How Europe can save the Internet

January 30, 2012 | Leave a comment

I wrote a piece about ACTA for Imperica:

When the French MEP Kader Arif stepped down last week from scrutinizing the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, declaring that he “would not participate in this charade”, it was the culmination of eight years of political lobbying, back-room deals and undemocratic conniving that now threatens to undermine the entire global Internet economy.

[...] Despite declaring an intention to prevent piracy, the agreements once again represent a significant infringement of civil liberties and undermine the principles by which the Internet works. The agreements’ intentions appear good at first glance – who doesn’t want to protect the rights of artists? – but actually represent an irreversible erosion of personal freedoms.

Click here to read the whole article.

Die, Hollywood, die!

January 22, 2012 | 18 comments

Paul Graham’s Y-Combinator request for startups that will kill Hollywood has opened up a can of exploding radioactive mega-worms – and this time, they’re angry. In the wake of the Internet industry’s fight against SOPA and PIPA, he posed the problem:

The main reason we want to fund such startups is not to protect the world from more SOPAs, but because SOPA brought it to our attention that Hollywood is dying. They must be dying if they’re resorting to such tactics. [...] How do you kill the movie and TV industries? Or more precisely (since at this level, technological progress is probably predetermined) what is going to kill them? Mostly not what they like to believe is killing them, filesharing. What’s going to kill movies and TV is what’s already killing them: better ways to entertain people. So the best way to approach this problem is to ask yourself: what are people going to do for fun in 20 years instead of what they do now?

Cue pitchfork-wielding posts about how the studios are broken and we should be funding movies using the startup model.

In my opinion, these miss the mark in a fistful of ways.

Paul didn’t ask for new ways to make movies. He asked, what are people going to do for fun in 20 years? That’s a separate problem. Think about how storytelling has evolved through motion pictures: one-off shorts, full-length movies, talkies, serials, TV shows, video games, web shorts. Each of these advances was made possible by technology, but has art at its core. How can a connected medium like the Internet create new narrative experiences without disappearing into the mindless clicking of Zynga et al?

By the way, movies are awesome – and can’t be replaced by games. They’re ingrained as a deep part of our culture in a way that digital narratives have mostly managed when movie people get involved. (My favorite game of all time is The Secret of Monkey Island – a LucasFilm production.) Movies are also a collective experience in a way that digital culture can’t yet manage. Film nights – themed house parties where people watch a curated series of movies – are one of my favorite things in the world. The digital equivalent is probably LAN parties, where everyone has to bring their own computer and play a game together. Admittedly, that was fun when I was 15, but do you have the same conversations? Movies evolved from theater and literature – from pulpy paperbacks all the way through high art – whereas most games can still be tracked back to sports. They’re both important, but occupy different cultural niches.

Also, Raiders of the Lost Ark is five minutes shy of two hours long. Can you imagine sitting and watching someone play a game for that long? I’ve done it, and by the end of the first hour I’m usually half a Goomba jump away from going feral.

You can’t make a minimally viable movie. It’s tempting to treat a movie like a startup – and, of course, most movies are individual businesses with their own profit and loss sheets. But imagine what would happen if you tried to invent a whole plot and script based on the kinds of audience research and iterative demographic analytic analysis we all claim to practice on the web. You’d get the kind of forgettable paint-by-numbers movie that we’ve all seen a thousand times. No risks mean we never get to see anything new. (The same goes for startups, in my opinion.)

(Edit: the community over at Hacker News make an excellent point about this: that test screenings are commonplace, and that I contradict myself by saying that these methods lead to poor movies, which shows that it can be done. I guess I’m saying that movies can’t be made by lean methodologies alone.)

(A further edit: I don’t consider a low-budget movie to be a minimum viable product. This post by Anthony Panozza does a good job of explaining what the difference is, in my opinion.)

Distribution is the weakest link – and the real gatekeeper. Anyone can make a movie, especially now that cameras and professional editing suites have fallen into a price range that ordinary people can afford. The trick is getting a distributor to pick it up. Studios are legally barred from owning movie theaters; in other words, they haven’t owned the whole vertical chain since 1948. It’s distributors who ultimately control release dates and distribution, and who are blocking more innovative models from being established. These companies are the pink elephants on parade. What’ll we do?

The final reel

Movies aren’t going anywhere in the face of digital, just as novels weren’t killed by movies. The incredibly creative people who make them aren’t going away either, although decreasing technology costs mean there may be more of them. Instead, we need to look to the next new model for narrative entertainment: a kind of social experience that we can experience together, passively, holding each other’s hands and laughing at the jokes in unison. That’s the only thing that’ll really kill Hollywood.

Grassroutes: how three students helped save the Internet

January 18, 2012 | 1 comment

Like many of you, I blacked out my site for the protests against SOPA and PIPA. These are bad laws that describe themselves as being anti-piracy but will hinder business, destroy jobs, undermine the working of the Internet, and – to add insult to injury – won’t stop piracy. Khan Academy has a great overview; my previous post about it is over here.

