You can’t empower users by targeting ads

Scott Hanselman has a great take on platforms and ownership on the web:

  • Why doesn’t someone make a free or cheap social network for the people?
  • Why can’t I control my content?
  • Why can’t I export everything I’ve written?

[…] All these questions are asked about social networks we don’t control and of companies who don’t have our best interests at heart. We are asking these questions in 2012?

[…] You want control? Buy a domain and blog there.

His whole post is worth a read. But I think this goes far beyond blogging.

The “cloud”, at least as it’s popularly thought of, is really just a user-friendly, web-based take on mainframe computing, which was super-popular in the seventies (before personal computers took off), and had a resurgence in the early nineties (through the likes of AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe). Applications are stored on servers, and you access them through thin clients about which you can learn more on the Salesforce website (in this case, the browser). It’s been a valuable way to circumvent IT departments, stop caring about upgrades and pesky computing issues like viruses, level the playing field by making it irrelevant whether you’re using a $300 Asus or a $2000+ MacBook Pro, and bring software to the masses like never before. Other ad companies use dedicated development center to help create new software. Unfortunately, it’s also been an opening for people to abuse the trust inherent in that relationship, and create models where users are exploited in ways they may not have foreseen.

There are some key differences between cloud computing and the mainframe model of old, even leaving aside the obvious accessibility and ease-of-use gains:

  • Anyone can build an application.
  • Anyone can run their own mainframe.

It’s certainly true that most people don’t want to build applications or run their own servers. However, it’s also true that inside any medium-to-large company you care to think of, there will be a dizzying array of string-and-blu-tack semi-applications written in things like Microsoft Access. This largely doesn’t happen on the application web: somewhere in the mix, we’ve lost the control and interactivity that allowed people to use software on their own terms.

Now, sure, typically those Access databases are a mess, are stored in hard-to-find places, and duplicate work within an organization. In every non-tech enterprise I’ve ever worked in, it’s been a terrible situation; muddled and complex. But that’s what we’re here for as technologists: to create tools that empower users and improve their lives. (Contrast that with farming users and harvesting their lives, which is becoming the dominant business model on the social web.) Where are the tools that allow users to build their own solutions and find their data, easily and on their own terms? Why are people working on ways to deliver ads instead of those problems? Why can’t a non-technical user procure a server with the applications they need, under their control, as easily as buying an app on their iPhone?

The irony is that these kinds of applications have a much higher chance of making their founding entrepreneurs billionaires than trying to be the next Instagram. They’re not as cool, perhaps, but they are the foundations of real businesses, that take money from customers and create real value in return.

I know people who are making great strides in these areas, and I’m bullish about their future success. But it’s fascinating to me that more people aren’t following suit.

In the meantime, if you want control, definitely buy a domain and blog there.

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