Monthly Archives: March 2010

The dark side of open source

I read today about the Tragedy of Eclipse and I think it’s a fine insight to the seldom discussed side of open source.  Like the dark side of the moon, most people have never seen it or thought about it.  When corporations sponsor open source projects they aren’t doing it because Richard Stallman spoke to their hearts.  They do it for the basest of reasons: because it helps them.

The most obvious reason is when corporations want to commoditize another corporation’s advantage.  Firefox is a great example of this.  Nobody could have won a head on fight against Microsoft Internet Explorer but a project like Firefox with a commitment to open source ideology, standards and the like captured the minds of many.  Projects like Firefox don’t get built by a few hackers on weekends.  A lot of developers were either loaned to or ultimately subsidized by big Mozilla contributors like Google.  It is clearly in Google’s best interest to weaken Microsoft’s control over the browser.

Another reason is when corporations want to use commoditized or standard implementations in their products so they can focus on the bigger problems.  This is the case with Linux, OpenSSH and Eclipse.  Imagine having a commercial partner who gives you world class software components at cost.  Nobody is going to compete on the basis of their development IDE or a network stack but those things are essential to any large project.

In both cases, corporations are effectively co-opting the open source project’s goals to their needs.

Ultimately I think this is a fair tradeoff.  Small companies could never get started without open source projects.  I do think it would be better if like the source code, this business model was a little more out in the open.

This all works well until the projects in question get too close to corporations revenue.  Nobody can make money selling network stacks but a standard video compression format is the gatekeeper of all gatekeepers.  This is when those “open source friendly” corporations start acting like Big Media.  The patents on H.264 give those involved all the power and niceness of a cartel.

Using shopping card data to manage food safety

As a card-carrying, tinfoil hat member of the privacy zealots group, I’m not a big user of shopping cards.  Today I read about what can only be described as a meaningful use case for those cards.

The CDC used shopping card data to track down a salmonella outbreak.  They did it in exactly the right way by starting with the victims, getting permission and then looking for high risk foods in their purchases.

Privacy advocates rightly worry that some overeager politicians will use this to make shopper tracking mandatory.  The problem is that the wrong people control the data.

I would love to have a dataset containing every purchase I’ve made, right down to the last box of cereal.  I’m sure that data could be mined usefully.  By me.  Not by my local supermarket.  And yes, when the CDC asks, I’d like to be able to answer their query and even given them anonymized subsets of data they can use to correlate with other people.

Our future will be full of data.  The key is to make sure that the collections of data are open, accessible to more than just the powers-that-be and properly controllable by the individuals whose privacy is most affected by the data: you and me.

It’s about the people, stupid

I have found myself using Buzz lately.  Considering my refusal to use other networks as more than address books, this is a bit of a surprise.

Facebook is primarily a way for me to see what old and truly old friends are up to.  It’s nice to see news from old friends but quite a bit of what’s there is just not interesting.  Out of deep paranoia I never post anything or use any applications.

Although Twitter doesn’t inspire the same paranoia as Facebook, I don’t use it much at all.  I have not created a meaningful network there and find reading other people’s tweets to be just like listening to dozens of people talking on their cell phones in a train.  I also think that the arbitrary character limit is an impediment to any meaningful discussion.

I use LinkedIn only for legitimate professional relationships.  I also treat it as a live curriculum vitae.  I don’t visit the site very often.  I never use MySpace or Orkut even though I have accounts.

I have plenty of friends who clearly enjoy being socially active on the networks and there are times when I want to join in.  But I won’t.  I value my privacy.  I see no upsides and plenty of downsides in creating a wide public trail of personal information.

And yet I find myself using Buzz.  Why is that?

The functionality isn’t perfect but it hits a nice sweet spot between Facebook and Twitter.  However, that’s not why I use it.

I use Buzz because of the social network.  The stuff I want to write about and am willing to post publicly just happens to be of interest to the social network I have via gtalk.  Posting the same things on Facebook would literally be like geeking out at a Family party with a techie in-law.  It just so happens that almost all of my contacts in gtalk are technically savvy.  It’s about the people.

Google has built a social networking application that is good enough but more importantly, they happened to do it on top of the network with whom I actually want to socialize.  The real question is whether that’s enough to stop Facebook from turning Google into the next Microsoft prematurely.