“…unless acted upon by an outside force”

I’m back from OSCON, and while I spent more time holed up in my hotel room working on slides than I would have liked, it was a thought-provoking trip. OSCON, unlike a lot of conferences, does a great job of getting “the right people on the bus” by not tying itself to a particular technology. Full disclaimer: I was ostensibly on the OSCON program committee this year, although I was mostly a slacker about it. The hallway track this year was particularly strong. The evolved term for what OSS enables seems to be “participation”, and OSCON really keeps getting to the heart of that.

Just before the official OSCON start this year was “Ubuntu Live”. I didn’t have an opportunity to go, but its very existence says something important about a transition that seems to be happening in the OSS world. Yes, ORA is also transforming into a conferences company with an incidental publishing arm, but I don’t think that explains all of it. There are still religious partisans at gatherings like OSCON but more and more of the folks I talk to (self selection?) are “socially Open Source” people, and that’s leading (I hope) to a re-balancing of priorities inside the projects they are involved with. Instead of just focusing on how free something is (in whatever sense you prefer), there’s a sea change which focuses also on the end user experience. This seems long overdue and a good sign. Focusing exclusively on the user experience without any attention to negative externalities leads to a world which I wouldn’t want to live in, but when there is tension between them there is hope for progress. It’s market competition, but not in the sense of products jockeying for dominance (although that’s one of the ways it is expressed). It’s competition in the marketplace of ideas. It prompts important questions like:

  • What does the web (and sites like Facebook in particular) imply for the state of competition in services?
  • Is Open Data sufficient to ensure user freedoms and a functioning marketplace?
  • What does it mean to be transparent and encourage participation?
  • Who owns it? What rights do (and should) others have in a world where a third party always mediates everything?
  • When a company “gets involved in Open Source”, what should users expect other than lower prices? Should there be a code of conduct for OSS-involved firms? What are the communities responsibilities to those firms?

The OSS world has had answers to many of the code-focused parts of these questions for a long time, but the “whole product” questions are still in relatively blurry focus. The OSI adopting a new license seems like another acknowledgment that product vs. project is coming to the fore, and the web is forcing the issue(s).

In fact, I suspect that the web is playing an under-valued role in this transition. Since the web is partially open by default, it closes many of the solved questions for practical intents and brings the questions of data and community and design/experience into sharp focus. How will OSS projects handle them? Can existing project structures even being to address them? We’re struggling with the last one daily in Dojo.

The assumptions of OSS have always been that there’s some relatively open commodity platform which is mostly knowable, but what happens when you depend on web services or plugins which behave like hardware; sans ownership? What’s the imperative for the OSS community to build full web applications and services now that the desktop application is clearly on the wane? How will we address the fundamental, centralizing architecture of the web without resorting to religious discussions? What is the implication of not having an open, ubiquitous platform for user experience design and analysis?

I think these are questions that the Dojo Foundation should start to wrestle with. The answers to them may not come from us (although “us” is anyone who wants to get involved), but I’m strongly in favor of the Foundation trying to find ways to think about and address them.

A last-minute schedule change got me home to catch the last day of TAE. Having given 2 talks earlier in the week, it was great to catch sessions without stress. Like OSCON, the vibe at the last day of TAE was very low-key and hype-free. Seems the breathless nature of “AJAXWorld” may have finally blown the chaff away, leaving TAE and other smaller conferences to provide the beer-and-ideas atmosphere that is so desperately needed to keep things moving forward.