Making billions of dollars from the federated social web

August 28, 2012 | 4 comments

Diaspora was pretty exciting. A Kickstarter campaign that promised it all: a platform created “for everyone to have full control over their data and to empower people in to become responsible, secure, and social Internet dwellers”. They raised over $200,000, which at the time was the largest Kickstarter funding round ever. Neat!

Yesterday, Diaspora announced that they were becoming a community project. That means that the wider open source community will be responsible for its direction; the original team will be involved to some extent, but are now involved in projects like Makr.io, which just made its way through Y Combinator. (Makr.io is released under the same open source license as Diaspora: here’s the GitHub repository.)

The federated social web is a holy grail for many of us. It’s a simple idea: rather than ceding control of our data and activities to a monolithic, monopolistic third party, why don’t we create an open market for services we can use, which can all interoperate? Those of us willing to set up our own servers would own our own data; others would use the servers set up by their schools or employers; others still would join the hosted service of their choice. The result would be a more innovative, web-like application web, where niche interests could be better served and people could choose the applications and interfaces that best suited them.

It goes far beyond Facebook-style social sites: the potential is for deep interoperability between every application on the web and beyond – and, potentially, identity spaces where we could keep our personal information safe.

Back in 2005, I tried to make the case in a letter to the social web hating journalist Andrew Orlowski:

If a thousand sites depend on Flickr, what happens if Flickr goes down? Wouldn’t it make a great deal more sense to think about standards for data transfer and availability to allow for Flickr-like data all over the Internet, rather than in one place – effectively a peer-to-peer network (or networks) of tagged resources? That way one can still grab information and manipulate it, but with zero dependence and a high tolerance for network failure. Rather than there being one nebulous Microsoft Office 12 For Web, there could be ten thousand office applications that all use the same standards and allow for data transfer perhaps with storage services elsewhere. The answer to “how bad do you think it will get” is “exactly the same as now” if we allow one service provider to create a monopoly for a particular type of service. As ever, the solution is open standards with a framework that anyone can use. This is obviously not going to lead to billions of dollars for any one provider, so it’s probably up to the open source movement to create.

Returning to that letter seven years later, I think I was wrong about one thing: I believe it is possible to make billions of dollars from interoperable social web applications – and there’s no need for mass public adoption of apps using federated social web standards to do it.

I’m convinced that business software should be using federation protocols, as long as those protocols have built-in access permissions. Imagine if your organization – a government department, say, or a corporation – could selectively create shared spaces for joint projects with other organizations, for as long as the project existed. Imagine if you could collaborate in more fluid ways, where applications were more like documents that you could introduce into a project when you needed them. Imagine if email was smarter. Whereas decentralization in public consumer apps is an ideological feature, in enterprise apps it has a solid business case and adds measurable value. Businesses will become more profitable by using federated apps.

On hearing the news about Diaspora, StatusNet’s Evan Prodromou made a very sensible plea:

I only have one favour left to ask: please, for the rest of us who are still working full-steam on federated social networks, don’t fall into the comforting fiction that the problem is insurmountable. It’s not; it deserves our attention and support. You didn’t waste the last two years on something pointless and unattainable. Your work matters.

It might sound like hyperbole, but I still believe it could change the way we do business, and ultimately how we all communicate.

Update: In the comments, Johannes Ernst points to his post about why decentralized software is 10x harder. I think he’s right about the problems that need to be overcome. But check out his note at the bottom: watch this space.

For your consideration at SXSW Interactive

August 11, 2010 | 1 comment

I’ve submitted a talk for South By Southwest 2011:

Building the User-centered Web

By establishing a general standard for social application interactions, the services and technologies used to make connections become less relevant; the Internet is people, one big social network, and users no longer have to worry about how they connect. We can all get on with communicating and collaborating in contextually appropriate ways. In this talk, I’ll discuss how to build a decentralized, user-centered web using existing and emerging technologies. I hope you’ll join me.

If you’d like to see this at the next SXSW, please visit this page to vote.

Paul Adrian also has submitted a talk, this time about the future of journalism, and how technology can help:

Technology Can Create a Press for the People

I believe it is time for a “news” revolution. A new press should produce comprehensive streams of rigorously non-partisan original reporting on the issues that are most important to our lives. Once informed, we the people should have a space where we can discuss the important issues of our times without having to submit to intolerance, deceptive campaigning and fear-mongering. Through the use of technology and new business models, news innovators can provide more credible information and space for civil discussions. The goal is to empower citizens by providing access to superior reporting and the platform for community organization necessary for the People once again to become powerful participants in democracy.

