Mozilla WebAPI: Champion of open source freedom

Google? Not so much – but who cares?


Open...and Shut As a group, open-source developers tend to be a freedom-loving bunch. If only their fans were the same. Even as open source has become a mainstream way to build software, many of its biggest beneficiaries opt to contribute little to nothing back.

Or, worse, they use open source to build fortresses of closed software, closed online communities, and the like.

A number of companies fall into this trap, but Google has often borne the brunt of criticism due to its history of using more open source than it contributes back.

Google, of course, can rightly point to a fantastic track record in open-source contributions, although its money-making products – whatever their dependence on open source – tend to be closed. Even Android doesn't fully escape this critique, due to its somewhat closed governance model.

So what?

Who cares if Google isn't necessarily the patron saint of openness? However much Google may depend upon open source, due to the advantageous development economics it fosters – as recently highlighted by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst – is Google somehow wrong to disproportionately benefit from open source even as it churns out closed products and services based thereon?

It's not as if Google is alone. Facebook, for example, is no different, and some argue it's using mountains of open source code to create a Compuserve-esque Internet experience that some feel fundamentally threatens the freedom of the web.

Open source, the great enabler of serious lock-in?

Not really. The problem is that open source isn't intended to ensure freedom, generally, or even to influence the ultimate outcome of software. As it has been defined, open source is a legal distinction for a particular piece of software. No one, including the Software Freedom Law Center or Free Software Foundation, seems to be focused on defining the freedom of software at a higher level, not merely at a licensing level.

Except Mozilla.

Mozilla has never shied away from the licensing side of open source, introducing its own Mozilla Public License years ago. But Mozilla understands that freedom is more than a license. To that end, Mozilla just announced WebAPI, which aims to provide "consistent APIs across web browsers, operating systems and devices" so that developers needn't focus on "just a specific device or vendor."

And, true to form, Mozilla isn't dressing up the WebAPI flag as a way to disguise HTML5 development for Firefox or other Mozilla-specific projects. Instead, the foundation is submitting WebAPI specifications and drafts to the the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for standardization across all browsers, not just Firefox.

Yes, the W3C was already working on something similar. Yes, it was taking too long. Perhaps Mozilla will help expedite things.

It could completely fail, of course, but I like the combination. Open source (licensed software). Open APIs. Open standards. A complete package that materially contributes to the freedom of the underlying software, but also to the uses to which that software will be channeled.

This, to me, is much more important than the impressive rise of WordPress, which now powers 14.7 per cent of the world's top websites, not to mention its open source cousins that collectively claim a big chunk of these websites. As free (as in freedom) as the CMS might be that powers these sites, it doesn't make their content any more free.

Website administrators tend to use WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and their ilk because these systems are easy to use, not to mention free to low cost to run. Freedom isn't top of mind.

And maybe it doesn't need to be. But I still appreciate Mozilla's more holistic approach to software freedom than that of the old-guard open source movement. And I like that Mozilla isn't shying away from a massive challenge: mobile app/web development. Whatever the statistics, mobile internet adoption is huge, and generally closed in one shape or form.

It may ultimately prove quixotic to take on entrenched interests at Apple, Google, and elsewhere, but full credit to Mozilla for trying. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Prisons transcribe private phone calls with inmates using speech-to-text AI

    Plus: A drug designed by machine learning algorithms to treat liver disease reaches human clinical trials and more

    In brief Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.

    A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners’ phone calls.

    In a sales pitch, LEO’s CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    Continue reading
  • Battlefield 2042: Please don't be the death knell of the franchise, please don't be the death knell of the franchise

    Another terrible launch, but DICE is already working on improvements

    The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the "endgame". Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 "watermark" system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it's time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

    I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise's return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

    The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision's Call of Duty (COD) series and EA's Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here's where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It's flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

    Continue reading
  • American diplomats' iPhones reportedly compromised by NSO Group intrusion software

    Reuters claims nine State Department employees outside the US had their devices hacked

    The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.

    NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers' access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.

    "Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations," an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. "To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021