O’Reilly, GData, Open Standards

Tim O’Reilly’s post about GData and the importance of open standards articulates the argument for expanding the open infrastructure, for standardizing the “small pieces” that together do the heavy lifting of the Internet and make everything work together.

I like David Weinberger’s “small pieces” phrase, and I’ll adopt it here. Open standards and open source work so well, and so well together, because the pieces are small. Each standard solves a very specific problem. This allows each open source implementation of those standards to be limited in scope, lowering the barriers to entry for writing and maintaining them. The Internet today exists because of small pieces, particularly HTTP, HTML, CSS, XML, etc.

Together, these small pieces form the web platform that has fostered the startling array of innovations over the last ten years. O’Reilly’s key phrase is “A Platform Beats an Application Every Time”. If there’s any lesson to take away from the Internet, this is it. A platform beats an application because it fosters an entire ecosystem of applications that can talk to each other using these small pieces. The ability to talk to each makes each application far more powerful than if it were an isolated island. Just like an ecosystem, platforms create new niches and continually evolve as new actors emerge, and they create needs for new protocols.

This is why the current Internet lies in such a precarious state. The ecosystem has evolved, and has created needs for new protocols that do everything from traverse NATs to publish data. As the system becomes more complex, however, we’re forgetting that central tenet that small pieces made the whole thing work in the first place. In most cases, standards for solving the problems exist, but private actors either don’t realize it or decided to use their own versions regardless. This is like companies in 1994 deciding to ignore HTTP and implement their own versions.

Take NATs for example. The IETF’s SIP, TURN, STUN, and ICE provide an excellent, interoperable framework for traversing NATs. Nevertheless, Skype, BitTorrent, and Gnutella all implement their own proprietary versions of the same thing, and they don’t work as well as the IETF versions. As a result, none of them can interoperate, and the resources of all NATted computers remain segmented off from the rest of the Internet as a wasted resource. Skype can only talk to Skype, BitTorrent can only talk to BitTorrent, and Gnutella can only talk to Gnutella in spite of standards that could make all three interoperate. In Skype and BitTorrent’s case, they even ignore HTTP. They decided to completely forgoe interoperability with the rest of the Internet for file transfers.

GData, in contrast, gets high marks for interoperability. It uses the Atom Publishing Protocol (APP), RSS, and HTTP. RSS and HTTP are, of course, widely deployed already. APP is a good standard that leverages HTTP and solves very specific publishing problems on top of that. APP lets you modify any data you submit, one of Tim Bray’s first criteria for “Open” data. Google Base, built on top of GData, also shares AdSense revenue with users, fulfilling Tim Bray’s second criteria of sharing value-added information from submitted data.

The only part of GData I have a problem with is OpenSearch. OpenSearch is sort of half of an Internet standard because it emerged from a single company Amazon, in the face of a better standards out of the IETF, RDF and SPARQL.

SPARQL and RDF together create an abstraction layer for any type of data and allow that data to be queried. They create the data portion of the web platform. As Tim says, “The only defense against [proprietary data] is a vigorous pursuit of open standards in data interchange.” Precisely. RDF and SPARQL are two of the primary protocols we need in this vigorous pursuit on the data front. The Atom Publishing Protocol is another. There are many fronts in this war, however. We also need to push SIP, STUN, TURN, and ICE in terms of making the “dark web” interoperable, just as we need to re-emphasize the importance of HTTP for simple file transfers. These are the protocols that need to form, as Tim says, “a second wave of consolidation, which weaves it all together into a new platform”. If we do things right, this interoperable platform can create a world where free calling on the Internet works as seamlessly as web browsers and web servers, where every browser and every server automatically distribute load using multisource “torrent” downloads, and where all data is shared.

Standards are the key to this open infrastructure.

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