Hugh Winkler holding forth on computing and the Web

Saturday, April 25, 2009

If RMS has his way, the GPL is dead

The GPL has never made me feel particularly free. Only in a kind of newspeak can you say that constraining the kinds of agreements I can make with people who buy my software enhances my freedom .

I'm not saying I don't like and use GPL software, or that the GPL is unfair. Just don't tell me that handcuffs are extra freedom.

Only copyright law enables GPL to constrain my actions from beyond the grave. In a world without copyright, GPL would be toothless. I would be able to use any freely available software I could get my hands on, incorporate it into my own, and distribute only binaries.

Richard Stallman proposes reducing copyright protection to three years for software. And he admits "It would be necessary to prohibit the use of contracts to apply restrictions on copying that go beyond those of copyright." That prohibition would apply to FOSS too, of course. No copyright after three years; no contract allowing the author to constrain your actions after that.

That would mean that you could link to three year old GPL libraries and ship binaries!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The REST Hypothesis

I'm glad Joe Gregorio frankly assessed Atompub's meager adoption.

Atompub served as an experiment to confirm the REST hypothesis: If you construct distributed systems that look like the world wide web, the world will adopt them broadly and quickly -- the way we adopted the web itself. *

Lesson learned: the world's most successful distributed applications run on the web's architecture. That doesn't mean that by designing around web architecture, you will build the world's most successful distributed application.

Atompub came along at the time a critical mass of thought was building in favor of adopting the web architecture for designing new systems, rather than the ill-named "web services", SOAP and RPC model. Early drafts of Atompub allowed for a SOAP envelope.

The RESTful style prevailed, on its many merits. We got caching, and a resource oriented model, and a small, uniform interface.

But what the real, browser plus HTML web has, that RESTful systems don't, is the user agent. The human in front of her browser. An intelligence that reads and understands the meaning of "Author name" and "Title", and fills in an HTML form using queries against her personal database, stored in her brain.

As Joe put it, the problem is that Atompub clients aren't web browsers.

RESTful systems that aren't web browsers try to substitute understanding of media types for that intelligence. Compare Atom clients to HTML browsers.

An "Atom application" is some sort of content management system: a system that understands the semantics of feed documents. An Atom agent populates <author> and <title> elements. Only machines understand the meaning of <link rel="edit">. It's a world constrained to a narrow range of meanings.

But an HTML application can do anything. A human reads some text next to a form field, labelled "Author name", or "Preferred airline", and enters meaningful answers. If you are writing the kind of content management system where "Preferred airline" is a meaningful concept, HTML might be the way to go. There's no such concept in an Atom feed document. You get to present your own user interface, too.

RESTfully designed systems might profit from superior evolvability, cacheability, and interoperability over RPC systems. They are of the web. But they are not the web. The web is in your browser. The web is HTML.

*The hypothesis was not part of Roy Fielding's thesis. It's a hypothesis that many REST proponents, including me, have deployed.