August 22, 2012 | 6 comments

Tent appeared out of the blue today: a protocol and reference server implementation for individual-to-individual distributed social networking. Or to put it another way, Tent is a way to host your own social data – posting and reading from as many apps as you want. Here’s their announcement, and here’s the GitHub repository.

The Tent manifesto is right-on:

Every user has the right to freedom of expression.
Free speech is a necessary feature of all open societies. Speech can not be free if communication is centralized or intermediated. Users must be able to say anything to anyone they want on their own terms.

Every user has the right to control their own data.
This includes who can access the data they create and how that data is later used.

Every user has the right to choose and change their social services providers.
This includes the right to negotiate reasonable terms of service collectively or individually.

Of course, this is hardly the first open source social networking product – and many people are already asking why Tent doesn’t use the OStatus protocol. (StatusNet also includes an individual installation mode.) These are valid questions, but while there’s a slight air of Not Invented Here Syndrome, it’s an elegant idea and the API is very clean and simple, which means there’s every chance an app ecosystem will emerge. If any one of those apps is simple and elegant, we may see a very different kind of social networking community begin to develop.

Even more interestingly, I also think there are real commercial implications for this protocol. More on those in another post. For now, my takeaway is: Tent has the potential to disrupt the entire social web.

Off the hooks: user-centered development in a mobile-first world

June 11, 2012 | 1 comment

The following post contains my notes for a talk I gave at Over the Air 2012 at Bletchley Park on June 2nd, 2012. They build on my notes for a previous talk, Building the user-centered web.

Desktop isn’t enough.

For the last few years, I’ve been working on latakoo, a service that lets you share video fast using any Internet connection. Video is, traditionally, a pain to upload, due to very large file sizes, combined with the limited upload bandwidth inherent to most commercial connections. We solve this by compressing the video first, using a very simple interface: just drag, drop, click, and your video is uploading, and shared in a private, enterprise environment. There’s no need for any substantial training or technical video knowledge. It just works.

We support a lot of different video formats, and the resulting file is often 1-4% of its original size, while remaining very high quality. A lot of TV stations use latakoo – the Science Channel used us to send footage of the SpaceX launch back to base – but we also have integrations with Facebook, YouTube, Box with more to come. latakoo’s a useful service, and a great team that I’m proud to be part of.

However, an app that runs on a desktop or laptop computer isn’t enough. Sure, the latakoo app works great in those environments. But a lot of people began asking us if we could make it work on mobile – including those TV stations. TV news stations are arming their reporters with iPhones and sending them out in the field instead of laptops.

Video compression is no problem for my i7 MacBook Pro – but can it work on my handset?

Of course it can.

latakoo iPhone appMobile devices are this century’s personal computer.

I have latakoo apps on my Samsung Galaxy S2 (in beta, coming soon), my iPod and my iPad. All of them are very comfortable compressing video – because all of them are relatively powerful mini computers.

My Samsung Galaxy S2 has a declared clock speed of 1.2GHz and has 1GB of RAM; the Galaxy S3 has four cores at 1.4GHz, and 2GB of RAM. It wasn’t so long ago that laptops were being sold with those specs, and it’s no accident that mobile growth is outstripping the rest of the computer industry:

Oh, and here’s one more quote:

“We do not currently directly generate any meaningful revenue from the use of [our] mobile products, and our ability to do so successfully is unproven.”

That’s from Facebook’s IPO filing. Over 50% of Facebook users access the service through a mobile app or site – yet, until the last couple of weeks, they had no way of obtaining revenue from these accesses. (Their promoted posts feature is transparently a way of obtaining revenue in a way that applies to mobile users.)

As we know from Building the user-centered web, the web has transformed from a series of context-free, stateless pages to interlinked applications that have social functionality at their core.

Curiously, despite this social focus, each application is its own atomic destination with its own URL, and is by default only aware of data created within it. That means we need to register for each application we want to use, fragmenting our accounts over potentially hundreds of products and company data centers, and that the documents, files and data we create within them can’t easily be shared with other applications. Currently, each web application is like a silo: they exist on their own, and if they interoperate at all, it’s through specific links between applications that have to be individually developed.

