Freedombone Blog

Freedom in the Cloud

Solid Venture

Tim Berners-Lee has started a company called Inrupt to back his decentralized web project called Solid. There's an article about it here.

I'm sympathetic towards anything which is trying to re-decentralize the web and bring it back to a condition which isn't one of "everyone in my database", as happened with web 2.0. But being backed by venture capital isn't a good sign. Producing public code with venture capital always seems to result in one of two outcomes:

  • The venture fails and the project becomes abandonware
  • The venture succeeds and the software users get locked into some very contrived and usually disagreeable commercial arrangement which they hate

With venture capital the terms of exit - that is, how the users of the system are eventually going to be monetized - has already been pre-arranged at the beginning. If you've seen the relevant TV shows where entrepreneurs "pitch" to capitalists you'll know what this is about.

In the software context exit from venture capital typically means forcing people to take out subscriptions or switching the license to something proprietary or doing the "open core" thing where the core codebase remains as a useless stub and anything of value is in the form of closed addons or a closed enterprise edition. Or you just sell it to Microsoft or Google and they shut it down because it's rivalrous to their existing products or goals. That has happened plenty of times.

A recent-ish example of venture capital would be something like Makerbot. Lots of hype about how great open source hardware/software is and how it's going to change the world, create decentralized manufacturing, etc. After venture capital exit the whole thing goes closed. Taking a look at the website now it's totally corporate and I notice not only is the software closed but there is not even a GNU/Linux version. That must have been quite a kick in the stomach for the original founders, or perhaps they knew that was going to happen as part of the exit deal.

So what would be better? I think the evidence on this is pretty clear. He could start a foundation or a non-profit organization or a "social purpose corporation" like Purism. That would increase the chances of avoiding having his project cynically used and then dumped as so many venture capital backed things have been in the past.

If it looks as if Solid is going to be something useful and it's under a suitable Free Software license then I'll include it in Freedombone as an app. Solid has already been around for a few years and the code is up on Github, but as far as I'm aware it's not in a production-ready condition yet and forming a company is about trying to get more developer effort focussed upon getting it into a viable condition.