Open Societies Need Open Systems

The BBC News Web site had an interesting column by Bill Thompson yesterday titled “Open Societies need open systems.” The subtitle, “Openness, like democracy, must be constantly defended, says Bill Thompson” basically acts as a partial abstract as well. In this article he looks at Amazon’s disagreement with Macmillan that resulted in Amazon briefly de-listing all Macmillan stock and removing it from its indexes and the Apple/Adobe keruffle of Flash on the iPhone and soon to be released iPad.

I’m not quite sure how the Amazon/Macmillian dispute effects Democracy, or Openness for that matter, but it does go to show that highly successful retailers such as Amazon and Walmart can make it more or less difficult for a producer of a product to get it in the hands of consumer. Amazon, no doubt, felt that by trying to prevent different pricing for e-books it was helping the consumer (and thus it’s self) but obviously authors like Charlie Stross quoted in the article as saying “Amazon [has] screwed me, and I tend to take that personally, because they didn’t need to do that” saw it differently.

The Apple and Adobe situation I see differently, and while I do believe that while Apple is looking out for its own corporate interests, Apple also does want more Openness on the Web. As a company with a minority operating system share, the more open the Web is the better chance they have to compete. Adobe, on the other hand wants to, as Thompson puts it, “close off the web to non-Flash content.” While Apple, with its stance on DRM and other issues, has not always been a strong supporter of Openness, I believe in this case they are squarely on the side of Openness by support HTML5 and H.264 over continuing to enable the proprietary Adobe Flash format to be the de facto standard for video on the Web. Thus I find it a bit odd that Thompson appears to be supporting Adobe on this issue. Thompson says:

Just as we must work to retain our democratic forms of government in the face of adversity, so we must constantly be alert for those who would remove open systems in the name of efficiency and effectiveness.

He may be right that not installing Flash on the iPhone and iPad is in Apple’s best interest but I don’t see it as anti-Openness. Sometimes Openness and corporate interests can align, and I believe in this particular case Apple is on the side of Openness and Adobe is on the side of a closed, proprietary Web. At the very least, even if Apple is not a friend of Openness, neither is Adobe. Proprietary technologies and formats as de facto Web standards are a much greater threat to Openness than devices that don’t support them.

In looking at this issue from a Democracy 2.0 and access to information situation, libraries need to be aware of potential problems with proprietary formats and what devices can and will support them. If librarians believe that access to information is important for democracy, we need to make sure when we acquire (via licensing or purchasing) that the content is in a format that will be accessible to out patrons now and into the future.


  1. Stuart Weibel said,

    February 3, 2010 at 19:02:10

    Many interesting points in this post regarding openness and its relation to corporate interests. To suggest that libraries will have any but the smallest impact on the formats that carry content is hard for me to imagine. If anything, content providers have an (anti-democratic) incentive to make content available in formats that are difficult to lend.

  2. ecorrado said,

    February 11, 2010 at 11:02:19

    Stuart: I’m afraid you may be right that libraries will have, if anything, “the smallest impact on the formats that carry content.” However, I remain hopeful that at least in the academic realm, if they stuck together, they could have a meaningful impact. That said, I am not sure that their is any reason to believe they will stick together.

    Assuming you are correct, then the role of libraries will be not to only preserve content, but preserve the hardware and software that can access it. To some degree we are already doing this. For example, in order to ensure that we will be able to play VHS tapes for a long time, we purchased a number of VCRs to keep in storage while they are still available.