Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019

We Need Open Hosting Platforms

In Bringing people back to the open web Chris states:

But most users don’t care about the principles or implementation of an open web, at least not in those terms. Most people don’t see themselves as ever having left the open web behind, and if you told them to try to get back to it, they wouldn’t know what to do or why it was worthwhile.

No matter how much it might be in their long-term self interest, it’s not up to the casual Internet user to figure that out. Instead, it’s up to the developers, designers, entrepreneurs and technology leaders to create a version of the open web that also happens to be the best version of the web.

I think he’s starting with a reasonable, positive call: we can’t just decry the state of things, we have to make things. And we have to make good things. The open web should be better.

I fear a moralizing approach to advocacy pushes people away, makes it harder for people to care about the values we are espousing. When we frame something as depressing or hopeless we encourage people to pay attention to other things. So yes: the open web should be the best web.

But ignoring my advice, I’m going to point out a depressing fact: open source products aren’t successful. Open source is not in line to be part of any solution.

Open Source has done a lot for developers, but it’s not present on the surface of the web – the surface that people interact with, and that defines the “open web”. Actual sites. Actual interfaces. Open source is used everywhere except at the point of interaction with actual people.

Why is open source so absent?

One big problem: the web isn’t software. The web is deployed software, running on servers.

If, as a creator of software, I want to share what I’ve done with everyone on the web – not just with other developers – then I actually have to deploy that software somewhere. But if maintaining open source is difficult and unsustainable, hosting that software is even worse.

I could create a whole company to support the service. But at that point I’m not a developer, I’m an “entrepreneur”. That’s more of a pain in the ass than giving stuff away.

For open source developers to build the open web we need a platform that allows us to actually give the tools we’ve created to everyone. Because of the hosting problem all our open source work is mediated through commercial entities, and we have this world where the web is very much built on open source, and yet that does nothing to make it more open.

An open hosting platform is not a specification, it is not a protocol, it is not a piece of software. It is actual hosting. It is people who deal with abuse, security, takedown notices, denial of service attacks, naming, bill paying, authentication and recovery, and are committed to ongoing improvements to the platform. Those are the things that separate software from a running service, and only running services can participate in the open web.

I don’t think decentralization, federation, or P2P is important or probably even desirable. I think these are ways to avoid the work of hosting, and they succeed to the degree no one uses the resulting software and so no work has to be done. It’s better to start with a working product.

Would hosting change things? Probably not enough: products aren’t just software, and open source development still struggles to include a diversity of skills and the consistent delivery of effort to make a product. Here, I have no suggestions. But still, an open, public, accessible hosting platform would be a start.

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This is the personal site of Ian Bicking. The opinions expressed here are my own.