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.

The future of publishing

April 18, 2010 | 1 comment

Intersection: PublishingThanks to everyone who came to Intersection: Publishing yesterday. Our fascinating round-table discussion was cut off far too soon: I think we could have gone on for days and only barely covered the issues. It’s clear that an open conversation that treated publishers, authors, readers, technologists and lawyers as equals was long overdue. (Missed it? Watch this space.)

I thought I’d write down some of my takeaways while they’re fresh in my mind:

DRM is misunderstood from both sides.

From some publishers, support was shown for Apple’s locked-down App Store business model, with the assumption that it would prevent piracy. Of course, this isn’t the case. I think Sven Edge put it best to me during the post-debate drinks: “any technological system only becomes less secure over time.” In other words, you cannot assume that any technology is unbreakable; someone will do it. Trusting your business model to DRM is therefore a very bad strategy.

Publisher advocacy of locked-down Digital Rights Management technologies apparently occurs because authors need to be reassured that their work won’t be stolen when it becomes available online. A few authors present disputed this point of view. Regardless of this, more work needs to be done to educate non-technical people around the issues, in a calm way that takes in all points of view and doesn’t attempt to reform the fundamentals of copyright law or rights agreements in the same breath.

The market for electronic publishing is still too fragmented.

Many publishers present were worried about the variety of devices and platforms present on the market, as well as their quality. They simply can’t afford to target all of them, and many are either choosing to wait or work with third-party companies to develop solutions for them. All agreed that a single, open platform that allowed publishers to create content using something approaching their existing skill-sets is desperately required.

There also needs to be an open equivalent for apps, to give publishers a choice, and to allow them to deliver to multiple platforms at once. During the debate, I suggested encapsulating HTML5 (which has all manner of app-friendly capabilities) in the ePub format (which produces stand-alone bundles of content that can be sold and transferred between devices). I intend to write more about this another time.

The publishing industry is following the patterns laid out by the music industry.

On the future of publishingPublishers are signing authors rather than books, and are beginning to gather extra revenue through talks and activities surrounding books, just as – for example – musical artists like Madonna are beginning to sign to concert promoters rather than traditional record labels. Together with the DRM arguments above, I think there’s a real danger that the publishing industry could go down exactly the same road. (On the topic of DRM, note that iTunes is now DRM-free – don’t count that any restrictions on iBooks or App Store items will last forever.)

The knowledge gap goes both ways.

The assumptions that geeks take as being gospel are not gospel. The assumptions that publishers take as being gospel are not gospel. Each side needs to listen to the other and contribute to a productive conversation, without demeaning anyone’s expertise or experience. There needs to be both give and take.

To put it another way: the models that govern software do not govern publishing and the models that govern publishing do not govern software. These remain two different businesses, and must be treated as such.

There was some very heated debate yesterday, but also a great deal of very constructive argument. I’m really looking forward to continuing the conversation.