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Mozilla WebAPI: Champion of open source freedom

Google? Not so much – but who cares?

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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.

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