Sotto Voce, Not

Multimedia pioneer Marc Canter is a giant man with an operatic build and, as I learned last night, at least some stage experience in that tragicomic art. He spoke at a dinner about his vision for a free, open source Web infrastructure upon which private businesses would be built. He also said that one of his endeavors, the free video storage site Ourmedia, has attracted 27,000 users in under four months.

I’ve observed Marc, on and off, for more than a decade, and mention the opera bit because it explains a lot about this large, loud and, I think, brilliant personality. His passion for open source solutions is a recurring theme. I attended only a couple of sessions at the Web 2.0 conference in 2004, but one of my recollections was Marc holding forth about open ware. Others might, less charitably, describe his speaking style as a rant. Indeed, if I were ever to meet Marc around a big mahogany conference table I might have it bolted down, lest he grab it and shake it, like a pinball player using body English. But that’s not a criticism because I like Marc. He is the sort of character beloved by story tellers like me. Besides, I think he’s absolutely right when he says future Web development must occur on an open foundation.

At Tuesday night’s salon dinner co-hosted by East Bay television archivist Jeff Ubois, Marc talked about several elements of this emerging foundation beginning with Drupal, a community-building software with a Linux-like story. Drupal was developed by the Belgian programmer Dries Buytaert (playing the catalyzing role of Linus Torvalds). Ourmedia, which Canter launched with blogger JD Lasica, uses Drupal as its organizing software. Marc said there might be about 1,000 Drupal sites worldwide, and perhaps half as many programmers. (Marc shared a table with Identity Woman, who is using Drupal to build other community sites, and she lamented about the lack of regular release dates from the freeware programmers. A scheduled August meeting in Oregon may resolve some of these issues.)

Marc also spoke about Ajax, which is apparently the name for a collection of existing technologies that can be used together to make a Web page more interactive. Here’s what I gleaned. Today Web pages do a lot of fetching; when you click, electrons have to make a big round trip to and from the server. The Ajax tools apparently allow designers to embed executable modules (like Java code) in the body of the page. These executables reside in memory. So when the person clicks, the electrons need only go as far as the computer bus. At least that’s the way I think it works, and as for what designers will do with Ajax, I suppose we’ll find out.

Marc made a larger point, about how these and other tools (such as digital identity registries) would enable people to have multiple personalities in cyberspace. He has a whole vision of so-called Digital Lifestyle Aggregators — different online personalities I guess. But I won’t go there. That’s too sociological and I’m too conservative. I figure one personality per customer but, hey, that’s just me.

Where Marc makes the most sense is when he insists that the basic foundations of Web applications should be open in one way or another. They can be truly open source, as in making the code available as is the case with Drupal. Or the sharing can be partial, such as when profit-motivated players like Amazon create applications with open APIs that other applications can be built upon them. Remember. The foundation is the Web, and beneath that, the Internet protocol. Every proprietary firm or application built on top of those free layers depend on the interoperability of the freeware that lies below. Freeware is the goose that lays the golden egg. If Web 2.0 developers are not careful to build a new freeware layer we will kill the goose. And that would be a tragedy of operatic proportion.

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media