"We have come into real contention [for mindshare] in the enterprise," said Tim O'Reilly, CEO at O'Reilly Media, in his keynote address at OSCON, this week's Open Source convention in Portland, Ore. "So we should be patting ourselves on the back, right? I'm not so sure."
While celebrating the many accomplishments of free software, O'Reilly put most of his attention on the new challenges where open source could—and in his opinion should—make a difference. And he brought several people on stage to back up his points. "We have to pay attention to the real consequences to the wave we've unleashed," he said.
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The big challenges and opportunities he identified, where open-source communities can make a difference and where it's keeping up, are cloud computing, the open programmable Web and open mobile.
O'Reilly pointed out that cloud computing means we're looking at "immense centralization," where peer-to-peer computing (a traditional strength of the open-source community) is a big part. "How do we redefine and restructure the world so that it matches our values instead of the other way around?" he asked the audience, citing Jesse Vincent's premise: "Web 2.0 is digital sharecropping."
Great minds and cool startups (such as reasonablysmart.com) are working on these issues, O'Reilly said, such as trying to figure out if we can build the next generation Web services with the XMPP protocol.
How's the community doing on this? Fairly well. During another session at the conference, Brian Aker, director of technology for MySQL, cited the influence the open source community has had on Amazon.com, which he described as an innovator and leader in cloud computing services. "Amazon is an interesting position. They're always been a fairly secretive company and they've been pushed into an open position." (For more on Amazon's strategy, see Amazon.com's IT Leader Leaving Huge Customer Service Infrastructure as Legacy.
"Data is the new lock-in," said O'Reilly, as he underscored the importance of the programmable Web. The Internet isn't the operating system. . .yet. Just as Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city, explained O'Reilly, the Internet is 72 subsystems in search of an OS. "We have to think about what will keep them free," emphasized O'Reilly.
When you look up data from a proprietary service, someone owns the mapping and the connections between the data, he said. Other people are pushing in the other direction to create an open Web plaform, however — O'Reilly pointed to the Yahoo! Search boss, in which the company is opening up its search engine — and, he said, "People are starting to cast new energy and ideas into our ecosystem."
Browser Wars on the Smartphone
And then there's mobility. The browser wars are back, said O'Reilly, but they're back on the phone. Fortunately, though, "Big companies like Google are putting a big stake in the ground saying 'we believe in open, we have to believe in open,'" he said. Google understands that if the mobile phone isn't open, they're toast. To explain the import of this attitude, O'Reilly explained, "This is like Microsoft in 1995 embracing open source rather than them embracing it today."
Mobile is critical, O'Reilly said, and there's real action happening in the open phone space. Some of the examples he offered included Open moko and Google's Android.
Another promise is Moblin, which was discussed at length by Dirk Hohndel, Intel's chief Linux open-source technologist. Intel wants to engage the open-source community to create a new category of Internet-centric devices such as mobile Internet devices and automotive in-vehicle infotainment systems.
Moblin has been around for a year, said Hohndel; its initial adopters were not open-source developers but rather people who were thinking about products to build. Obviously, said Hohndel, Intel wants people to build projects. "But I want to see the open-source developers—to see the community run with it and to make it their project," he said.
Intel is currently putting together the software stack for the next instance, Moblin 2. "We're going to open this up to the public at a developer camp, in three to four weeks," he said. "The hope I have is that the community takes this from us, that the community makes it theirs."
Open-Source Movement, Applied to Security and Privacy
But those are just the technology challenges. The open-source community has political power, too, and can shape the future of how technology affects our lives. At least that's the opinion of Christine Peterson, president of Foresight Nanotech Institute.
Petersen largely pays attention to nanotech, but she also draws connections between technology and how it's used. (This is your cue to mutter, "Use this power for good and not for evil.") For example, she explained, dogs can pick up smells from a single molecule; nanotech is heading in that direction. That one item has power for social change. "We tax income," she said. "What if we could tax pollution?"
On the other hand, sewer monitoring has begun. That's good for things that need to be detected, whether because of terrorism or health risks. But some municipalities are using nanotech sewer monitoring to test for illicit drugs. "There's no reason that they couldn't take it to the property line," she said. "You guys are going to have a lot of influence on how this plays out."
Petersen's main message was in regard to the balance between privacy and security. The federal government folks in Washington D.C., tend to ignore the great debates in the community about the social impact, according to Petersen. They go ahead with their plans because they're responsible for protecting us, and the only tools they have are top down tools. But, she says, "They're trying to solve a bottom up problem with top down tools."
"Who can figure this out? Well gosh—we need a community that understands security, privacy, functionality and freedom," Petersen said. "You're the only ones who get this." She added, "The folks in D.C. do not have the toolsets to figure this out no matter how well meaning they are. They want to keep you safe and they're trying very hard to do it."
Petersen's catchphrase for this effort is "no secret software for public sensing data." She urged the open-source community to take part, not merely complain. "Look what happened with e-voting—this will be just like that [if you don't get involved]."
The open-source community is turning its attention from technology and acceptance to bigger problems. O'Reilly said, "As we look at our success, we could be really proud... but what I'm most excited and encouraged by is that you're tackling new, hard problems." Work on what's hard, work on what's important, he urged, "so that history does not pass us by but carries us to the new future."