As well as being an award-winning journalist and technology entrepreneur, Paul is an inspiring speaker who is worth listening to. You can vote for his talk over here.

My pro web apps: June 2010

June 8, 2010 | 3 comments

I thought I’d list the third-party web applications I use on a daily basis to do my job. There are plenty more that I use for fun (Flickr) or find useful (Twitter) – but these are the things that have become integral to how I make money. I’d be interested to hear yours: if you post them to Twitter with the hashtag #myprowebapps, or leave them in the comments, I’ll do an update in a future post.

My apps, then:

  • Gmail (email). I used to be a die-hard Mozilla Thunderbird user, but during my Elgg days I switched over. There are probably better email web apps to be using these days; ideally I’d like one that runs on my own infrastructure rather than in Google’s cloud. But with one tweak (I have a separate pane that keeps all starred messages at the top of the screen, so I know what to reply to imminently), the default interface is all I really need.
  • Google Calendar (scheduling). I didn’t get into Google Calendar until I figured out how to sync it to my iPhone – and then it became invaluable. I get a reminder of imminent tasks wherever I am. Interoperability with Gmail for event invitations means I have an integrated system for keeping on top of calls and conferencing.
  • Producteev (task management). Until I found this, I’d been using Remember the Milk for tasks, which I never really got into, despite buying a pro account. Integration with Google Calendar is perfect, and the iPhone app has its own push notifications. And for my purposes, it’s free, which is even better.
  • Freckle (time management) has dramatically simplified the way I bill for my time. The integrated timer means I can effortlessly keep track of how many hours I’m spending on what project, and I get to export unbilled hours to a nicely-formatted automatic invoice. Offline access and the ability to mark invoices as paid would make me even happier.
  • Beanstalk (source code management) is by far the best hosted subversion repository provider I’ve found. (Projects can also be hosted using Git.) It integrates with a bunch of different applications, including Basecamp and Zendesk, but so far I’ve only needed to tie it to Lighthouse.
  • Lighthouse (issue management) is low on features compared to Trac (which I’ve used for years), and it’s true that I’d prefer an easy-to-use bug tracker that managed to incorporate things like Mylyn integration and bug priority levels. But when it comes to interacting with clients, given the choice between feature-packed and non-developer-friendly, I’ll pick the latter every time. Lighthouse is simple, well-designed and light years less painful to use than a tool like Bugzilla. It’s also proven pretty useful inside teams of developers, although there are usually complaints about missing features.

It should go without saying that I’m not involved with any of these companies, and none of them have paid me for this post. In fact, in the case of Freckle, Beantalk and Lighthouse, I happily pay them. I think subscription or one-off license charges are probably a better way for smaller software houses to fund their web applications, and I’m really glad to see these kinds of premium models become more popular.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these, and the apps you find useful in your work. Leave a comment or write your own post and tweet it with the hashtag #myprowebapps.

Devices and desires: why the portable device wars are a red herring

June 3, 2010 | 3 comments

A little pre-history

When I was a kid, I had an Atari 130XE. You’ve probably never heard of it. It was an 8-bit, all-in-one box that booted straight into BASIC; a flexible, well-built, sturdy computer.

There was just one problem: it wasn’t a ZX Spectrum or a Commodore Amiga.

At the time, Britain was undergoing a low-budget computing renaissance. Bedrooms up and down the country were filled with skinny boys (and yes, it was mostly boys) noisily loading games from cassette tapes and dutifully copying down source code listings from specialist magazines. The two engines of this renaissance were the Spectrum and the Amiga, and as such, the games, the tutorials and the social infrastructure were built for these two machines. Perhaps this helped me become more of a creative self-starter: I wrote my own games and stories instead of consuming other peoples’.

