Freedom To Leave

Secret Squirrel

A journalist asked me an interesting question last Friday, and it's led to this huge essay summarising what I'd like to say at OSBC in London today (I'll never fit it all in though, here are my slides). "Why is it," he asked, "that we are seeing so many new desktop tools like word-processors and calendars at the moment?" He's right, of course. There's loads of energy around, with projects like Google Calendar, KOffice,, Chandler and plenty more, plus new innovations like Backpack, Writely, BlogBridge and others. I've tried many of these and some of them have stuck. What's the connection between them?

The New Lock-Out

The thing is, all of these tools have worked out that lock-in is the new lock-out. The fastest way to send early adopters packing is to make your cool new toy a roach motel. To start with, early adopters like me are not willing to put live data into applications that don't offer import and export. My calendar is in RFC2445 iCalendar format, so if you want me to try your new calendar thing you'd better accept that as the import format. If I can't add iCalendar and vCalendar appointments I'll not be using it for long, and there had better be an iCalendar sharing facility for scheduling.

What's more, I have to have iCalendar export so I can migrate away from your new toy to things like Apple iCal, Sun Java System Calendar Server or any of the umpteen programs that support those standards. The same goes for everything else - I just moved my blog subscriptions from Bloglines to BlogBridge to give it a try (it's a pretty cool Java Webstart application) using the OPML export in Bloglines, and I work with a group of people routinely exchanging documents between a selection of applications that support ODF.

Confidence To Stay

The availability of open, freely-usable standards creates a bigger market and promotes innovation because we are all free to give things a try, as was clear at BloggerCon. If "interoperability" meant "import only", I'd never feel safe trying new things so market growth and innovation would be inhibited. People who implement open standards like this are smart, because although they allow customers to leave for greener pastures they also allow them to return - I am still using Bloglines despite the appeal of BlogBridge - and the confidence I feel over "owning" my data makes me a much more interesting customer.

That feeling is caused by more than interoperability - it takes full substitutability for me to have the confidence to stay as well as the freedom to leave. That's why Stewart is spot-on with Flickr's policy and paradoxically will keep my business by allowing me to leave at any time.

Innovation Enabled

More than that, though, full support for truly open standards means that new ways to use the data can occur. For example, the feeds in Bloglines mean I can use BlogBridge to read the for:webmink tag feed using BlogBridge and have Cote send me interesting links to read without the overhead of e-mail. That's part innovation-by-design and part innivation-enabled, leaving the customer to work out new ways to mash-up the data and create innovative uses for their own data. When using the data demands only a particular vendor's software, or a licenisng relationship, or some other boundary traversal, the innovation finds it harder to escape.

So what does it take to have a standard that leads to substitutability and the freedom to leave? At a minimum, it takes the following to innovation-enable a standard.

  • First of all, it takes confidence over intellectual property rights. I dream of a world where "standard" implies that all parties to the creation of the specification have been compelled to issue non-assert covenants so every developer can be sure there's no strings attached.
  • Second, it takes multiple implementations, proving the format is actually usable in multiple places. This was the genius of IETF and it's one of the lessons of CORBA.
  • Third, the approach must not favour any particular implementation or platform. That's the problem Microsoft's Office 12 XML format (or whatever it's called today) turns out to have, and no amount of rubber-stamping by the vendor-only Ecma International will fix it.
  • Fourth, and in the coming world of development the most important, is that there's an open source reference implementation, so that the standard can be incorporated into as many systems as possible. This, by the way, is why I am such a fan of open source for the Java platform.

The Richness of the Plains

This is about far more than interoperability. Interoperablity was a fine goal in the 90s, but in today's world it takes much more than just the minimum level of allowing others to use your secret sauce. Pragmatic interoperability is better than nothing and sure beats the cold-war mindset of the 80s and 90s where incompatibility and isolationism were the rule. But I want more than import-only. I want more than lowest-common-denominator exchange, where I have to rework my data to make it survive the teleport. Those are the hallmarks of the monopolist's definition of interoperability - letting you play in my market at little risk to me.

The network changes everything. I argue in my current keynote (after Benkler) that injecting the network into society removes the commercial benefits previously achieved by closed behaviour, and the plethora of new software the journalist observed seems to support that. The canyons were the first world of software and interoperability was their high-altitude pass. The plains are the new world, where the spread of open formats and software grows the market and gives us all the opportunity for success - in whatever compatible way we choose to measure it.

The new world is being made by iCalendar, Atom/RSS, OpenDocument, OPML and their like, overturning one of Cringeley's five lock-ins (cited by Charles Miller recently) in a world that's also rejecting the other four. Truly open formats are creating the new market, and those who attempt to subvert the trend with pseudo-openness will fail.


Hi SimonSimon, glad to see that you are enjoying BlogBridge. I am the guy behind it. We are continuing to improve it rapidly -- and I wanted to point you at a new product that we just released, BlogBridge:Library. Here are some links: Please let me know if you have any questions/bugs/suggestions/etc! -- Pito Salas

Posted by Pito Salas on June 26, 2006 at 10:43 PM PDT #

Part of the confusions is 'interoperability'. Define that so it makes your case. o Interoperability == Semantic predictability. Systems interoperate. o Portability == Data that meets expectations without out of band communication. Data is portable. Neither one of these is free. Cost determines the choice of the system. If the closed system is costing more over the lifecycle, the marriage isn't going to work. If the open lifestyle brings too many complications that you have to manage every time you switch, you may want to stay married. In general terms I agree, but given a production system and not a programming toy, once I get it to produce product (my interest is product; not applications), I freeze it and only modify it if the improvement in the product is very compelling. The problem with so many of the arguments for and against openness or proprietariness is that they are arguments between programmers and not customers for products of programmers. Yes a programmer feeds on other programmers' work but in the big picture, that is a side show.

Posted by Len Bullard on June 28, 2006 at 11:31 PM PDT #

Right on, Simon! I had this argument with a guy who works at a not-Flickr photo site that couldn't fathom why he'd ever let his users export their photos. (The site will sell you a DVD of your own photos, however.) I wish I could have sent him to your article.

Personally, I think there's a gross distinction one can draw -- and one can feel -- between sites/services that are on the side of the user and those that aren't. The ones that aren't think about what they can do <u>to</u> users. The ones that are on the user's side think about what they can do <u>for</u> users. The bad ones lock you in and market at you all the while. The good ones don't. It's usually very easy to tell which is which.

Posted by David Weinberger on July 03, 2006 at 10:07 AM PDT #

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Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


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