By webmink on Mar 14, 2010
Just a reminder that this blog has now moved to Wild Webmink where you will be most welcome to join me from now on.
A reminder: If you are following me here on blogs.sun.com, please change your bookmarks and feeds to read http://webmink.com instead, as I have moved all my blogging there. I'll be turning of the daily link posts early next week. There are several new posts on the new site, especially on ACTA, so you really do want to move!
When I wrote about Organic Software recently, I was largely eulogising the community dimension of open source software. But there's another way in which the idea of "organic software" is helpful to understanding the dynamic in free and open source software. Here are the comments I have been making at Open World Forum here in Paris.
Reading Michael Pollan's excellent book The Omnivore's Dilemma gives an insight into the real vision of the community behind the term "organic" as applied to food. Pollan describes spending what were clearly a few life-changing weeks at a New England farm that "farms grass". They feed the grass to cows for dairy and for meat. They fertilise the grass with chickens, which give eggs and meat and themselves clear the waste left by the cows. They have a complete cycle of production, working the land and returning it to richness and fertility rather than treating it as a "natural resource", exploiting it for monoculture and relying on petro-chemicals to keep it going. This sustained cycle of richness was the original vision behind "organic" - a rebellion against industrial food, yes, but a positive rebellion leading to skilled people with quality lifestyles farming sustainably and leaving the land better than they found it while producing wholesome and natural food. They treat the farm like an organism - which was in fact the origin of the term.
"Organic", of course, is just a brand. Brands ought to be good things - attention-markers that classify their bearer in the group of things we trust. The appropriation of the term drives my scientifically-trained friends nuts, because they (like me) were taught to understand the word as a classification for carbon chemistry. But it's a strong brand that people seek out, and that strength has itself led to a problem.
Seeing that "organic food" rang bells for consumers, the food industry wanted to use the term to label their products. There's a problem, though. The food industry has optimised their supply chains by driving monocultures in different regions, driving down prices by commoditisation. They further exploit government subsidy for things like maize and petroleum by-products to drive up yield as the monocultures use them to increase crop volumes - at the expense of the land. All the exact opposite of the vision that led to "organic", in other words.
But people were willing to compromise in order to achieve a little good - "surely it's better to have something than nothing?". The food industry managed to get "organic" defined not holistically but in terms of "inputs" - the things needed to drive the monocultures. Rather than changing their production and economic systems, they simply switched to techniques so that the monocultures could come to harvest without artificial chemicals. The rest of the context? All the same. So today, most people think of "organic" as just meaning the absence of artificial additives and fertilisers in the ingredients in the foods we buy.
But "organic" means far more than just "inputs". It actually describes a whole approach to food, embracing the lifestyle of the producer, the lifestyle of the customer and the relationship between the two. It implies "slow food, "local food", animal welfare, local diversity, sustainable agriculture, environmental awareness and more. Reducing it down just to the "inputs" misses the core values of "organic" and leads people to false conclusions (like the recent UK agency report denouncing organic food as no more nutritious than processed food). Inputs and nutrition are the currency of industrial food, where supposed health claims are the benchmark for marketing something unpalatable by ignoring the stuff that would make you run away (something that happens in the property market too). Hearing "organic" measured by them is a sure sign that the speaker has co-opted the brand rather than embraced the lifestyle and values.
Which leads me to "organic software" again. An open source project is what happens when people gather round a free software commons to synchronise a fragment of their interests alongside others doing the same. To succeed, it depends on a mesh of factors, not just on the way the copyright is licensed (although that's important of course). Ultimately to proponents of open source communities and of free software, it's not just about ... well, it's not just about any one attribute. What's happened to software freedom when it was branded as open source seems to me analogous to what has happened to holistic agriculture when it was branded as organic. A valuable brand was indeed created - companies wouldn't want to use it otherwise.
The various discussions about the state of open source here at Open World Forum in Paris seem to me to often miss the heart of the issue for the software marketplace. The reason open source has made such a huge impact is that it delivers software freedoms to software users. Software freedom is the key, and a company with a focus on open source will do business by delivering value through software freedom. There's no one way to do it - every business will have a different model. But any company wanting to affiliate with the open source and free software movement needs to be graded on their impact on software freedom.
A focus on software freedom isn't just for the revolutionaries. All the values that make CIOs pick open source software are derived from software freedom:
That's about more than just licensing. It also includes factors such as diversity of copyright ownership, representative leadership, use of open standards, patent safety, control of trademarks, openness of governance and more. While measuring such "inputs" can never wholly identify the holistic concept which is software freedom, I am still convinced the next step for open source is to devise "open source definitions" for these other key attributes, so that we can get away from an undefined and loose understanding of an open source business and instead have a more nuanced approach.
What I would like to see is a move by OSI to create a suite of "open source definitions" against which a business could grade itself, and then indicate how many "stars" they score against the full suite. There would be very, very few businesses able to score a full set of stars, but the transparency of being able to see how companies rate in cultivating (rather just exploiting) software freedom would benefit us all in creating a strong, open market. We could set benchmarks in our procurement guidelines, requiring "no less than a five-star rating on the open source benchmark", just as we require ISO9001 and similar ratings. OSI as an organisation is ready for this evolution of its role. Who wants to help make it happen? It's time.
