Subject: Re: FSBs and client-server
From: "Tim O'Reilly" <>
Date: Wed, 24 May 2000 06:32:05 -0700

Ian Lance Taylor wrote:
> Others, notably Tim O'Reilly, have pointed out the increase in selling
> software as a service over the web, and how that hides free software
> behind an effectively proprietary interface.  Tim has called on these
> vendors to open up their code to keep the ecosystem healthy.  I don't
> know to what extent this has happened, if at all.  (Tim, sorry if I'm
> misrepresenting your views.)

This is correct.  I've also pointed out that this change in the
"architecture" of how applications are delivered may have profound
ramifications for free software licenses.  After all, if you don't have
to distribute your software for it to be widely used, the GPL has no
effect, since it's the act of distribution that kicks in its

This is an example of the ways that code and "law" need to co-evolve, a
position that is very well argued by Larry Lessig's book, Code and other
Laws of Cyberspace (  (I highly recommend
the book.  You can read my brief review of it in my weblog at
> I was thinking about this recently.  It occurs to me that what is
> happening is that we are returning to a client-server architecture.
> Client-server was itself a return to the mainframe architecture.  In
> fact, computers move in a wave from centralization to decentralization
> and back.
> Once we had mainframes.  People submitted their jobs, and they were
> executed on a single central computer.  (Centralization).
> Then we had minicomputers.  People shared them, running their own
> programs in timesharing.  (Decentralization).
> Then we had cheap workstations, or client-server.  People used
> workstations with local processing to run programs loaded from a
> single server.  Control of the server implied control over which
> programs people could run.  (Centralization).
> Then we had personal computers and powerful workstations.  Each person
> had their own computer, running their own programs.
> (Decentralization).
> Obviously this history is mixed up, as multiple trends happened
> simultaneously, and lots of other things happened too.  I'm making a
> rhetorical point.
> Now we're moving back to centralization, as people use browsers to
> connect to services provided from centralized systems.
> Libre software is most meaningful during a decentralization phase.
> When control over which programs are run resides with the end user,
> libre software is an enabling force.  When control over which programs
> are run resides in a central system, libre software is mainly of
> interest to the central system administrators.

This is a very good point.  But if you care about the results of having
software free, this could be a very bad trend, as the "hood gets welded
shut" again.
> When Tim suggests that providers of centralized systems should make
> their software libre, he is going against the grain.  They want to
> retain control of their software.  Tim is suggesting that they should
> free it up, which leads to a loss of control as other people start
> providing similar services.  Why should they do this?  Because they
> are part of a centralization phase, their instinct is to retain
> centralized control: to take those parts of their software which are
> useful for others and to sell them as a centralized service as well.
> Naturally we should all keep encouraging these centralized providers
> to open their systems.  It might happen.  Arguing for it costs little.
> What's interesting to me right now is to speculate about the wave of
> decentralization which should follow the current wave of
> centralization.  What will it look like?

I think it looks like open (or closed) APIs to connect web services to
each other.  See Rael Dornfest's article at 
xml-rpc, SOAP, and ultimately more complex systems like Jini and E-speak
are aiming at this space.  FSBs and free software authors really need to
think about this trend.  It's been a major subject of my public speaking
for the past year or two.
> Perhaps as more web services arise, they will start to commoditize.
> They will then become services which are simply available on the net.
> Rather than going to a particular web site, you will tap into a
> particular service.  Today we can see this in a few services such as
> DHCP and NTP.  Perhaps other services will commoditize, such as
> e-mail, chat, credit card authorization (leading to general net
> services for purchase of generic items), newswires, stock trading,
> other things I'm not thinking of.

This is likely true.

> Decentralization will consist of a small but powerful system which can
> tap into these network services and present them in clever and useful
> ways.  Libre software will flower even more as people trade around
> improved access and visualization engines.
> Probably something entirely different will happen.  But I find it
> interesting to think about.
> Ian

Tim O'Reilly @ O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
101 Morris Street, Sebastopol, CA 95472
+1 707-829-0515, FAX +1 707-829-0104,