Thinking About Open

I made a snarky aside about the JooJoo’s (lack of) open source-ness, but on the whole I think “open” is good. I use a lot of open source, both directly (WebKit, CUPS, SQLite) and indirectly (GCC); Macs are in a “middle space” in this regard between free Unix systems and entirely non-Unix systems like Windows. (The average Windows user touches much less open source software during the day, with the exception of web browsers like Chrome and Firefox.)

While Apple likes open source, open source advocates often don’t reciprocate. They don’t think Apple takes the Church of Free Software seriously. Sure, every so often, Apple shows up at a service to throw a few bucks in the offering tray and hangs around at the social for a few minutes afterward, but it helps itself to a lot of the free cookies, then shakes Brother Stallman’s hand—discreetly squirting on the Purell right after—and breezes out in its shiny brushed aluminum roadster before he says anything.

The upshot is a recurring accusation that Apple is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (Have you ever really thought about that phrase? Since when did sheep wear clothes? “Quick, dress that wolf in Tommy Hilfiger—the sheep will never see him coming!” But I digress.) Apple, they cry, is not open! They’re the least open company ever! They insist that most people—not just nerds—deeply care about open, that it affects everyone, that in the long run open always wins.

They’re right—it does. But not in the way most of them seem to think. Most users couldn’t give a naked mole rat’s ass about open source. They want open data.

Can I view that document a colleague sent me? Can she view documents I send her? Can we make changes and send them back and forth? Can this device you’ve given me talk to the mail and calendar server that my organization uses? If I get video and music over here can I play them over there with a minimum of fuss? If the answer to all those questions is yes, then you’ve got what 99% of the marketplace wants. The more of those questions are answered with no or sort of, the smaller your audience is. Full stop. If you’re dealing with Word or PDF or MP3 files, with CSV or JPEG or good ol’ ASCII, you win. Mac, Windows, Linux, iPhone, Nexus One—we can all do that. But if you send me an Ogg file, I’m going to send it back to you and politely request you use something I can play when I’m not running Ubuntu “Necrophilic Narwhal,” thanks.

Herein lies the problem with many critiques of “closed systems”—a system may be closed in some respects, but open in others. While Slashdotters rage against the nefarious, underhanded lack of a USB port on Apple mobile devices, I’m copying to the iPhone by dragging it to Dropbox or entering text in Notational Velocity—I don’t need to worry about cables, thanks. And while my favorite writing tools, TextMate and Scrivener, are both closed source apps, Scrivener’s document format is “RTF files in a directory” and TextMate’s document format is plain text because it’s a frikkin’ text editor. It’s idiotic to insist that I’m enslaved by The Man because I’m not coding with Emacs.

The two biggest roadblocks to data freedom are DRM, and proprietary single-vendor data formats. DRM like Apple’s FairPlay—no longer used on iTunes music, but still used on video, and likely to be used on iPad books—that locks files to authorized machines tends to be transparent to most users in everyday use, until they hit a limit and it suddenly becomes oh so very opaque. DRM schemes that require clearance from an authorization server every time a file is played or a program is launched—well, ask Ubisoft how well that’s been working out for them.

DRM is an obvious problem. Single-vendor formats are sneakier. Microsoft Office’s data formats, until the new XML-based formats in Office 2007, were deliberately undocumented, so any competing vendor needed to reverse engineer the format to be able to read or write them. (Many programs I’ve seen cheat, in fact: when you save as a Word DOC file, they write RTF and give it a .DOC extension to keep you happy.) Of course, RTF is also proprietary and single-vendor; it’s simply well-documented and thus (relatively) easy for non-Microsoft implementations to keep up with. And recently, there’s been a lot of attention paid to Adobe Flash, a proprietary single-vendor format that has, over the last decade, wormed its way into web ubiquity. Adobe does publish the SWF specification, but up until May 2008 Adobe’s license specifically disallowed third parties from implementing Flash players, and according to some developers the spec isn’t 100% complete.

So this is the buttercream irony frosting on this up-with-freedom cupcake: even open source darling Google embraces Flash. It’s those fascist hipster douchebags in Cupertino who, entirely for self-serving reasons, may end up doing far more to keep the internet open than anything Reverend Stallman preaches. Capitalism’s funny that way.

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