Later on, 16 bit computers became popular, and everyone upgraded to the Atari ST: a home machine powerful enough for creatives and musicians, but cool enough for game-playing kids. Except, perhaps inevitably, we had a PC. Running DOS. With a black-and-white Hercules display. Great if you wanted to plug economic figures through a spreadsheet, but lousy if you were a twelve-year-old who was mostly interested in playing The Secret of Monkey Island. Not only was the wholly PC incompatible with the Atari ST, but the PC was actually incompatible with itself: a game that worked on PCs with an EGA or VGA screen wouldn’t work with CGA or Hercules. Back then, the parts inside your computer were at least as important as the operating system you ran or the software you bought.

Plug and Play

Through heavy force and heavy lifting, Microsoft changed all that. Windows 95 was the first widely-accessible operating system that unified hardware platforms. Sure, you had to have an Intel-compatible processor, and it took them a while to get it right (for a while the system was redubbed “plug and pray”), but you didn’t have to mess with configuration files to get your computer working. This was a Big Deal.

Today, we’re used to not having to tinker with our machines. Windows will adapt to just about any hardware you throw it at, and even Linux has become an easy-to-use operating system (relatively speaking).

Better yet, we have data portability: in my house we’re running Windows 7, Mac OS X and Ubuntu, and I can move my documents between them interchangeably. Thanks to the web, and Java before it, we even have applications that don’t care what kind of operating system they run on. For an end user, things just work. That’s exactly how it should be.

Finally, computing is simple, data is interoperable and consumers are in control.

Uh oh: enter the portables

So just as we get a unified computing platform that’s easy to use and relatively simple for consumers to navigate, in comes a new device market that’s as fragmented and consumer-unfriendly as the computing market was in the eighties.

Android. iPhone OS. Windows 7 tablet edition. Windows Embedded Compact. Windows Phone. WebOS. ChromeOS. Kindle OS. Whew! It’s like 1986 all over again.

As a publisher or developer, figuring out which device to build for is a headache. Each one has a different operating system, possibly a different app store (something nobody had to worry about in the eighties), and a different set of underlying technologies. Do you exploit the iPad’s current success and develop for the locked-down Apple platform? Do you take advantage of Amazon’s huge built-in market and write a Kindle app? Do you hold out and wait for HP’s exciting-looking WebOS-powered tablet (which caused a storm recently by publicly moving away from Windows)?

Plug and Play (again)

The truth is, market forces are going to apply the same pressures to the mobile market that the personal computing sector felt in the early nineties. This story has played itself out several times now: one platform will emerge victorious. Judging by the lessons learned by IBM with their Personal Computer architecture, and both Microsoft and Linux for operating systems, it’s likely to be one which is:

  • Open: anyone can add it to their system for little cost, allowing hardware manufacturers to maximize profits by concentrating on the device itself rather than the ecosystem around it
  • Sustainable: it’s powered by a solid business ecosystem that will ensure the longevity of the platform
  • Friendly: it’s a system for everyone, not just hobbyists or developers
  • Flexible: it can be used in multiple contexts, from living rooms to science labs

By this measure, Apple is condemned to be a niche player, operating at the premium end of the market. Sure, right now technophiles everywhere are salivating over the iPad, but that will last until someone comes out with something nicer. In any event, Apple’s grasp is limited to the wealthier western nations – there are far more people seeking more affordable devices waiting in the wings in other places. The third world computer revolution is very much underway.

My bet, of course, is on web technologies. But it isn’t necessarily on the Internet: it’s time we separated web technologies from the World Wide Web. Indeed, connectivity isn’t ubiquitous, and isn’t likely to become ubiquitous world-wide for a very long time. Therefore, the ability to download, install and run apps offline, as we always have with software applications, is incredibly important.

With its Chrome Web App Store, Google is leading the way, and showing that it understands what it takes to create a next-generation application platform. It’s also shown leadership over HTML 5, which it is clearly investing in as a genuine method for powering both content and software. The genius is this: anyone can build using web technologies, and web technologies can run on virtually any hardware. Google makes its money through value-added services, like advertising (to allow both device manufacturers and software developers to supplement their incomes), its app store and underlying logic via some powerful APIs. It’s not an operating system, but for most end-users, they’re making the operating system irrelevant: it’s simply the thing that runs the web browser.

My advice: ignore the hardware

Computers as we know them today will always exist, but they won’t be for everybody. If you’re developing for non-technical end users, the plethora of hardware devices available to you is a red herring. You should be thinking of the web as the platform your products will be based on. Make no mistake: you need to become an expert in web technologies now – or, of course, find someone who is.

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