Making an aaS out of free software

Don't get too lost in the cloud

While many in the tech industry and the media have been touting the benefits of various "As-a-Service" models, there are also still concerns that such remote computing models will ultimately harm a fundamental core principle of free software: the ability to truly possess the software in all forms.

This is not a new concern: Free Software guru Richard Stallman has been trying to rally the faithful away from cloud-based services for a long time.

"It's stupidity. It's worse than stupidity: it's a marketing hype campaign," he told The Guardian in 2008.

Stallman's objections to cloud-based services, shared by many in the free software community, come down to these:

  • Little to no access to data, which limits users' ability to move to other software/services.
  • No access to the software source code, which limits modification of the software.
  • Lack of openness of modifications makes it hard to publish add-ons or mods to those services that do make an effort to be open.
  • Terms of service designed to keep users nice and locked in.

There have been some steps made to mitigate these issues: keeping data accessible is much more on the front burners of the social media platforms and other SaaS apps that make a point to get data from you.

Google Plus and the rest of the Google services, for instance, make it a point to display what data Google has for you and manage how that data is used. Facebook, perhaps the king of sucking up your data, has made some rudimentary steps in this direction, too, but it has a ways to go.

Still, this is a real struggle for more moderate users of free and open source software, like myself. We recognize the dangers inherent in letting any one group or company getting a hold of our data, because it's pretty much the same problem as letting one company completely hold the code for the software we run. If the company changes or drops proprietary software, then we have to contend with that. If the software is free or open source, we have a hope that someone will pick up the code and keep developing it in some form.

But there is a difference in the discussion. I don't develop, so the connection I have with my software is rather abstract: for me, I will always have to rely on the kindness or strangers to keep my software running. So, whether I pay an open source vendor or a proprietary vendor for using their software is a moot point: I prefer open source, but I will shift to proprietary if there's a tool that works better and is not out of my budget.

Data illicits a much more visceral response. The data I generate on the web (automatically or manually) is something I create--it's about me and me alone. To have that get out of my control does not make me feel good at all: infinitely more so if the data is about my children.

Yet, here in my daily job of discussing that which is open, I find myself having to purposely generate a lot of data. I post things on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus in order to share things I have written or have read. Part of this is because I like to point things out to people and yes, part of it is the self-promotional activity that many of us in journalism have to do these days.

It is like walking a knife's edge some days, this balance between productivity that SaaS affords us and the dangers it can bring. I tell myself to pay attention to it as much as I can, but I know that I am probably not as diligent about it as a I should be.

Curiously enough, it's not typically worries about my data that remind me of the dangerous ground on which I tread. The recent upgrade to Google Plus was a stark reminder that I do not have access to the software, because I can't even control when I update the software… it just gets pushed to me via the browser.

I suspect that there are many computer users who are in a similar position--if they're thinking about these issues at all. A vast, vast majority of users probably don't even reflect on what Facebook and Google are doing with their data, they just keep liking and friending everyone.

My gut tells me that one of the reasons why there is this perceived/real idea that free software licenses are dropping in overall percentage of use is that the IT community is becoming inured to the notion of SaaS and all the other *aaSes and it is becoming more comfortable to work with permissive licenses because on SaaS, you're not going to get to the software anyway.

Pure speculation on my part, but I have to wonder.

Unlike Stallman, I am not advocating a complete disconnect from the cloud. But I do believe that, whether you are a free software advocate or not, much more attention needs to be paid to how your data is being handled. If the Web is about to be our new platform, then we need to stress openness as much as possible moving forward.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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