Feeds

Mozilla WebAPI: Champion of open source freedom

Google? Not so much – but who cares?

Boost IT visibility and business value

Open...and Shut As a group, open-source developers tend to be a freedom-loving bunch. If only their fans were the same. Even as open source has become a mainstream way to build software, many of its biggest beneficiaries opt to contribute little to nothing back.

Or, worse, they use open source to build fortresses of closed software, closed online communities, and the like.

A number of companies fall into this trap, but Google has often borne the brunt of criticism due to its history of using more open source than it contributes back.

Google, of course, can rightly point to a fantastic track record in open-source contributions, although its money-making products – whatever their dependence on open source – tend to be closed. Even Android doesn't fully escape this critique, due to its somewhat closed governance model.

So what?

Who cares if Google isn't necessarily the patron saint of openness? However much Google may depend upon open source, due to the advantageous development economics it fosters – as recently highlighted by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst – is Google somehow wrong to disproportionately benefit from open source even as it churns out closed products and services based thereon?

It's not as if Google is alone. Facebook, for example, is no different, and some argue it's using mountains of open source code to create a Compuserve-esque Internet experience that some feel fundamentally threatens the freedom of the web.

Open source, the great enabler of serious lock-in?

Not really. The problem is that open source isn't intended to ensure freedom, generally, or even to influence the ultimate outcome of software. As it has been defined, open source is a legal distinction for a particular piece of software. No one, including the Software Freedom Law Center or Free Software Foundation, seems to be focused on defining the freedom of software at a higher level, not merely at a licensing level.

Except Mozilla.

Mozilla has never shied away from the licensing side of open source, introducing its own Mozilla Public License years ago. But Mozilla understands that freedom is more than a license. To that end, Mozilla just announced WebAPI, which aims to provide "consistent APIs across web browsers, operating systems and devices" so that developers needn't focus on "just a specific device or vendor."

And, true to form, Mozilla isn't dressing up the WebAPI flag as a way to disguise HTML5 development for Firefox or other Mozilla-specific projects. Instead, the foundation is submitting WebAPI specifications and drafts to the the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for standardization across all browsers, not just Firefox.

Yes, the W3C was already working on something similar. Yes, it was taking too long. Perhaps Mozilla will help expedite things.

It could completely fail, of course, but I like the combination. Open source (licensed software). Open APIs. Open standards. A complete package that materially contributes to the freedom of the underlying software, but also to the uses to which that software will be channeled.

This, to me, is much more important than the impressive rise of WordPress, which now powers 14.7 per cent of the world's top websites, not to mention its open source cousins that collectively claim a big chunk of these websites. As free (as in freedom) as the CMS might be that powers these sites, it doesn't make their content any more free.

Website administrators tend to use WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and their ilk because these systems are easy to use, not to mention free to low cost to run. Freedom isn't top of mind.

And maybe it doesn't need to be. But I still appreciate Mozilla's more holistic approach to software freedom than that of the old-guard open source movement. And I like that Mozilla isn't shying away from a massive challenge: mobile app/web development. Whatever the statistics, mobile internet adoption is huge, and generally closed in one shape or form.

It may ultimately prove quixotic to take on entrenched interests at Apple, Google, and elsewhere, but full credit to Mozilla for trying. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

Build a business case: developing custom apps

More from The Register

next story
KDE releases ice-cream coloured Plasma 5 just in time for summer
Melty but refreshing - popular rival to Mint's Cinnamon's still a work in progress
Leaked Windows Phone 8.1 Update specs tease details of Nokia's next mobes
New screen sizes, dual SIMs, voice over LTE, and more
Mozilla keeps its Beard, hopes anti-gay marriage troubles are now over
Plenty on new CEO's todo list – starting with Firefox's slipping grasp
Apple: We'll unleash OS X Yosemite beta on the MASSES on 24 July
Starting today, regular fanbois will be guinea pigs, it tells Reg
Another day, another Firefox: Version 31 is upon us ALREADY
Web devs, Mozilla really wants you to like this one
Secure microkernel that uses maths to be 'bug free' goes open source
Hacker-repelling, drone-protecting code will soon be yours to tweak as you see fit
Cloudy CoreOS Linux distro declares itself production-ready
Lightweight, container-happy Linux gets first Stable release
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Maximize storage efficiency across the enterprise
The HP StoreOnce backup solution offers highly flexible, centrally managed, and highly efficient data protection for any enterprise.