Page last updated at 13:41 GMT, Tuesday, 31 March 2009 14:41 UK

The message and the movement

Statue of Marx and Engels, AP
Manifestos try to capture the spirit of a moment and inspire a movement

It's important to develop standards for cloud computing but not too soon, says Bill Thompson

History is littered with manifestos, the public statements of principles and intentions that announce policies, revolutions or ambitious visions in politics and the arts.

Every political party produces one in advance of an election, and significant manifestos from history include the Communist Manifesto of 1848, the Futurist Manifesto of 1909 and Andre Breton's Surrealist Manifesto of 1924.

This last opens with the glorious claim that "so strong is the belief in life, in what is most fragile in life - real life, I mean - that in the end this belief is lost".

In the internet age we've had the Cluetrain Manifesto, various "Internet" manifestos and of course John Perry Barlow's famous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace which tells the governments of the world that "You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather", and is a manifesto in spirit if not title.

The great manifestos demonstrate a clarity of thought and expression that can galvanize public opinion, reinforce political movements and create new cultural modes of expression, often because they are strikingly expressed and written in language that motivates and inspires.

Who could fail to be moved by the Futurists' claim that "the essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt" or Cluetrain's twelfth thesis: "There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products."

Bill Thompson
...much as I support open standards I can see the need to hold off on the standards-setting process long enough to decide how they should operate.
Bill Thompson
And now we have a new manifesto for the modern age of distributed computing. The "open computing manifesto" was launched this week with the support of some very large computer companies including Cisco, AT&T, Sun Microsystems and Telefonica as well as over 50 other players in this growing market, all under the leadership of IBM.

It outlines a set of principles that should underpin the growth of online services and utility computing as we shift from running software and storing data locally to an approach like the one we have developed for electricity, generated at large power stations for use wherever it is needed.

The release of the manifesto shows that vendors are starting to think about the need for open standards to underpin distributed services. Although Google, Amazon, Salesforce and Microsoft, four very big players in the area, are notably absent from the list of supporters and Steve Martin from Microsoft was very critical of the manifesto and the closed way in which it was put together even before it was published, they are all likely to sign up in the near future.

We're still at a very early stage in moving data and services from our desktops, laptops and local servers into computing utilities, and it's clear that Google Apps, Microsoft Azure and even Amazon's S3 and EC2 services are still very immature offerings which will change greatly in the coming months and years, so thinking about standards now could help greatly in future.

There is always a danger that early standardisation in rapidly developing areas simply serves to limit innovation and make it possible for the companies that have lagged behind in their adoption of new models to catch up on a standards-enforced level playing field.

This is the view usually taken by Microsoft when they decide to offer a non-standard service, or extend an existing standard in ways that will only work properly with other Microsoft software.

Father Ted, Channel 4
Father Ted has lessons for manifesto writers.
Even so, locking users in to poor standards can be just as bad as locking them into single vendor solutions, and much as I support open standards I can see the need to hold off on the standards-setting process long enough to decide how they should operate.

However, it is equally dangerous to allow proprietary solutions to dominate for too long, as they force customers to stay with existing vendors and limit creativity and innovation simply by restricting the number of players in the field. Balance and good timing matter.

What we need at this stage is a statement of principles that will resonate with the vendors, the users and the standards body.

We need a document that conveys the excitement of the new computing model while offering a clear path towards future standardisation around agreed principles. Only that way will we ensure that the cloud computing market is characterised by open competition, diverse offerings from multiple players and a commitment to customer service, with a clear path for future development based on open standards.

Sadly the open cloud manifesto fails on all of these grounds, offering only a collection of principles that almost anyone would consider obvious and written in the sort of language that graces too many corporate websites, opening with the claim that "the buzz around cloud computing has reached a fever pitch".

I wasn't expecting something on the lines of Marx's "a spectre is haunting Europe-the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre", but any journalism student could do better.

Surely it is hardly necessary to note that "cloud computing standards organizations, advocacy groups, and communities should work together and stay coordinated, making sure that efforts do not conflict or overlap", or to argue against duplicating or reinventing standards.

In the end this particular manifesto reminded me rather too much of the posters carried by the priests in the sitcom Father Ted when they are protesting against a film the church has declared blasphemous. "Down with this sort of thing", shouts Ted, with Dougal behind him going "Careful now!" - a weak offering that lacks real conviction and fails to convince.


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet



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