In this post, though, I’m going to rave, because I’m majorly impressed.

The major feature of my SOPA blackout page was a simple widget that detected your location, listed the representatives you needed to call to tell them about your opposition to the bills, and then let you call them straight on the page. This is like magic to me, even though I know it’s a Twilio integration. Brilliantly executed.

The three developers, Drew Inglis, Nick Meyer and Tess Rinearson, built Grassroutes as part of PennApps, a weekend hackathon at the University of Pennsylvania held a couple of days before the protest. It’s not just for SOPA and PIPA: you can relabel it for any political issue that you want to drive action for. Like nothing else before it, it turns slacktivism into direct action that spreads virally among site owners. And, again, it’s slick, simple, beautiful and well-built.

Grassroutes made it to the front page of Hacker News, where hackers continued the work by (for example) turning it into a Facebook app, and I certainly used it to call my representatives. My hope is this is part of a new wave of apps that will overcome the traditional criticisms of politics online and lower the barrier to direct participation in the democratic process.

Identity is the operating system

January 15, 2012 | Leave a comment

"Dude, you can make calls on your camera?!" (photo by @troy)I’ve got a phone number: +1 (312) 488-9373. Feel free to call or text it.

If I’m walking around, you’ll get me on my Samsung Galaxy S II. If I’m in transit (but not driving), you’ll probably get me on my iPad. If I’m at my desk, I’ll answer and take the whole call through my laptop. For you, the experience of contacting me will be exactly the same (give or take some background noise). For me, the experience fits my context: I can make and receive calls and texts on any of my devices. The same is true for email.

Consumption works the same way. All my important files are stored on Dropbox. If I need to get at something – for example, a work-in-progress piece of writing, or a receipt – I can pick up any of my Internet-connected devices and grab the contents. Similarly, my notes, which I take through Evernote: I can create and consume these anywhere.

A final example: I love movies. Watching them at the theater is still magical for me, but I also enjoy them elsewhere, depending on what kind of movie it is. (My favorite streamable new release right now is Midnight in Paris. A great film.)

At home, I use my dedicated media PC to play through a sound system and flat-screen monitor. It’s not perfect, but it works. Elsewhere, I might use my laptop or my iPad. On the road, I can play the same movie through the same service on my phone, or I may be able to take a downloaded version for offline consumption.

So far, so obvious. These are all known use cases that demonstrate why the consumer Internet is so powerful. But I have a question:

Shouldn’t applications, services and content be sold to me, instead of my devices?

Right now, I have to set each of my services up on each of my devices, and tell them to use the same account. That sometimes doesn’t work perfectly: for some reason, for example, I seem to have two Path accounts – one for my US handset, and one for my UK handset. I’m not sure how this happened.

Ideally, I want to sign up:

  1. Once for each device, to tell them that I own it, and where I store my identity.
  2. Once more for each service or application, to associate them with my identity.
  3. The filesystem would be networked and bound to the identity. So rather than storing it on its own infrastructure, Evernote would save notes to my filesystem, which could potentially be accessed by other networked software.
  4. Each identity would have an Internet-accessible unique identifier and point of entry.

The applications would then automagically become available on each of my devices. Crucially, when I go to buy or rent Midnight in Paris, it then is also available on all of my devices, because I’m renting via my identity rather than any one device. For the next 24 hours, say, I can stream the movie wherever is most convenient. If I buy a license for Microsoft Office, then it is licensed to my identity and I can use it on any of my devices.

This is literally a per-seat model for selling software. It makes buying and consuming simple, and will reduce piracy.

So here’s a follow-on question. It’s a dull-sounding one, but bear with me:

Wouldn’t this make enterprise provisioning dramatically easier?

Right now, system administrators in enterprise environments push software over their networks, and often refuse to allow non-approved hardware onto their infrastructure in order to make this easier. In an identity-centric model, though, where applications are delivered using Internet technologies:

  1. Software would be provisioned to identities rather than machines.
  2. The available identity domains and software on any given network could be locked down as appropriate (so, for example, I could bring in my smartphone but only use a sanctioned identity with it if I wanted to connect to the local network).

Wouldn’t this make consumer applications dramatically less annoying?

For me, the answer is “yes”. I don’t want to care about my devices and their capabilities, and I’m a CTO with a computer science degree. End users want their software to seamlessly “just work”, and they want to seamlessly be able to move content from one machine to another, or share to another person no matter what that thing happens to be, or where their data is stored. Right now, operating systems have become gatekeepers: bottlenecks that get in the way of users.

For me, this is the real application of a decentralized social web. It’s not just about sending messages around – it’s about using the Internet to create a fabric of interdependent applications where we retain control of our data (those identities and networked filesystems could be anywhere) while enjoying a simpler experience. Application providers and content owners sell more of their products, because they’re easier to consume, everyone loves their devices that little bit more, and every new product sold becomes a window onto a much bigger, connected ecosystem that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Photo by Troy Holden, released under a Creative Commons license.

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