How may we Web service you?

At the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference, "Web services" were all the rage. But what will happen when companies get cold feet -- and the lawsuits start?

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I had really only one motivation to catch up with the rest of the world and purchase a DVD player last year: My kids, who don’t watch much broadcast TV, love the occasional prerecorded video, and we got tired of rewinding the tapes and then fast-forwarding over the commercials at the tape’s start. “Random access solves that problem,” I thought. “Let’s just go digital.”

So there I am, after I pop in our first DVD, as the FBI warning comes into focus, pressing the Skip Forward key on the DVD control. “Straight to the good parts!”

Only nothing is happening. I pound on the button like a dummy, incredulous. I can’t skip forward. The disc, I realize, won’t let me.

I discovered, of course, that some recently produced DVDs have locked users out from skipping the legal boilerplate and the ads. It’s actually worse than on a VHS tape, where at least you can erase the commercials. (The videotape’s “no record” lock is defeated by a simple piece of tape over a hole in plastic; the DVD’s bigger lock is digitally encrypted and protected by law.)

DVD is a better format, but the power in the technology is not working for me — it’s serving the commercial interests of the DVD producer. They control the horizontal. They control the vertical. They can tell me what I can skip and what I can’t.

And so a simple but important advance in home entertainment technology has been crippled.

This kind of collision — between technical innovation and the constraints imposed by entrenched interests threatened by change — is inevitable, and it’s happening ever more frequently. Many of the talks at last week’s O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference were haunted by the specter of such conflicts.

The annual conference has become one of the key events geeks attend to tune in to the vibrations of trends on the industry’s edges, where legions of software developers, underemployed in the post-bubble recession, are knitting new bits of Net together. They’re worried — rightly so — that their flights of technological ingenuity are in danger of being grounded by short-sighted laws promoted by well-funded lobbyists.

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The most prominent examples of this kind of conflict are found in the entertainment world, where the legal fight over file-sharing continues down the worst-case path as the music industry begins to sue its customers. (When I first wrote about that prospect three years ago I really thought the music companies wouldn’t be self-destructive enough to choose this course.) But you can see similar battles looming even in the relatively arcane arena of Web software development.

The O’Reilly conference was a showcase for “Web services” — that confusing but important label applied to a new generation of easy-to-build, fast-to-deploy software that pulls data from different places across the Internet and recombines it in useful and diverting ways. As the conference host and open-source-oriented publisher Tim O’Reilly pointed out, Web services provide a means for developers to “deconstruct” the static Web pages we know, disassembling them into their component parts and using them to create more dynamic, diverse and personalized information systems. Combined with the ubiquity of portable wireless devices and the spread of easy-to-use publishing tools like weblogs, Web services offer us a new way of understanding the Internet — as a realm of real-time data that is drawn from widely disparate sources, interwoven with the physical world, and self-organizing as it goes along, all built from the bottom up with little bits of lovingly crafted code rather than imposed by corporate leviathans or structured by government bureaucrats.

It’s a seductive vision and one that is beginning to emerge more clearly. When people starting talking about Web services a couple of years back, the phrase was offered as a description for how businesses would communicate with one another, transferring data across disparate systems. But now more general-purpose examples are coming to the fore — like Dave Sifry’s Technorati, which aggregates a “cosmos” of information about every weblog it indexes.

For Web services to gather momentum, holders of stores of data have to be willing to open them up to outside developers. If you want to dictate exactly how your data appears to a user — maybe you want to sell ads, maybe you don’t want to overload your servers, maybe you’re just a control freak — there’s no way you’re going to let the Web-services developer’s script beachcomb your database.

Today, leading Web companies like Amazon and Google are carefully but enthusiastically opening up to this trend. Amazon talked up its Web-services initiative at the O’Reilly conference, positioning itself as less a retailer than a “technology platform” for third parties who can build their own storefronts on the foundation of its software. And for some time Google has provided outsiders with a limited-use key to its API (a set of programming “hooks” that give developers access to some of Google’s inner workings). That’s why you are seeing bits and pieces of both these companies’ services distributed in increasingly far-flung ways across the Web.

Both Amazon and Google are software-driven companies that have always embraced Web idealism, providing great, usable resources to the public — Amazon’s book and music catalog, Google’s unrivaled map of the Web itself — as a fundamental part of their business. Both firms clearly believe that, by moving their basic resource beyond the home Web site and into Web-services-driven nooks and crannies all over the Net, they will reap business rewards.

But it’s hard to believe that everyone out there is going to be as enthusiastic. Think of eBay. It was only three years ago that the leading Web auction site sued another company for grabbing auction listings and republishing them. What could be more “Web services”-like?

Now, it could be that eBay’s managers have experienced a change of heart since 2000 and are exploring the deconstruction of their site themselves. But I kind of doubt it. They have an enormous advantage based on the sheer volume of auction listings assembled in one place on their Web site, and it’s hard to imagine what incentive could induce them to give it up. Helping advance the general good of the Web isn’t going to be enough.

Aren’t a lot of companies with valuable Web resources going to resist the “deconstruction” of their assets into parts for others to reassemble? I posed this question to O’Reilly, and his answer — essentially, that those who resist this wave of change will eventually fall by the wayside — was optimistic but not entirely persuasive.

In the long run, I suppose, on a decade-long timeline, Web pages as we know them could well disappear, dimming the future of those who tied their businesses too closely to an aging technology. On the other hand, as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Mosaic browser and you now read this column through your Web browser, let’s observe a moment of silence for those starry-eyed future gazers of the mid-1990s who told us how rapidly HTML would vanish into the “push”-enabled, broadband-turbocharged, multimedia-enhanced future.

I don’t mean to suggest there isn’t a bright future for the cool stuff that developers are doing with Web services. But I think it’s naive not to forecast some bruising conflicts between the creators and users of Web services on the one hand, and companies resisting what they see as an intrusion on their right to deploy their data exclusively for their own benefit.

If it were simply a conflict between technology on the march and business-as-usual, optimism might be warranted. But the law is a crucial third player in this game. And as we’ve seen from the online-music wars and the fight over the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the legal system can be readily rigged to favor the status quo.

It’s easy to imagine a situation in which some enterprising developer discovers an open door to some Web site’s data and walks in and builds a “Web service” around it, without asking or paying. The company then sues the developer. Probably, the company is within its rights. But before you know it, there’s legislation afoot and Congress starts drawing lines around what Web software is allowed to do — lines that make little sense but that satisfy a well-heeled constituency.

If such a scenario starts to play out, the geek world of the O’Reilly conference will have to rethink its historical aversion to political action.

In a panel on the future of “digital rights management,” which the participants suggested should be renamed “digital restrictions management,” Joe Kraus — the Excite founder, now leader of Digitalconsumer.org — urged a campaign to reframe the debate, painting it less as a fight between Hollywood and Silicon Valley and more as a conflict between “incumbents and innovators.” More bluntly, Cory Doctorow — the science fiction writer, blogger and Electronic Frontier Foundation activist — urged, in a discussion of how the Internet populace failed to defend Napster: “Let’s not scatter like roaches when they turn the lights on.”

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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