[Also posted to my OSI Board Blog]
As a follow-up to my posting on Monday about the new co-ownership license Sun has offered to all the bloggers on blogs.sun.com, I thought it would be good to post a link to the FAQ site and to the license itself (PDF). One interesting extra dimension is that the option to enter into the license is also open to former employees whose blogs are still on display (which is the policy for former employees, unlike some employers I could mention).
I think this is a great and wise step for Sun to have taken. I hope other companies with staff who blog will take the same step.
One of our design principles for blogs.sun.com over the years has been to allow everything and let good sense and existing rules prevent mishaps - at least until it's clear we need a new rule of some kind. It's been almost entirely effective, and the few cases where it hasn't have been quickly addressed by the Sun blogger community on an internal mailing list that almost every blogger subscribes to. Self-policing definitely beats supervision. Another design principle has been to encourage people to be themselves, and mix up the technical and the personal in their blogging. The resulting blogs have often been compelling and we've grown an unmatched bench of authentic, respected voices.
Of course, those principles leave unanswered questions. One of the questions Sun's present context has raised is, "who owns the blog content?" It's not obvious, since the postings include a mix of personal and Sun content, are posted on a Sun property but often in personal time, and so on. To make it crystal clear, Sun has created a licensing option for every employee that simply shares ownership of everything that's posted equally between Sun and the blogger. That allows Sun to continue to host blogs.sun.com in perpetuity and it allows employees to sort out their own uses for their content. I want to write a book for example, and other want to move their blog to their own domain.
The new license was rolled out today, to accompany the handy new function to export all blog content for use with (for example) WordPress. From now on, every Sun blogger has (if they choose to accept the new license) a clear, documented set of rights to their blogging content. Huge thanks to the team of people that made it happen, especially my favourite lawyer, Tiki Dare, who completely "gets" this stuff and without whose quiet and largely unsung help the open source community would be much the poorer.
Having held fire for a few days to make sure I was cool-headed, I was about to go to comment on a poisonous little posting on a ZDNet journalist blog. I wrote a cool-headed reply and clicked "post".
Then I found that despite the appearance of openness (no hint on the comment form of all this), ZDNet has no interest in "community comment". They are actually cynically trying to capture reader data so they can "monetise" it.
To post a comment, I would have to go through a multi-step registration process and fill out the form shown over to the right (which requires personal information including a postal address, requires I accept their EULA and is set to "opt in" for spam by default - I have annotated the version on Flickr if you click through). There's no way I am doing that. I suggest you take the same attitude to them and avoid giving them any sort of support until they fix this cynical community attitude.
The most delicious irony though is they were criticising me for poor community skills...
Apparently I don't blog any more. I got some indirect feedback yesterday that I'm not a blogger because I "only post links". I find this fascinating. When I have the time to write an essay on a particular topic, I post it here. I've done that a great deal over the last five years, and you can find the results easily.
Back in the early days, when I wanted to comment on something in passing, I had to go through the process of creating a full blog entry for it. When I got busy (it happens from time to time and usually involves aircraft), all blogging would stop for the duration of the trip. So over the last month, when I spent 28 out of 35 days travelling, that would have meant the blog going dark for a whole month. People used to complain about that, so I got with Dave Johnson and devised a feed aggregator of the kind FriendFeed has now made available to everyone. The problem with the aggregator was all it showed on those trips was the personal stuff like photos, and that led to more complaints that I'd stopped commenting on open source.
del.icio.us to the rescue! It allows me to construct a daily blog post simply by writing my opinions on what's going on on the Web in pithy (hopefully insightful) analysis displayed together with the link. I've actually had plenty of feedback that people only subscribe to Webmink for the links...
So what's to be done? Are my comments less insightful because they are short? Am I only a blogger when I write essays? I'm sure there are plenty of folk out there who would say yes to both. But fortunately there are still one or two people who think otherwise.
Judging by the statistics I watch for my blog, the majority of my readers may well never visit the home page for Sun's bloggers. But it may be worth a visit today becuase we've just introduced two features that help you benefit from the miscellaneousness of the site.
One is the tag cloud. We've had tagging as an option on blogs.sun.com for quite a while now, but today the team has turned on a master tag cloud for the whole site. Use it to look for themes and trends across the whole corpus of Sun bloggers.
The other is the New Bloggers list (over in the right-hand column). We have thousands of bloggers here and when new ones emerge they often have trouble getting noticed. They'll now be featured for a while so they can be spotted.
These are both features that make use of the "miscellaneousness" of the site, to use a term from David Weinberger's excellent book Everything Is Miscellaneous. He argues that in the participation age, it is best to impose order as late as possible rather than to try to include a pre-conceived notion of order in the structure of the data. The book is well worth adding to your reading list.
Update: Spooky. Seems Tim was recommending the book the same instant I was...
Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.