The IndieWeb as a minimum viable social web ecosystem

July 9, 2013 | 1 comment

I wrote a post as a submission for the W3C’s upcoming Workshop on Social Standards: The Future of Business.

Although there have been significant advances in the field over the last five years, there remains a need to prove the business value of decentralized web technologies. To many of us involved in both the industry and the movement, this seems silly: after all, the business value of other decentralized technologies, like email and the phone system, are hardly questioned. Nonetheless, in a world where centralized data siloes regularly receive multi-billion-dollar valuations, the onus is on those of us who are building more open technologies to demonstrate their worth. Note, it is not enough to argue their worth: we must build, ship, and actively demonstrate a profitable product or service with a business model where the decentralized social web is an inextricable component.

I believe that these compelling business models exist, and that they are most easily discoverable in the enterprise. However, belief is not demonstration: we must continue to test and iterate them. During this exploration phase, this means that, our software and underlying protocols must be easy to write, adapt and change. Ease of development is more important than sophistication; we must not create our own technical lock-in before we even ship.

I posted the whole piece on Werd.io, and it also made it to the front page of Hacker News.

Profile: a serialized novel for email, web, Kindle and ePub

February 3, 2012 | Leave a comment

This is an excerpt from a new kind of project for me. Profile is a serial thriller about identity, the Internet and what happens when we trust companies to tell us what is and isn’t true. I’m going to treat the whole process – from writing through promotion – like a lean startup; more on that later.

Interested? Subscribe to receive news updates via email. It should go without saying that your email address is safe and won’t be shared with any third parties.

 

I huddled in the dark, under the wooden stairs leading out to the backyard, the metal of my unsheathed flash drive digging into my thigh. I could hear them in the house, opening drawers and moving furniture. They spoke to each other in a low murmur, an indistinguishable bassline while my Spotify playlists ran their course in the background, silently pushing unknown songs to my Facebook profile.

Through the clouds, an aircraft’s engines announced its descent.

I knew I would have to run. My backyard was surrounded by tall fencing on three sides, the result of neighbors jealously guarding their privacy. If I was going to make a break for it, I would need to climb over on one side, and I wasn’t sure if I could make it without drawing attention to myself.

Creaking floorboards. Inside, the men were moving from room to room. I wasn’t sure how many of them were, but it sounded like five at least: enough to keep guard while the others looked around.

From the glimpse I’d had of them when I looked through my bedroom window and seen them marching towards my house, they were police of some kind. They weren’t uniformed, as such, but each wore an identical suit, and each of them had been reaching for something as they approached my front door. It could have been phones, or documents, or anything, but I didn’t want to risk it. Particularly now as they’d forced their way into my home.

My breath caught the reflected light from the house in front of me, hot clouds of condensation reaching out into the cold of the night. I realized I was panicking.

“He’s still here,” one of them said, his voice urgent and raised enough for me to hear. “His phone’s on the network.”

The wifi! I whipped my handset out of my pocket and pushed down the power button to turn it off. Its screen lit up the yard, turning the grass and my weeds unnatural shades of blue and orange as the men ran through the house in an avalanche of heavy footsteps, down to the back door to find me.

Quickly, I set my phone on a ten second timer, and threw it over the fence to my left as hard as I could. Panting, my heart in my throat, I scrambled past the trashcans and garden debris to the alley beside my house, flung my back against the wall, and waited.

 

Coming soon.

The open web is dead. Get over it and do something.

October 15, 2011 | 8 comments

I and my iPad..Yesterday, I joined the Post-PC era by upgrading my iPad to iOS 5. Yes, the upgrade process wiped all of my applications and data, but once I’d put everything back together again, the result was a faster, more streamlined device that works much better than it did with iOS 4. I use my iPad for most of my non-work browsing; I also subscribe to the New York Times on it and use it as a Kindle. I also love both audio and video podcasts – for example Kevin Rose’s incredibly high-quality Foundation series. Podcasts really came of age when iTunes included subscriptions as a feature, and periodical content like the New York Times can now auto-update. So I figured that now that iOS devices were fully independent, they’d be able to subscribe to, and auto-update, podcast content, right?

Nah. In iOS 5, you can only download podcasts by the episode, and only via the iTunes Store. There’s no other subscription capability. If, as a content owner, you want to give your users the ability to subscribe, you’ve either got to build a native iOS app or ask your users to sync from their computers; either way, you’ve got to have your content approved by Apple (unless you ask your users to paste an RSS URL straight into iTunes). The latter situation is going to become less and less tenable as time goes on. Apple may sell 4 million iPhone 4S devices this weekend; Android is gaining significant market share. The Internet is slowly fragmenting into a series of proprietary (or in the case of Android, semi-proprietary) application platforms.

Let’s not kid ourselves about the reasons. Native apps are faster, have better UI, and tend to provide a user experience that is better overall. There’s a reason that there was so much buzz over Facebook’s iPad app, even though the iPad is capable of displaying Facebook’s full web interface. There’s no sense in being blinded by ideology: for most people, apps are better.

