Exegesis the first: Thoughts on Openness

January 2, 2007

With few doubts, the buzz on open during the last few years has obscured the basics of openness in a wash of white noise. Please note this is not just a concept of open source (though open source plays a role in openness; it is about a broader concept of open).

Openness in technology is a component of interactions. In short, a conversation between applications (interoperability), within components (interfaces), or even between the organic side and the silicon side (user interactions) requires an open. For open source, this conversation may include the ability to modify the conversation in ways unforeseen by its instigator. In short, being open really evolves to allowing access to the information necessary to take an appropriate action, or on accommodation, as in the ease in adapting to changes on either side.

So let’s consider some of the degrees of openness.

First, any conversation on open can be traced to currency. (I can hear the screams now…)

Currency doesn’t necessarily mean government-issue cash. Back in the early days of the (now historic) Open Source revolution, I was often asked (usually by executives in big companies) how Linux development got paid for. The answer, easily enough in the early days, was ego-dollars. Developers got to see their creations used by lots of people, got kudos for good code and lost value for bad code. Now it is often those same companies paying employees to extend and enhance open source code.

So, for a corporation, openness can be a good thing (expand reach, expand share) or a bad thing (devalue products, reduce profit). However in most cases, openness as a communication vehicle is of benefit to everyone. Imagine having to purchase a phone for each telephone network that your friends might have. We enjoy having the ability to plug our coffee pot into an available plug.

Similarly in technology, openness helps delineate how we connect. While it may extend into visibility into the implementation, source is in itself not a communication necessity. With exceptions, most of us don’t know or care how the electricity is generated; we care that we have electricity. Neither do most of us care about the choice of programming language, programming style, or reuse of the code.

Openness can exist in many layers, but for shortness, I’m going to break this into some subsets.

1. Programming Interfaces: By making the communication conduits and language (values) available, programs can implicitly exchange information and interoperate. This does require a level of trust in the implementation, since what the program does is hidden. APIs are usually a one sided affair, changes can occur without regards to impact.

2. Specifications: Often you can find specifications that are available without business restrictions, from which you can build a product to manipulate or interchange. For example, back in 1999, SGI released the specification of XFS to allow developers to understand the technology, as well as develop to it. However, specifications can come in two basic flavors: read-only and read-write. Read-only limits the changes to the originating organization without allowing outside input. Often defacto standards fall into the realm. Read-write allows community input.

3. Standards organizations: The nice thing about standards is there is always one to do what you want. The downside is that there are innumerable standards bodies, from industry, through national to international, covering a multitude of arenas with non-standard ways of determining what and how to create a standard. This class falls in dejure standards.

4. Open Source: Obviously the most open way of communicating is to determine both the content and the intent of any message. By allowing view (and modification) of source, open source delivers a level of openness found in no other layer. However, standardization in open source is only driven by the will of the community.

Each of these has strengths and weaknesses, pro and con arguments. As we move forward, we’ll delve into each of these.

I want to close on my new favorite openness quote, from Arthur Kantrowitz in “The Weapon of Openness” :
“When technical information is classified,
public technical criticism will inevitably degrade
to a media contest between competing authorities.”

As always, comments welcome.

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