We've Built a Library -- Now Let's Open It

An Essay of the LISNews Summer Series

I'm a conflicted person, it would seem. I regularly use, and encourage the use of, open source software. In some settings -- public computing, thin client, and cloud environments -- there isn't, in my mind, any closed system that comes close to delivering what an open platform offers.

I believe heartily that open source code benefits both developers and end-users -- in perpetuity. Open source development efforts can (and do) die -- but the application, the code, the vital organs that sustained it during development live on. An abandoned open source software project is much like what the medical profession calls a beating heart cadaver. I learned this from Mary Roach's book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

The fact that I read books about corpses that have more of a life than I do isn't what makes me a conflicted soul. The fact that I read it on my second generation Kindle most certainly does.

There'd been a relatively low key skirmish surrounding the Kindle for some time. It only recently became a full-fledged battle in the eyes of the general public when pirated ebooks sold via Amazon were removed from the devices (the purchase price was refunded). Many people suddenly (finally?) began to wonder if they really owned the books on the device.

No, they don't. While the reasons I decided to purchase a Kindle were varied (and surprisingly complex), it was partly because I was pleased in regards to how much I did own the content I bought.

Yes, it uses a closed file format (as well as copy protection software). To keep with our morbid metaphor: If closed software is a mortal entity, then closed formats are the "Not an organ donor" directive penned on a "Do not resuscitate" form. Closed formats are bad, kids. They are, and I say that without reservation. I say it feeling the appropriate amount of hypocrisy, guilt, and with the realization that admitting I know I don't really own the books makes this all sound even more naive.

Amazon, though using a closed format of death, allows syncing to multiple Kindles (or iPhone/iPod Touch devices running the Kindle app) registered to my account. It allows me to register or de-register devices, delete, and re-download purchased content indefinitely. It is closed, it is copy protected, and it is most decidedly not ideal, but it is miles ahead of where the music industry was with DRM-protected MP3s only a few years ago.

I am hoping Amazon eventually does the right thing and opens the Kindle file format -- not the firmware, not any little unique to the Kindle hardware features (it'd be nice, but is admittedly unrealistic). I believe it will happen, and that the technology has to progress through these restrictive, closed stages. It's critical that this happen now, as content merges from the purely physical form into the "born digital" state.

Why? Simple. While a proprietary hardware/software vendor closing up shop means losing a device or application, a no-longer-supported proprietary file format means losing information. As new technologies take shape, catch on, and people experience this firsthand, vendors will be pressured to ensure content is available now -- and in the future. If a device or application is lost to the ages, it may well have been inevitable. If the information produced by those using the device is lost -- that is simply unconscionable.

Kristin Shoemaker ("shoe") is the collective effort of the Simmons GSLIS development project. Constantly in need of either a warm reboot (or at least a Ctrl-Alt-Bksp and restart of the graphical server), she is a contributor at OStatic, the GigaOM network's open source portal.

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