This is a problem. It’s a problem for companies like Google, who depend on web ad sales to make a living. It’s also a problem for the entire web ecosystem – one of the cultural and commercial strengths of the web has been the fact that nobody owns it.

That same strength has become a competitive disadvantage. Joe Hewitt caused a fuss a few months ago by suggesting that web technologies need an owner, and I think at least on one very practical level, he was right:

The Web has no one who can ensure that the platform acquires cutting edge capabilities in a timely manner (camera access, anyone?). The Web has no one who can ensure that the platform makes real developers happy and productive. The Web has no one to ensure that it is competitive with other platforms, and so increasingly we are seeing developers investing their time in other platforms that serve their needs better.

Nonetheless, the ideology is important. Just as the IBM PC eventually won out over the Mac in the eighties, open always wins, and there are countless use cases where an open web makes more commercial, cultural and political sense than a proprietary app platform. However, as Joe points out:

Let’s face facts: the Web will never be the dominant platform. There will forever be other important platforms competing for users’ time. To thrive, HTML and company need what those other platforms have: a single source repository and a good owner to drive it. A standards body is not suited to perform this role. Browser vendors are innovating in some areas, but they are stalled by the standards process in so many areas that is impossible to create a platform with a coherent, unified vision the way Apple has with Cocoa or the way Python has with Guido.

In a follow-up post, he points out that the web has one major thing going for it:

There is, however, one other characteristic that does define the Web, and that is the humble hyperlink. Links are a feature of HTML, but they are not limited to HTML. Links are the connections that give the Web its name, and links are the biggest thing missing from native platforms.

[...] So, my definition of the Web then is resources loaded over the Internet using HTTP and then displayed in a hyperlink-capable client. This definition is liberating. It helps me see a future beyond HTML which is still the Web. I can say now that when I exclaim my love for the Web, it’s the freedom of driving the open Internet in a browser that I love, not the rendering technology. Hyperlink traversal matters. The Internet being global and decentralized matters. HTML does not matter.

This powerful core of information democracy – these interconnected links between resources and people – are what the people who love the web have been protecting. It’s what gives the web life, and the universe of open source projects and standards bodies that Joe tears down have been continuing to build it.

Enter Mozilla, which is obviously worried about the future of the platform:

The challenges ahead of us are very real. Mobile platforms are more closed and more centralized than we have seen in decades. As individuals, we are losing the ability to act on the Web without permission from large, centralized gatekeepers. We are all being tracked, logged, cataloged, monetized and turned into products to be sold. We’re seeing the universal platform of the Web fragmenting back into multiple different worlds.

As the Internet experience is changing, Mozilla, too, is changing. The products and tools that we use to advance our mission are expanding and evolving. A browser is necessary but not sufficient. Equally important is expanding the number of people who understand our values and identify as Mozillians. Mozilla has both the challenge and the opportunity to expand our reach dramatically. We have the ability to bring our values to life in new ways. Embracing these opportunities means embracing change, embracing hope and embracing determination. This is how we will continue to give people ultimate authority over their digital lives.

There are some things to take issue with in this statement – in particular, I think the goal of asking people to identify as Mozillians is questionable – but there’s a great big declaration of intent embedded there, too. Mozilla wants to “give people ultimate authority over their digital lives“, and I believe it’s now the only major player on the web that does.

If Mozilla continues to follow through on this promise, it deserves our support – but this approach doesn’t have to be limited to one organization. The World Wide Web, decentralized and standards-based, created an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and there’s much commercial gain to be had through finding new, open business models and creating open software that harbors commercial ecosystems. For many of us, the ideology and the preservation of the culture of the web is all we need; movements like the Occupy protests have much in common with open source, and could really make use of open communications platforms. For everyone else, it’s important to spread the message that there’s money to be made. Let’s get out there and bring the web back.

Photo by liewcf, released under a Creative Commons license.

Facebook has no need for deleting data

April 6, 2009 | 2 comments

Niall Kennedy has written an interesting post about Facebook’s data storage. They’ve written a proprietary filesystem to store photos in order to cut costs (up to now they’ve apparently been adding a $2 million NetApp storage system every week).

It turns out they’ve decided they don’t need all the features you’d find in a traditional file system (emphasis mine):

Traditional file systems are governed by the POSIX standard governing metadata and access methods for each file. These file systems are designed for access control and accountability within a shared system. An Internet storage system written once and never deleted, with access granted to the world, has little need for such overhead.

It would be nice if someone from Facebook could confirm that they do, in fact, have the ability to physically delete a photo or other items of data, and that this does, in fact, happen on the back end if you ask it to.

From what we understand of Facebook’s architecture, it probably doesn’t. When you post something, it gets copied and broadcast to your friends’ feeds; the data is out there forever. Even when you delete an account, your details aren’t fully removed. Surely, if nothing else, this is a legal minefield for the company?