Monday, April 23rd, 2018

We Need Open Hosting Platforms

In Bringing people back to the open web Chris states:

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 appreciate the call, as it’s a positivist notion: that we should make something better, not just try to moralize our way to success.

I’m not very happy with the moralizing approach to so much advocacy. It tends to focus on tearing things down, and encourages a myopic view. By encouraging this negative thought we simply drive people away, make it harder for people to care about the values we are espousing, because the framing we offer is depressive and often hopeless. 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. Keeping on this way, open source isn’t going 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.

A developer’s contribution to the open web isn’t just their own actions, but in leveraging the power of code: the ability to bring new things to everyone, not just make personal choices. But I sure as hell don’t want to run a service hosting people’s content. It’s a pain in the ass! And to top it off I have to pay for the privilege.

Building up a whole company in support of a service is an option, but then I’m not a developer, I’ve instead become an “entrepreneur”. I don’t want to be an entrepreneur! Hell, that’s even 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 desireable. I think these are ways to avoid the work of hosting, and they succeed in that 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.