporate service which could change, morph or ask for money at any time. Risky, no?

I have a theory. The theory is that the sever based services of the Web 2.0 economy are a response to the FLOSS boom in the software ecosystem. You can’t sell Apache and making money from Linux and co is proving hard for many. Someone like HP or IBM make their living off the hardware sale not Linux, but where are all those Open Source startups now?

Online products are nice earners though, you create some clever software with added Ajax wizardry and you sell it as a service. You can be a gate-keeper charging for entry and people don’t harass you into releasing your software under the GPL, it’s a service. Don’t believe me? Look at Flock, a new browser based on Firefox. It’s old fashioned desktop software so users were SHOUTING to know when the source would be released. But with Basecamp, a hot project management tool sold as a service, people aren’t asking for the source to be opened – they’re queuing to pay for the service. To be fair the people behind Basecamp have open-sourced the framework behind Basecamp, Ruby on Rails, but Basecamp and their other services are not available.

Looking deeper at the example of Basecamp I’m struck by how strange it is. There are plenty of FLOSS web-based project management tools which you can install on any web server. Basecamp’s core market is web agencies who surely are extremely comfortable with running web servers and installing software. Yet tens of thousands are happily paying monthly fees to use some web 2.0 software as service.

This should raise some serious questions for the FLOSS community. Can we provide the interface polish needed for software people want their clients to interact with everyday? Are web services built on FLOSS systems (effectively closed source software) a better way to make money with software these days?

Certainly my own company’s core product is also built on classic FLOSS software such as MySQL, PHP and Apache. Yet we sell a service to those wanting to run an online community. Our view, and our clients agree, is that our customers aren’t in the business of running servers, updating software and so on. So our software never gets released, it only gets rented. Still when I can I do submit changes to the relevant FLOSS projects whose code we use.

There’s even been criticism in some quarters that major web companies such as Google and Yahoo have benefited immeasurably from the low server infrastructure costs FLOSS has provided them without giving much back to the FLOSS community. I’m sure representatives of those companies would argue that they do contribute to FLOSS in one way or another.

Yes the big beasts of the web world have saved huge sums of money thanks to FLOSS. But FLOSS has gained so much credibility through its adoption by the Internet’s poster childs. And no matter what our idealism might say, it takes big money to provide great search indexes of the web, so those savings did go somewhere useful after all.

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit http://www.linuxuser.co.uk

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