RSS death, the Javascript trap, and SaaS

Filed under: web — jlm @ 12:34

I read this recent post by Vambenepe on the campaign to kill RSS, and it bothered me. RSS/Atom is what makes a dynamically updating web usable, and here it as an open, decentralized protocol was being replaced by closed SaaS offerings under central control. For a reason I wasn’t sure of, it reminded me of Stallman’s anti-SaaS essay “The JavaScript Trap” from some time ago. That essay didn’t sit right with me: Because your software comes from a webserver on demand, instead of being pre-installed locally, doesn’t make it or what it does any more or less free, and Stallman’s solution of blocking javascript not tagged as being under a free-software license is impractical. And indeed, in the years since, we’ve seen plenty of open source javascript code written and published, coexisting alongside a vibrant ecosystem of proprietary javascript code, just like we have with client application software.

But it finally gelled: The problem with SaaS is that it welds the data to the code.

Let me explain using “traditional” software applications as an example. You have documents you edit in Microsoft Word. These documents are .doc files which are on your disk drive and you can do anything to them that you can do with any other file: Copy it, delete it, encrypt it, archive it to tape, attach it to an email, etc. All outside of Word. If Microsoft does something to annoy you, you can even edit the documents in WordPerfect or AbiWord or OpenOffice or anything else which understands the .doc file format, which there are plenty of because file formats aren’t protectable as intellectual property.

Contrast this with the SaaS situation: You can’t give a WebDAV address to Google Docs for a document you want to edit in that webapp, and have it open and save to that file. You can’t manipulate your Docs files at all, except through the webapp. The only way you can (eg) attach it to an email is to be using Google’s email webapp, and hope that Google’s programmers have provided integration between them (at time of writing, they haven’t).

In short, if you want to use Google’s word processor, you have to use Google for its data store. You can’t say “I love Google Docs’ UI, but I prefer to use Amazon for data storage.” SaaS leverages control or preference of one aspect (the code) into use of another aspect (the data). Why should the SaaS provider have custody of your files? You can store your data with any number of hosts, and the “cloud” lets you access that data from any client machine. But not if you want to access a webapp. Then it’s only if your data is hosted with the SaaS provider. And that’s the real Javascript trap.

Update: Seems Steve Wozniak has some concerns along these lines, about you not controlling data you upload to a cloud store.

Update 2: Now Wired is sounding this alarm, with the focus on data security.

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