The Importance of Transparency

Posted on by Chris Warburton

I know some people who read this can’t be arsed with the technical posts, but I do use this blog to tell the world, including my friends, what I’m up to, so please bear with me :)

People > Data > Code > Hardware

That sequence represents two things. Firstly, if those are treated as arrows, it shows how computer programs are generally used. A person inputs some data and the code does something with the data by running on the hardware. Another way of looking at it is as an inequality. People are more than data, data are more than code and code is more than hardware.

Hardware is a lump of plastic, silicon, germanium, steel, etc. It only exists to run code, therefore code > hardware.

Code only exists to manipulate data, whether those data are numbers in a calculation, images to be displayed, music to be played, messages to be sent, etc. Therefore data > code.

Data is only kept around because it is of use to people. Despite our best efforts, hardware and software cannot appreciate the humour of a LOLCAT image. Therefore people > data.

This relationship can be seen in many areas. If I have the most awesome server ever, nobody gives a crap if my Web site is crap. Google’s search engine started life on incredibly underpowered, unreliable hardware, but nobody noticed because the code was redundant and reliable. may be coded better than, but nobody uses Mugshot and there are far more data in Myspace.

Hardware doesn’t matter, so as much as possible should be as cross-platform as possible. I have Linux running on my desktops, my laptops and my ’phone. Windows will only run on x86 and x86-64 machines, which means no phones, no PDAs and very few embedded devices like set-top boxes and games consoles. If code is cross-platform then users don’t need to give a shit about hardware, which makes life a hell of a lot easier.

Code doesn’t matter as much as data, so as much as possible should be in standardised, implementable, documented formats. The spreadsheets I write in also work fine in Gnumeric and have live copies saved on Google Spreadsheets. Spreadsheets made in Microsoft Office 2007 can only be opened in Microsoft Office 2007, since everyone else’s attempts at compatibility are flawed. If data is openly standardised then users don’t need to give a shit about software, which makes life a hell of a lot easier.

This just leaves people and data, which are the only things that are important (code and hardware are just tools used by people to manipulate data).

Using the examples above, I can save a spreadsheet on my desktop and access it from anywhere in the world via Google Spreadsheets in the browser on my phone. The proprietary alternative is to only be able to use Microsoft Office 2007, which requires Microsoft Windows, which requires x86/64 hardware. A very cosy position to be in for Microsoft, but for the vast majority of the world who are not Microsoft employees, why give up so much? This isn’t just a feature argument either, since Microsoft could make a browser-based spreadsheet system. The argument is WHY DO I HAVE TO WAIT FOR MICROSOFT? If you hand someone the keys to your data, you should expect to be taken for a very long ride, at the end of which you might not even have that data any more.

The same goes for Facebook and other proprietary applications. (Free Software doesn’t always use standard formats, but the formats are at least documented to some small degree in the code. Proprietary apps give you no code.)