Word of the Year: Open

The beginning of the year is traditionally a time to look back, and, for the brave of heart, to make a few predictions looking forward. Lacking the requisite bravery, I'll just quote something that the Economist wrote recently:

Rejoice: the embrace of “openness” by firms that have grown fat on closed, proprietary technology is something we’ll see more of in 2008.

Now, had this "fearless prediction" been made a year ago, I would have been impressed, because 2007 has turned out to be the year when everyone, it seems, wants to be open.

For example, hard as it might be to believe, Microsoft actually became an open source company in October last year, when two of its licences were accepted by the OSI as meeting the necessary criteria to be blessed with its approval. But the high-tech company that has beaten the “openness” drum more than any has been Google. No surprise there: as I've explored elsewhere, open source lies at the heart of Google's competitive strategy.

First we had Open Social:

a set of common APIs for building social applications across the web -- for developers of social applications and for websites that want to add social features. OpenSocial will unleash more powerful and pervasive social capabilities for the web, empowering developers to build far-reaching applications that users can enjoy regardless of the websites, web applications, or social networks they use. The release of OpenSocial marks the first time that multiple social networks have been made accessible under a common API to make development and distribution easier and more efficient for developers.

This was not an altruistic exercise, of course, but a response to the launch of Facebook's platform – another “opening up” of sorts, although hardly in the open source sense.

Then we had Google's Android: “the first truly open and comprehensive platform for mobile devices”, “made available under one of the most progressive, developer-friendly open-source licenses”. And as Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt told us, this was more than just open software:

Open Software, Open Device, Open Ecosystem
"This partnership will help unleash the potential of mobile technology for billions of users around the world. A fresh approach to fostering innovation in the mobile industry will help shape a new computing environment that will change the way people access and share information in the future," said Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt. "Today's announcement is more ambitious than any single 'Google Phone' that the press has been speculating about over the past few weeks. Our vision is that the powerful platform we're unveiling will power thousands of different phone models."

Marketing hype aside, Schmidt was making an important point. Running mobiles on open source software is not enough on its own: you need to have a “fresh approach” to the way mobile phones are sold and used – something now covered by the umbrella term “open access”, which included quite a few other “opens”, according to Google:

Google announced today that should the Federal Communications Commission adopt a framework requiring greater competition and consumer choice, Google intends to participate in the federal government’s upcoming auction of wireless spectrum in the 700 megahertz (MHz) band.

In a filing with the FCC on July 9, Google urged the Commission to adopt rules for the auction that ensure that, regardless of who wins the spectrum at auction, consumers' interests are served. Specifically, Google encouraged the FCC to require the adoption of four types of "open" platforms as part of the license conditions:

Open applications: Consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire;
Open devices: Consumers should be able to utilize a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer;
Open services: Third parties (resellers) should be able to acquire wireless services from a 700 MHz licensee on a wholesale basis, based on reasonably nondiscriminatory commercial terms; and
Open networks: Third parties (like internet service providers) should be able to interconnect at any technically feasible point in a 700 MHz licensee's wireless network.

That hammering home of the word “open” was aimed very much at breaking down the walls surrounding the traditional closed mobile networks, one of whom felt compelled to reply with its own “Open Development Initiative”:

Verizon Wireless today announced that it will provide customers the option to use, on its nationwide wireless network, wireless devices, software and applications not offered by the company.

Some have argued that Verizon's apparent conversion to wireless open access is more apparent than real, but only time will tell. Happily, the same cannot be said about one of the last – and most important – acts of openness that 2007 brought us: news that all research funded by the US National Institutes of Health would finally be made available as real open access:

The Director of the National Institutes of Health shall require that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, That the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law.

Although the battle for open access to this US research has had a rather low profile in the world of open source, this new legislation mandating it is as important to its own field – one, be it noted, hugely inspired by open source - as anything that's happened in free software this year.

Given this crescendo of openness during 2007, I think that the Economist's expectation that we will see a further “embrace” of it in 2008 is not so much a daring prediction as a dead certainty.

Glyn Moody writes about openness at opendotdotdot.

Glyn Moody has been writing about the internet since 1994, and about free software since 1995. In 1997, he wrote the first mainstream feature about GNU/Linux and free software, which appeared in Wired. In 2001, his book Rebel Code: Linux And The Open Source Revolution was published. Since then, he has written widely about free software and digital rights. He has a blog, and he is active on social media: @glynmoody on Twitter.

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