Mobile-first social apps exist, and are beautiful – but are being designed to this silo model. Path, Instagram, Viddy and Socialcam are four examples of gorgeous apps that are designed to trap usage in their own databases, and often spam users into joining. After all, the number of users in your database, and growth thereof, is the predominant measure of value in Silicon Valley. Instagram certainly wasn’t worth $1 billion to Facebook for their revenue.

SilosSilos stifle collaboration.

Collaborative spaces in social web applications are like documents: they’re one of the currencies of the social web. Just as I need to be able to use my word processor of choice to edit a document, I need to be able to use my social tool of choice to collaborate with others – and if I want to share a collaborative document with someone, I should be able to do so regardless of the social service they happen to use. Where I choose to host my identity should not dictate the kinds of content I can create. Not to mention that some companies simply can’t use existing social platforms, for ethical and/or legal reasons. The UK’s Data Protection Act, for example, precludes the use of Facebook in schools.

Right now, we have to register with each application we want to use. What if we required each application we used to register with us, in digital identities under our own control? What if, using these identities, anyone could connect to anyone else, and anyone could store their data anywhere as long as the storage provider followed the same broad standards?

The web would become truly social.

Your ability to collaborate is not subject to a single company’s success: social functionality and application infrastructure are inherent in the network itself. The possibilities for collaboration are not subject to technology beyond common open standards, which can evolve. A wider range of application possibilities is ensured, because web applications gain the ability to interoperate in a general way. Finally, privacy and user control are established by allowing a person to determine which application has access to which data.

Furthermore, when you remove the silo, private or short-term collaborative spaces become possible:

  • Transience: there’s no need for the community to exist for longer than it has to.
  • Simplicity: there’s no effort involved. Once you’re done with a community, you simply close the communication.
  • Privacy: it’s very hard to share activity with the wrong people.
  • Decentralization: the community is physically hosted between all the involved parties, removing single points of failure.

This user-centered future is being built.

One of the next big hopes is Web Intents. Here, the user performs a generic action in an application, like “share”, perhaps by pressing a button. The user can then choose from all the services he or she prefers, that support this particular action in this context. The list is built automatically from the user’s preferences – a set of applications which are, indeed, registering with the user’s central identity.

Colour coordinated appsThis user-centered future has been built – on mobile.

Web intents are, of course, an adaptation of Android’s intents model. (Albeit in a simplified form.) And, in fact, we already do all kinds of identity-like things with our mobile devices.

  • We can pay with mobile.
  • We can authenticate with mobile (as many of us do with online banking).
  • We organize our contacts, our calendars, our messages, our photos and our videos on mobile. We speak to our loved ones on mobile. We read and watch and play on mobile. We write the identifying address of our mobile devices on our business cards, and have done for years.
  • Mobile knows your context: where you are, and who you’re with, where you’ve been, and where you plan to go. It’s far smarter, and far more social.
  • Mobile is already a decentralized social application platform, with a wide range of communications methods, from SMS through Bluetooth and NFC. We can use all of these methods, depending on the context, to send social information.

Smartphones already let us share in a decentralized way, but only specific, agreed data types like SMS, MMS and email. So, how can we expand on this to send arbitrary social data?

Sending social data on mobile devices

It turns out that the Activity Streams standard allows us to handle social data in a generic way, that can carry specialized data for niche application types. For example, a task in a distributed enterprise system might be an extention of note, one of the base ActivityStreams object types.

ActivityStreams is an extension of Atom, so it could contain the content itself – although this might not be feasible on mobile. We could send mobile notifications with ActivityStreams-like payloads (up to around 1400 characters on iOS, or around 1024 bytes on Android). If an application handles a particular object type, great! Otherwise, perhaps this is a great opportunity for the platform provider to gently point to their app store to make some suggestions.

This could be a solution for direct notifications, but still need to read updates from a central list.

Abstracting from individual mobile devices

I carry two phones: one for the US, one for the UK. I also carry an iPod for when I have to use an iOS app, which has its own set of profile data, although fewer communications options. And indeed, because of contracts and other factors, people upgrade their phones every 18 months to two years, possibly changing their numbers. Handsets get stolen, and some people have entire bags of SIM cards that they use on their travels as appropriate. And finally, backups are important.

