More on Eben and Open Source Licenses

Lost in the discussion (here, here, here and here) on Eben Moglen’s session with Tim O’Reilly on Licensing in the Web 2.0 Era was what was actually discussed.

Tim believes that since the world is rapidly headed toward a more centralized computing model with power and control maintained by the on-line services like Google, eBay, Amazon, Salesforce, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, etc. (i.e. Web 2.0), Open Source licenses don’t matter much anymore.

Eben, on the other hand believes that the pendulum is swinging the other way toward individuals controlling more and more of their own on-line activity and therefore licenses matter very much.

He further believes the consolidation we see happening today is merely an aberration that will correct itself once we all realize the control these services hold is dangerous and threatening to our freedoms and we systematically reject them.

Fundamental to Eben’s argument is that we have the power to reject them because:

    1) Today’s laptop computers have capabilities of the most powerful supercomputer of 20 years ago and,
    2) Free software will provide the means by which this will be possible.

Therefore, since the compute problem is being pushed out to the endpoints (i.e. users), and not gravitating toward the center (i.e. services), licenses do matter. Matter a lot.

Implicit in this argument, I believe, is that since we have the power, we also have the desire and skill and will also take action. I say implicit because we never really did get down to this level of detail in the session.

He’s more eloquent and convincing on these points than my simple description, but independent of these other factors, Moore’s law trajectory is one of the major tenets of his argument.

I am not convinced.

I strongly believe that in the future (1, 3, 5, 10 yrs??) there will be more centralization of services/data/info, not less. The trend we are seeing today is not an aberration, but a secular shift in computing. None of Eben’s arguments sway me on this. In particular, his Moore’s Law argument is completely specious. The premise that the growth in compute supply (i.e. CPU performance) shifts the equilibrium toward the edge would be more convincing if there was some mention of the compute demand. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear Eben mention even once the effect of compute demand.

Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that demand has outstripped supply and has indeed shifted the equilibrium, but toward a more centralized compute model, undermining a major element of Eben’s thesis.

Yes, my laptop is a 2GHz, 2GB dual core device that’s 1,000 times more powerful than early super computers, but today I’ve also got a Terra Byte of data that I’ve got to manage. That’s 1,000,000 times the data that I had to manage on my computer from 20 years ago. I’m getting buried under three orders of magnitude more data.


Advances in software might make it feel like only two orders of magnitude, but it still hurts. A lot.

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