I attended my first ever OpenWeb conference yesterday and as per company policy, I have to report on and share what I learnt, so what better way to do so then to make a blog post for all to read?
OpenWeb is awesome. It's a conference where people from all over the world come to talk about Open design and communication and hopefully, learn to build a better web in the process. Attendees include programmers, entrepreneurs, designers, activists and politicians all with shared goals and differing skillsets. I shook hands with Evan Prodromou, the founder of identi.ca and WikiTravel, heard talks from the guys who write Firefox and Thunderbird as well as the newly-elected representative for the Pirate Party in the European Parliament, Rickard Falkvinge. All kinds of awesome I tell you.
Founder of the Pirate Party in Sweden and now a representative in the European Parliament (thanks to proportional representation), Falkvinge was a passionate and eloquent speaker who covered the history of copyright, the present fight for greater control of so-called intellectual property and more importantly the far-reaching and very misunderstood effects of some of the legislation being passed to "protect" copyright holders while eliminating privacy rights for the public.
The talk was very in depth and difficult to cover in a single post so I encourage you to ask me about it in person some time. For the impatient though, I'll try to summarise:
The copyright debate isn't about downloading music, that's just a byproduct of the evolution of technology. As the printing press gave the public greater access to information, so has the Internet managed to disperse that information further. The problem is now that the changing landscape has rendered certain business models ineffective, these business are fighting to change our laws to preserve said model rather than change with the times. Ranging from the frustratingly shortsighted attempts to ban technologies that further file sharing (legal or otherwise) to the instant wire tapping on every Internet connection (and by extension phone call) of every free citizen without a warrant, many of these changes are very, very scary.
"All of this has happened before, and it will happen again" he said. Every time a technological advancement creates serious change for citizen empowerment in society, the dominant forces in that society mobilise to crush it. The Catholic church, gatekeepers of the lion's share of human knowledge at the time actively worked to ban the printing press. They succeeded (if you can believe it) in France in 1535. This time, it's the media companies and they're willing to do anything, including associating file sharing with child pornography and terrorism to do it.
Falkvinge's Pirate party is becoming the beachhead in the fight for copyright reform. Now the party with the largest youth delegation (30%!) in Sweden, they are working to get the crucial 4% of the seats in Parliament they need to hold the balance of power and they need your help. He'd like you to send the party 5€ or 10€ per month and I'm already on board.
Those of you who know me, know that I can get pretty hostile when it comes to treating women like a special class of people (be the light positive or negative) so I was somewhat skeptical about this one. Thankfully, I was happy to hear Byron cover a number of issues with the Free software community ranging from blatant sexism (CouchDB guys... seriously?) to basic barriers to entry for anyone new to a project. There were a lot of really helpful recommendations to people wanting to engage 100% of the community rather than just one half or the other.
Sinatra is a Ruby framework that went in the opposite direction of things like my beloved Django or Ruby's Rails. Rather than hide the nuts and bolts of HTTP from the developer, Sinatra puts it right out there for you. Where traditional frameworks tend to muddle GET, POST, PUT, and DELETE into one input stream, this framework structures your whole program into blocks a lot like this:
get '/hi' do
That little snipped up there handles the routing and display for a simple Hello World program. Sinatra's strength is that it's simple and elegant. It lets you get at the real power at the heart of HTTP which is really handy, but from what I could tell in the presentation, there's not a lot available outside of that. Database management is done separately, no ORM layer etc. etc. It's very good for what it does, but not at everything, which (at least in my book) makes it awesome.
These are the guys who make the Cool New Stuff that comes out of Mozilla. You know those guys, they write a nifty web browser called "Firefox", I'm sure you've heard of them.
Mozilla Labs is where the smart nerds get together to build and experiment with toys that will (hopefully) eventually make it into a finished product. Sometimes that product is an add-on or plug-in, other times it's an entirely new project. It's all about how useful something is to the public. And as always, the code is Free. You may have even heard of Ubiquity, an extension to Firefox that promises to reshape how we use a web browser... they're working on that.
This time through, they were demoing Bespin, a code editor in your web browser. Imagine opening a web browser, going to a page and doing your development there: no need for a local environment, but without the usual disadvantages of aggravating lag or difficult, text-only interface. Now imagine that you can share that development space with someone else in real time and that you can be doing this from your mobile device on a beach somewhere. Yeah, it's that awesome.
