The Open Process

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Take your Nintendo DS into the solar age

openlockA common gambit in the open standards arena is the invite-only event. This is where a group of developers, marketing types, and entrepreneurs decide the time is right to codify their work in a momentum play. Such a moment presented itself this week when an OpenID UI event was held at the Facebook offices in Palo Alto.

OpenID has achieved extraordinary amounts of promotion, contributions, and adoption in the past year. The group presenting this private event was in large part responsible for this success, but with some important caveats. Open standards is as much if not more about politics than technology, and some of the political players such as Dave Winer and Marc Canter were left out of the loop.

Also, the members of the core group include folks who work for some of the major platform vendors in the space, and it can become difficult to separate out the open aspects of this subtle world from the spin that inevitably accompanies the information and innovation. The stated purpose of this particular event was to encourage a discussion about user interface issues in hopes of moving more quickly and effectively than a larger open group.

After some pointed comments by Winer and a FriendFeed thread, the event was “opened” to streaming video and a chat room for feedback. A back channel email thread started by Canter added some interested bystanders including some participation from the Identity Internet Workshop where OpenID and OAuth were given significant support in the early days. But those in charge of the event held firm on the original closed intent of the session, discussing further more open events but offering no commitments.

Aside from the obvious irony of a closed event about Open standards, the actual procedings produced an exciting demo of an experimental wiring up of Plaxo and Google in two clicks. While there was a tenuous relationship to a UI experience, the success of a project that had been demonstrated in an earlier open event at Digg headquarters produced palpable optimism that real progress was being made.

In retrospect, the organizers succeeded in promoting their agenda, with all of its attendant good vibes about open source, open standards, and a more up-to-date process for bringing competitors into alignment in the Web 3.0 space. But they failed by making the mistake of connecting their valuable and generous efforts to a process that at a minimum brings their motives into question.

Why should such a meeting be private? It raises the question: who is not invited, and why. The answer that came back was one of purpose and expertise, that those who were actively working in the space would be welcome. Coders, marketers, organizers, representatives of major platforms. Makes sense, but why would those not invested in the event want to come in any case. Well, because they are invested.

The history of open standards is rife with examples of a curious alliance between the media and the outsiders of a process. First, it is interesting, newsworthy, challenging of orthodoxy and entropy, the very forces that retard more hierarchical organizations such as the ones the Open Stack organizers are trying to improve upon. And again, if this needs to be repeated, the history of profoundly disruptive technologies such as XML, RSS, Twitter, and indeed everything about the current Web x.0 landscape comes in significant part from the combination of the bigcos and the so-called outsiders to the process.

It’s more than a little ironic that the organizers of this event include Chris Messina, whose central role in routing around similar issues with private events led to BarCamp and all of his fine work in the Open stack. His response to concerns from those not invited (a large group if you take into account the world population) was to categorize (my paraphrase) those concerns as noise. Messina’s election to the board of the OpenID Foundation is deserved and a significant moment in the evolution of his and the others’ efforts, but now is not the time to climb on board the Ark and pull up the ladders.

The 92% demo and its clear signal that users are ready for coherent agreements with vendors about who owns their data (users) is a signal moment in the open evolution of the network. At a time when Microsoft is mandating openness in its core strategy, when Google and other vendors are profiting handsomely on technologies built via open source, when YouTube and Ustream and a thousand endpoints are blooming with direct worldwide access at virtually no cost to ideas, innovation, and a way out of this economic disaster we’re bearing — now is the time for systems that include rather than pick and choose winners.

Of course, you can go the old route and lock down the intellectual property, choose your business partners and favored suppliers, and so on. But if you build your enterprise on an open API platform and then close the barn door, the after-taste can be difficult to get rid of. Trying to hold back the Web doesn’t work, and those who succeed by understanding that have to renew their vows each day. That’s the ticket for admission to the Open Process.

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