A cynic might call network services as we know them a classic response to a changing market. Concerned about possible competition from Free software, network service companies have changed standard practices in the software market just enough to mount a credible challenge -- and, until recently, the ploy has worked.
Tim O'Reilly warned two years ago that network services were challenging Free software licensing. His comments were widely misunderstood in the media, but in the last year or so, enough people have come to similar conclusions that the Free software community is starting to expand into network services, settling any uncertainty by declaring most of them proprietary, and discussing what network services delivered under a Free license might look like.
One of the first signs of Free software's growing awareness of network services was the release in November 2007 of the third version of the Affero General Public License (AGPL). Named for an earlier, related license, the AGPL is a modification of the GNU GPL that, in essence, declares that providers of network services are distributors of software, and subject to the same requirements as any other distributor who users the GPL. According to Palamida's figures, the license has been used by 100 software projects as of May, 2008. Theresa Bui, vice president of marketing for Palamida, expects at least another 50 to start using it by August -- and probably more.
Still others are starting to flesh out what network services under a Free license might look like, such as Fabrizio Capobianco, the CEO of Funambol and one of the first adopters of the AGPL; Marco Barulli of the Clipperz project, who has repeatedly blogged on the topic; and the newly announced autonom.us, which might be called a think-tank for free software legal experts and activists.
The Free software position on network services is still evolving, but the emerging consensus seems to be that, unlike with locally installed software, the ability to copy, modify, and distribute software is not enough to guarantee users' freedoms. Instead, steps are necessary to ensure that users of network services can control their data and privacy. For example, Clipperz has what it calls a zero-knowledge policy, which uses encryption to hide both its users' identities and data.
Personally, I'm still not convinced that network services offer any advantages for users over local software. However, that will probably change as network services become more sophisticated -- possibly through Google Gears -- and, at any rate, my opinion seems to be a minority one.
For better or worse, network services are here to stay. And, that being so, I am glad to see the Free software community treating them as the proprietary efforts they are and offering an alternative. Otherwise, O'Reilly's prediction that Free software might become irrelevant in the face of network services seems all too likely.