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The Case for an Open Source As Service Platform

In his article on Steve Jobs (The Tinkerer), Malcolm Gladwell gets to the core of what made the UK dominate the industrial revolution:

They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work.

Similarly, Steve Jobs, as per Isaacson’s biography:

But Isaacson’s biography suggests that he was much more of a tweaker. He borrowed the characteristic features of the Macintosh—the mouse and the icons on the screen—from the engineers at Xerox PARC, after his famous visit there, in 1979. The first portable digital music players came out in 1996. Apple introduced the iPod, in 2001, because Jobs looked at the existing music players on the market and concluded that they “truly sucked.” Smart phones started coming out in the nineteen-nineties. Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, more than a decade later, because, Isaacson writes, “he had noticed something odd about the cell phones on the market: They all stank, just like portable music players used to.

And so on. This observation does give rise to a question – if Jobs could rise to such exalted heights by mere ruthless refinement, what hope is left for the rest of us mere mortals? What the article does not say and should be obvious to anyone in the tech industry is that we’ve been living through the golden age of tweaking. After all, what is open source if not tweaking unleashed? I don’t need to go through the sheer quantity and variety of tools, programs, methods and systems that open source has produced. There is an open source equivalent for pretty much every functionality you can think of. Yet, I wonder if we have already lived through its golden age and are moving on to something else.

What I mean is that in the past ten years or so, we have moved from the paradigm of software as executable to software as service. It is not enough to produce a program or system. You have to run it as well and keep it running. Hence websites, search engines, social networks and pretty much everything else in our grand world wide web. This leads to the next question: while there is an open source equivalent to pretty much any software from Microsoft or Adobe, where is the open source as service (OSaaS) equivalent to Google or Facebook? Nutch doesn’t count – it’s code that has to be installed and run. Doing so is nontrivial and illustrates some of the issues facing OSaaS:

  • cost of machines to run the service and supporting services
  • cost of bandwidth
  • storage costs
  • operations costs

I would argue Wikipedia is a good example of a OSaaS – and it is continually in fundraising mode. Furthermore, eiven Google and Facebook’s masive scale, it’s impossible to produce any kind of competing system the traditional way without massive amounts of money. So much for open source purity! While it is true SaaS and PaaS providers often make available APIs and platforms on a tiered basis with the first x or so requests being free and hence is a great way of getting started with your app, you have to pay after you exceed a certain level of usage. Again, non scalable and sure to discourage the next budding Steve Jobs toiling away in his/her garage.

I think the success of the SETI project (not in finding aliens but in getting people to contribute their spare cycles) or even what I saw at Looksmart when we acquired Grub indicates there might be another way. Grub was an open source crawler that users could download and install on their computers. It showed nifty screen savers when your computer needed to snooze and crawled URLs at the same time. We were surprised by Grub’s uptake. People wanted to make search better and were happy to download and run it on their own computers. We had people allocating farms of machines devoted to running Grub. We used it for nothing but dead link checking for our Wisenut search engine – but even that made people happy to contribute.

One possible lesson from this could be that if it is possible to develop a framework/platform for effectively partitioning the service amongst many participants, each participant would pay a fraction of the total cost. Of course, as BitTorrent shows, load balancing has to be carefully done. People that host too many files leech too much ISP resources and get sued. Grid computing and projects like BOINC are certainly promising but seem to be specialized for long running jobs of certain types like protein folding or astrophysics computations. It’s not clear whether they can provide a distributed, public, OSaaS platform. Such a platform, if carefully engineered, could pave the way to many interesting applications that could provide alternatives to the Facebooks and Googles of the world and ensure tinkering in the new millenium remains within the reach of dreamers.


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