Ascher's talk on Open Messaging was something I was really interested in since I've been actively searching for information on federated social networking for a while now. The presentation was divided into two parts: half covering the history of email and it's slow deprecation in favour of a number of different technologies as well as how people are using it in ways never intended for the architecture. Major problems with the protocol itself were touched on, as well as an explanation about how some of the alternatives out there are also flawed.
He then went on to talk about Mozilla Thunderbird 3 and the variety of cool stuff that's happening with it. "Your mail client knows a lot about you" he says "but until now, we haven't really done a lot with it". Some of the new features for Thunderbird 3 include conversation tracking (like you see in Gmail), helping you keep track of what kinds of email you spend the most time on, who you communicate with most etc. and even statistical charts about what time of day you use mail, what kind of mail you send and to whom how often. It's very neat stuff. Add to this the fact that they've completely rewritten the plug-in support, so new extensions to Thunderbird mean that your mail client will be as useful as you want it to be.
Up until this talk (and with the exception of Falkvinge's keynote), I'd been interested, but not excited about OpenWeb. Prodromou's coverage of Laconica changed all of that.
Founder of WikiTravel and one of the developers on WikiMedia (the software behind Wikipedia), Prodromou has built a federated microblogging platform called Laconica. Think Twitter, but with the ability for an individual to retain ownership of his/her posts and even handle distribution -- with little or no need for technical knowledge required. Here, I made you a diagram to explain:
Federated Laconica vs. Monolithic Twitter
Here's how it is: whereas Twitter is a single central source of information, controlled by a single entity (in this case, a corporation), Laconica distributes the load to any number of separate servers owned by different people that all know how to communicate. Where you might be on a server in Toronto, hosted by NetFirms, I could be using a Laconica service hosted by Dreamhost in Honolulu. My posts go to my server, yours go to yours, and when my Twitter client wants to fetch your posts, it talks to NetFirms and vice versa.
The advantages are clear:
- Infinite scalability: Twitter's monolithic model necessitates the need for crazy amounts of funding and they still don't have a profit model to account for those costs. Laconica on the other hand means that the load is distributed across potentially millions of hosts (much like the rest of the web).
- You control your identity, not a private corporation.
The future is where it gets really exciting though. By retaining ownership of your identity and data, you can start to attach a variety of other data types to the protocol. For the moment, Laconica only supports twitter-like messages, but they're already expanding into file-sharing as well. You'll be able to attach images, video and music files, upload them to your server and share them with whomever is following you. After that, I expect that they'll expand further to include Flickr-like photo streams, Facebook-like friendships and LiveJournal-like blog posts. These old, expensive monolithic systems are going away. In the future we'll have one identity, in one place, that we control that manages all of the data we want to share with others.
Really, really cool stuff.
I went home that night and signed up as a developer on Laconica. I've downloaded the source and will experiment with it this week before I take on anything on the "to do " list. I intend on focusing on expanding the feature set to include stuff that will deprecate the monolithic models mentioned above... should be fun :-)
I closed out the evening with some socialising in the hallway and some ranting about how-very-awesome Laconica was to my coworker Ronn, who showed up late in the day. He wandered off in search of my other colleagues and I followed after finishing a recap with Karen Quinn Fung a fellow transit fan and Free software fan. Unfortunately though, I wasn't really paying attention to where Ronn was going, I just followed out of curiosity. It turns that out I had stumbled into a Drupal social where I was almost immediately asked: "so, how do you use Drupal and how much do you love it?" by the social organiser. James gave me a horrified "what the hell are you doing here" look and searching for words, I said something to the effect of "Um, well, I was pretty much just dropping in here looking for my co-workers... oh here they are! -- I like Drupal because it makes it easy for people to make websites, but I don't really use it because it gets in my way. I prefer simple, elegant solutions and working around something just to get it to work is too aggravating." Considering the company, my response was pretty well received. I backed out quietly at the earliest opportunity :-)
So that was OpenWeb, well half of it anyway. I only got a pass for the Thursday. I can't recommend it enough though. Really interesting talks and really interesting people all over the place. I'll have to make sure that I go again next year.