An abstraction service – like a social version of Google Voice – may help here, gathering messages in a feed and sending notifications to handsets, or allowing handsets to retrieve as a batch.

Once you’ve done this, the obvious question is: could this model work on the desktop or in a pure-web model? Sure, but by thinking mobile-first, we get to build on work that’s already been done on these platforms. Mobile platforms lose a lot of the legacy baggage inherent in both desktop operating systems and the web, and they’ve been designed from the ground up to support distributed communications in an intelligent way. This doesn’t diminish the importance of the web as a cross-platform home for both applications and data, but it provides new opportunities for linking people data and building next-generation social applications.

Everybody benefits.

Platform owners get to build more engagement – and therefore value – into the platform itself.

Application owners get new ways to spread their software – through organic social proof.

Users get freedom from the silos that stifle their possibilities for collaboration and creativity.

Some questions:

  • A lot of people are still on Symbian and other legacy mobile operating systems (notably all those Indian users). How can we reach them?
  • How could we prevent spam and ensure data privacy on such a platform?
  • Which would be the best platform to start on? I think Android technically has the most support for this model, but Windows Phone may have the most organizational support.
  • In an era where platform value is so closely tied to trapped engagement, would anyone fund this?

Why can’t I …

May 18, 2012 | 1 comment

… Embed a discussion forum in a blog post?
… Stick games in an RSS feed and have them be playable in Google Reader?
… Post an encyclopedia to Pinterest?
… Bookmark a scene in a video?
… Move my profile to another site or domain name without breaking everything?
… Create a slideshow of newspaper articles? And email it to you?
… Link to an object?
… Make a movie like we make the web? (Collaboratively, with little bits in lots of places, all linked together?)
… Store my own Facebook profile, and choose the form of content I share there?
… Contact someone without worrying about which network my communications are carried across, and whether we use the same services?
… Own not just my identity online, but the form and scope of my communications (i.e., what shape it takes, who can see it, where it’s stored and how it’s transmitted), and have full control over all of it?

Activity streams: not just for the cloud

April 24, 2012 | 7 comments

At the end of last year, I was asked to contribute my wishlist for Linux on the desktop for an issue of Linux Format magazine. Here’s what I submitted:

I want an activity stream for my activity on my local computer, and across my network. When, for example, I make a change to a document, I want my PC to record it on my activity stream as “Ben Werdmuller edited ‘Linux Format wishlist’ in LibreOffice Writer.” By default, those changes are private to me only, but I can set access permissions per file, application, location on disk and type of update (“status update”, “text file”, etc). In a network environment, I can share my activity streams across the network, and see the updates that other network users have allowed me to view. This stream is at an infrastructure data level, so I can choose a number of applications to view it with – although I can easily imagine Ubuntu, for example, shipping a beautiful default app.

Then, I want to be able to program against the activity stream, and the activity streams I can see on my network, using a simple API. This would allow me to sync files, status updates and other things, while not being bound to any one application or utility. It also could provide an interesting underlying basis for social web applications running on Linux servers.

This is a little convoluted, so let me explain: I want my activity on my computer, my activity across my enterprise network, and my activity on the web to be saved to a single activity stream that I control. I want to be able to conditionally share and have access to the entire activity stream – and then do stuff with it, using tools like the excellent ifttt.

Consider the following unified stream:

  • Ben Werdmuller saved Technical white paper to Work out tray 3 seconds ago
  • Ben’s mom sent you an email: A little family news to ben@benwerd.com 15 minutes ago
  • Ben’s cousin sent you a message: I’m engaged! on Facebook 1 hour ago
  • Your task: Finish technical white paper is due 3 hours ago
  • You were tagged in a photo: ElggCamp San Francisco 2012 on Flickr 4 hours ago

In the example above, the act of saving something to the folder Work out tray could automatically cause it to be uploaded to Basecamp, or emailed to a few people for review. Similarly, my being tagged in a photo on Flickr could cause it to be automatically downloaded into my local Photos folder.

Why should my activity stream just contain stuff that happened on the web? Now that we have apps like Google Drive, these separations are arbitrary at this point. What matters is that I did something, not where I did it.

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