The Different Types of Open

I used to think open beat closed and that was that. Linux goodWindows bad. Open better. Closed worse. One type of open. Simples.

A neat and easy dichotomy, open versus closed source, one type of open, what’s not to get?

Take the word better and apply the is/ought distinction to it. Not that simple it turns out. The free software movement is predicated on the notion that proprietary software is anti-social and, to put it bluntly, immoral – it is worse in the ethical sense. The open source camp take a more pragmatic approach – they say that proprietary software is a worse way engineering-wise to build software. I won’t go into the fine details here, I’ve done so elsewhere. But you get the idea.

Now the free software foundation defines software to be free (open if you will) if the software adheres to four freedoms

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Mostly this gets boiled down to having access to the source code. The source code is open to you. For now let’s just pretend that these finer distinctions don’t matter.

For the longest while I thought that this was the openness that mattered. Initially it came from the desire to being able to tinker (pragmatic) but then once I saw how proprietary software could lead to abuse I began to take a more moral stance. But I’m not a zealot, I run Ubuntu which has non-free bits and have run MacOSX in the past and will use Windows in the university. But generally speaking I have drunk the FOSS kool-aid.

But actually, in the first place, for the longest while I had no conception of this distinction. It was something I luckily managed to learn. Partly from being a dilettante developer and tinkerer. Partly fortune. Most people never come to conceive of the divided state of affairs in software in this manner.

It was with the release of iOS and the iPhone and the Apple Store that I realised that there is for sure more than one type of open. Say I develop an app for the iPhone. I need to pay Apple money and get their permission and abide by their rules to get my app in front of users. Wow. I don’t think this was ever in Microsoft’s DNA. That is why proprietary (rather than closed) software is a better moniker for software where one does not have access to the source. Because DOS and Windows have never precluded 3rd party developers from their platform in that way (give or take secret APIs and breaking the software of direct competitors: *cough* DrDOS *cough*by way of example). So in a way DOS back in the day and Windows were open to some extent and so calling them closed misses the mark, proprietary (or non-free) is more apt. Hence the PC revolution. Nowadays Android allows what is called side-loading. Android is not only more open because the source code is not proprietary but it is more open because you can side-load. MacOSX has always allowed this so Apple has made its mobile offerings more restrictive than it s desktop and server offerings (because they are aware that the paradigms are seen as different and there would be a geek revolt). Thems are nice handcuffs Apple. So this is kind of freedom 0, being able to get the bloody app onto your device in a fairly hassle-free manner. Jail-breaking does not count. Let’s call this open loading.

Now Microsoft has long made its document files opaque binary blobs. Let’s call this open formats. Software is data and code. Data gives us format tussles. Code gives us source tussles. And what about opaque binary network protocols? Let’s call this open wiring. Again, the internet is the internet because the wiring is open from the bottom of the stack to the top. As opposed to Netware, say, or SMB.

I think that it is safe to say that a lot of battles have been won in relation to open source, loading, formats and wiring. Let’s call these collectively open platforms.


The free software movement started way before the web was a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eyes. (That reads badly, never mind – this is off the cuff.) I want to talk about two other types of open that become apparent in a radically networked world. The first is the openness that federation brings. The second is the openness that Karl Popper referred to in The Open Society and its Enemies.

Let me make this clear. The postal service is open because it is federated. The plain old telephone system is open because it is federated. Email is open because it is federated. Internet relay chat (Irc) is open because it is federated. Don’t get me wrong. I have a fixed line or mobile telephone provider but I can switch if I’m unhappy and the person I’m calling does not need to have the same provider. By this way of thinking Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, Line, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, ICQ, Apple iMessage, Microsoft WhateverItIsCalledIDoNotActuallyKnow, and on and on, I’ve probably forgotten a whole bunch, are not open. We can clearly see from this that social networking and instant messaging are not open. Let’s call this open social.

I think that it is safe to say that the defenders of openness haven’t even gotten to this battlefield yet. This is an exaggeration, sure – a rhetorical flourish. There is Diaspora* and the Freedom Box and SIP and Jabber and so on but we’re a long long way from the Android of open social.

Let’s call open platforms and open social together open ecosystems. To my mind if you use Linux and email (and irc) you’re more or less using an open ecosystem but you don’t have the key parts of social like following and un-following and rating and sharing and so on. What social networking and instant messaging desperately needs is radical federation and it can’t come soon enough for this despairing digital voice.

Since Snowden began revealing what “intelligence” agencies do in the dark we have been getting a steady drip-drip of troubling revelation after revelation. It would in truth be just too depressing to even begin to enumerate the ways in which our notions of our digital lives as private have been eviscerated. (My editor promises me that that sentence will be put through the wringer.) Government (or the State) argues that there must be a certain amount of secrecy for it to function effectively. I think the defining political challenge of our time in the era of digital technology is to figure out how transparent government needs to be.

When we have open ecosystems and open government then we’ll have an open society. I think while we’re waiting for open government we need open ecosystems plus pervasive and strong and secure encryption. I believe Popper argued that only open societies can do science. I think that claim has been falsified by all actually existing nation states. I think science happens despite the lack of openness in society. I don’t think we’ll get open societies without open ecosystems and ubiquitous and rock-solid encryption. It would be interesting if we were able to perform sociological simulations that could give us a blueprint for which types of societies nurture openness best. I know that sounds like total pie in the sky but maybe we’ll be able to perform such magic sooner rather than later.

Does anyone out there have any other types of open they’d like to share?

(1st draft, getting it out there, pointers to typos and brain-farts gladly accepted)