Open Services

Frustration is the mother of open source and has always been. You have a problem that is solved in a deficient way by the free market (which is not free as in beer or as in speech, it's free as in fall). You think to yourself: I can do this better. You start working on it but quickly realize you really can't do it by yourself. So you enlist a bunch of people to work on it for free (as in beer) in return for complete freedom (as in speech) to divulge what you have collectively built.

Frustration with the free market, though, is not limited to software products. Anywhere you find an oligopoly there is frustration, and that's pretty much in the entire community and culture these days. People express frustration about the art they are perceiving ("The Crap That Comes from Hollywood"), about the roads they are driving, but most importantly (because I have an idea on how to solve the frustration) in services.

If you've ever used a cell phone, please tell me how satisfied you are with your provider.  I am with Verizon, which has a decent enough network, but which thinks any reason is good enough to gouge my eyes out in extra fees. $3 for a ten second clip of a song as ring tone? Verizon, you should be ashamed of yourself! $36 for activating a phone? Boo! 

Fortunately, the Open Movement can help. It's just that it's a little more involved than with open source, where the only product is immaterial and can be transferred and maintained for free.

I am talking about this new development, open services. Things like Wikipedia, which is open source software, open content, sitting on servers that are not free. How does that work?

Back in the golden days of 1999, having a web server was an expensive thing. Almost as expensive as bandwidth. So if you wanted to have a web site, you better have an idea as to how to make money with it, because it would burn a hole in your pocket if you didn't.

Wikipedia is different. It sits somewhere in the cloud, with a huge number of servers required to serve the Internet's most important content after porn, MP3s, and bootleg. Yet, it is entirely free and entirely devoid of advertisement. Isn't that amazing?

Wikipedia chose, volens-nolens the NPR model of funding: pledge drives. The drives are less intrusive than on NPR (otherwise Wikipedia would have already run out of "business" – just imagine having to work on a project, looking up information on Wikipedia, and instead of finding out about the ins and outs of Mytilus galloprovincialis, you get a pledge drive page you can't get rid of even though you have paid your dues.

The volunteer model is very collaborative and quite in the spirit of open source: those who get benefit contribute and make the project move ahead, out of restrained self-interest.  At the same time, it's a huge difference between free-loading on open source and on a server, since open source doesn't diminish in value if fewer contribute as a percentage of total users, while a server decidedly gets bogged down by excessive requests from free-loaders that don't pay to expand the service.

The reason Wikipedia can function is that bandwidth and servers are relatively cheap compared to the benefit that people get from using them, and because there is an inherent people cost that disappears for open source and open services. Most of the cost for an Internet service – any Internet service – you'll find in the HR column.

This is great news for the open services community (that doesn't exist yet). It means that there is a market for free and open services that run on standardized, commoditized, open platforms and are funded on the cheap by donations. Fact is, the value we get from these open services is much larger than our donations, anyway, and hence we can easily assume there will always be a sufficient number of (honest) people that will make the service reach parity.

I'll throw in a radical idea: if you don't like your cell phone provider, create an open service around cellular. Don't even begin dealing with cellular standards like GSM, CDMA, and the like. Stick with open standards used for computer platforms and solve that problem. Create phones that run on computer platforms and sell those. Give everyone an incentive to build on your open platform.

Let's assume we choose one of the IEEE standards, either 802.11 or 802.16. Both of them have current implementations on Linux, so we are fine there. You need the following:

  • Infrastructure: create software for routers (wireless or other) that tells an open call from internal bandwidth. Place limits on the bandwidth in use for the open component and let people roam for free while you are using your network connectivity. There are already dual antenna routers that allow you to offer unencrypted open access while working on a separate, encrypted LAN
  • Hardware: you need phones – which essentially today are simply little computers with a focus on their mikes and headsets. There are numerous Linux phones, even open ones (see linuxdevices.com)
  • That's it: seems impossible, but we are already at the point where the technology is not the hurdle, but the marketing is.

I think we have to find a better way to solve the financial problem, and I believe the NPR model is not sufficiently stable for this kind of infrastructure. But just as Linux commoditized the OS market and Apache the web server market (and MySQL the database market, and ….), this move will force and opening up of the carrier networks, making them more reasonable and less prone to catastrophically bad choices.

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