Building Houses on Sand

Philip Jacob worries, and rightly so, if this current enthusiasm for building websites that rollup bits and pieces isn’t, well, insanely risky.

“…would you incorporate a library in your application that was licensed under terms like this?

  • Required you to read and understand several pages of legalese
  • Is free right now although you might be charged for it at some point in the future at a price that you cannot negotiate in advance
  • Can stop working at any time for any reason without notice
  • Can undergo functional changes at any time without notice
  • Can be rate-limited at any time without notice
  • Does not have any service level agreement
  • Places restrictions on the data you generate using the library, some of which are bizarrely techno-legalistic and open to interpretation”

The licenses of all these fun web APIs are mavalously diverse. It is clear that each firm’s lawyer plays the role of genetic engineer gene splicing together a handful of licenses to create yet another mutation. While in long run (after you’re dead) the ecology will put most of these out of their misery. License interop is hard. This is another example of “standards as a substitute for lawyers.” Phil would like to have some standard licenses; but

We know how this plays out. First we get a bloom of diversity. Then we get consolidation. In the end we get a power-law distribution across some number of licenses. In the final end game the elite members of that distribution engage in a long standards battle who’s outcome can not be predicted – they might make peace, they might split into seperate markets, one might win, etc.

In early phases the smart players move quickly to capture market share that will provide key negotiating power in the later stages. Some of the early movers have to be profitable, others don’t. Some players value a strong position in the future more highly than others. Some players discount risk of having to switching later.

There are adjacent disputed territories to consider. Consider four of the larger players. The communication companies (though they haven’t fully accepted their fate yet) lock in users with physical networks and charge for bandwidth by the month. Companies like AOL, Yahoo, Google charge via advertising and lock-in by capturing a large distribution bottleneck. Platform vendors charge for a stream of updates and lock in via APIs and licenses. Players like the FSF or the ASF are sort of inside out with their focus on freeing developers (their principle consituency) from the licensing/API lock-in points.

All this is just part of the passion play around the emerging Internet OS, and to think I used to believe this was all kind of simple.

0 thoughts on “Building Houses on Sand

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