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On Openness

What freedom attracts.
August 18, 2009

Openness is a virtue. When we like a person, we say, “She has an open face.” About a friendly gesture, we remark, “That was openhanded.” About ourselves when young, we might sigh, “I was open to new experiences.” Openness is attractive.

Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief and Publisher.

Most technologists find openness attractive too. A technical term originally derived from thermodynamics (where it referred to any system that interacted continuously with its environment), openness came to be applied to systems theory, and thence to software, where it initially had a very specific meaning: open computer programs and languages are those that have some combination of portability (that is, they can run within a variety of environments) and interoperability (which means they can exchange data with other software). They must also adhere to open standards, a term that is generally understood to refer to two related ideas: that the software should be free for use, and its source, or underlying, code should in some manner be defined by its community of developers and users. The operating system Linux is the best-known open software.

The Windows operating system, by contrast, is closed, or “proprietary,” in the jargon of information technology: it is not portable and possesses limited interoperability. Although elements of Windows adhere to open standards, the program must be licensed, usually for a fee, and its source code has been compiled and hidden from users and developers outside Microsoft. Developers write to application programming interfaces, or APIs, which until last year were mostly closed, and which still Microsoft jealously guards.

Ever since the emergence of the Web, whose multitudinous pages are themselves created with open standards, information technology has tended to become more and more open. Increasingly, software companies stress their openness. Often, this is mere marketing. Sun Microsystems’ Java platform, widely used to create software for devices as different as embedded systems and supercomputers, has been portable and interoperable since it was launched, in 1995, but the heart of its source code was released only in 2007. Some perfectionist companies forswear openness because closed software can be more beautiful, particularly if it is married to hardware, like the Apple Macintosh operating system. But most technologists want their software to be open, because openness attracts innovation.

In this issue, Technology Review’s chief correspondent, David Talbot, describes the effort to make online video open (see ­”OurTube”). He writes, “A growing number of technologists and video artists want to see Web video adopt the same openness that fueled the growth of the Web at large. … A similar transformation of video would not just allow trouble-free playback of any video you might encounter. It would also mean that any innovation, such as a new way to search, would apply to all videos, allowing new technologies to spread more rapidly. And it would make it far easier to mix videos together and create Web links to specific moments in disparate videos, just as if they were words and sentences plucked from disparate online text sources.”

The innovations such openness would encourage are impossible to predict. Talbot quotes Chris Blizzard, director of technical evangelism at Mozilla, which develops the open Web browser Firefox: “Nobody is going to tell you they want something before it emerges–rather, the experience of the Web is: ‘Holy Cow, I can do this other thing now!’ Open standards create low friction. Low friction creates innovation. Innovation makes people want to pick it up and use it.”

Are there limits to the alchemy of openness? As these quotations suggest, the word has come to be used broadly of all creation that is collaborative and unbound from any one company and that favors free use over paying for something. Proponents of openness tend to assume that history is with them: they are sure that industries beyond information technology will successively become open. Some evangelists of openness believe that written media (the only industry I know as well as information technology and biotechnology) must become open too. To hear them explain it, open written media would be created by anyone, not just professional journalists; it would not be owned by any one publisher but would be endlessly replicated around the Web; and it would be free.

I wonder, though, how applicable radical openness is to written media. (To read my critique of WeMedia, see my “Manifesto” in the May/June issue) In one sense, written media is already open. Unlike some computer code, words are both portable and interoperable. Anyone who knows a language may use its words freely, and they can be understood by any other speaker. Words are their own source code. Yet some writing flourishes best when authors are paid and are supported by publishers that make money directly or indirectly from their audiences. Written media is closed in the sense that it aspires to a kind of formal perfection and is created by people who feel highly proprietorial about their creations. But write and tell me what you think at

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