There Are No Open Web Services

Let’s start with a definition. A service is open when anyone can take anything (code, data, etc) from that service and do anything they want with it, without permission from anyone.

You might argue that is an extreme definition. I’d agree. But, anything less that that is not open. It is in some way managed by someone. Even open source software would not meet this definition. Most licenses prohibit folks from taking code and then incorporating that code into proprietary products without contributing their modifications back to the original open source code base. This constraint, this limitation on the openness of an open source system is considered a fair trade. It was consciously designed to perpetuate the collective value of the open source code base.

I can not think of a single open web service. Even services famous for their openness, or thier APIs like Craigslist, Facebook, del.icious, or Google have restrictions on what you can do with their data.

The question is what is the intention behind those restrictions and what is the effect.

Some service providers try to lock in their users by making it difficult for an individual end user to port their investment in one service to another. This is going to end. In networks where the users contribute a substantial amount of the content/value /energy, this adversarial relationship is unsustainable.

The more interesting problem is service providers who place restrictions on their APIs to prevent a newcomer from sucking out their entire data set and replicating their network effect. Seems reasonable but if the restrictions are to tight, they will lose the benefit of others who add value to their user’s experience by innovating at the edge – think twittervision or the googlemaps/craigslist mashup. The winners here will be the service providers that strike the right balance between innovation and anarchy. Without any restrictions on the use of code and data, the integrity of the community is at risk – with too many, innovation will grind to a halt (yes I realize there is an embedded assumption here that decentralized innovation trumps centralized innovation – I am convinced it does).

If the architecture is designed to further the interests of the community, it will thrive, if it is designed to further the interests of the community sponsor it will not.

Those of you who know me know that I am a passionate advocate of open systems. But the cacophony of claims of openness is now obscuring the more important point. It is time to get over the idea that the goal is an open architecture. It is not. I live in Manhattan. It is a managed “architecture”. The stoplights on the street corners constrain our freedom, but we accept them because they make it possible for all of us to move around the city. Language is another model. We live in a society where I am relatively free to say what I want, but I have less freedom to change the meaning of the words I use.

So let’s stop debating whether a service is open or not and lets focus on the defining that perfect balance of freedom and structure that will result in vibrant, innovative communities.

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