The latest sign of an increasingly closed and Balkanised Web is Twitter’s controversial updates to its API which further restrict anything that is not actually made by Twitter. Developers’ reactions range from disappointment to outrage Twitter remains dominant in its space because there is nothing else. Facebook also dominates the social sharing space with its addicted userbase. What users are distracted from seeing is that the Web, as a platform, is regressing to darker times when competing and competing email services from the like of AOL and Compuserve led users into a spirally abyss out of a desire to control segments of the marketplace through exclusive protocols and closed systems.
Twitter, Facebook and, to an extent, Google are the new closed systems of the Web’s early days although their talk about open protocols and open source software, coupled with the activity on their networks, distract us from what is going on here: a virtual land-grab where these services are consolidating their sovereign status and severing meaningful interoperability ties with each other. Pretty soon interoperability between these services will become the digital equivalent of border crossings between the former East and West Germany in the Cold War era.
S what does this mean for us? It means the notion of the Open Web will be relegated to the digital wilderness where open source and open Web activists and believers will roam, fashioning services and platforms from driftwood and whatever else they can find. The rest of us will become highly monitored and regulated citizens of these new social nations which, ironically, rely on open source software and protocols to scale while building higher and more sophisticated walls and feeding us dreams of targeted marketing Nirvana and more rounded corners to complete our social experiences.
Unfortunately the open source community, generally speaking, hasn’t helped steer us away from this likely future. With a few shining exceptions like Ubuntu Linux and WordPress, open source software and platforms lack the visual appeal and, often, the functionality to really draw mainstream users in. As good as the open source communities are at building scalable, stable and powerful software and systems, it just looks like it was made in the late 1990s (LibreOffice is a case in point).
In contrast the paid social services and proprietary software are generally far better designed and more visually appealing to the uneducated masses (myself included). The result is that these open systems don’t gain much traction and we head further into these closed environments. One example which stands out in the context of the Twitter is StatusNet (formerly Identi.ca) which is an open source, distributed Twitter equivalent. You can install it on your own server and interconnect with other Status.Net users participating in their own communities because there is an underlying common set of protocols and services. StatusNet pivoted and is available as both a free option and pretty compelling enterprise version priced at about $3 per user per month (as I type this) which could be a terrific alternative to other options like Yammer. What we find is bundled with that better user experience is varying degrees of lock-in (either actual or effective) and we, as users, carry on merrily.
Many in the open source community will only use open source software and freely licensed content because they are ideologically opposed to any proprietary software and closed content. That is a little extreme as far as I am concerned but they represent an important counter-point to the totally closed and proprietary model. While they tend to polarise the space with sometimes extreme views, they highlight something pretty important: if the Web is ever truly going to be an open platform, we need practical, feasible, appealing and functional alternatives to the Twitters, Facebooks and, yes, even the Google+’s of today. Android begins to come close with a terrific user interface, mass deployment and low price point. I believe Android smart devices will become the Nokia of the early 21st century and one day the people who all had Nokia feature phones will have basic Android smartphones. At that point the world will be a different, vastly more connected place but if all people will have to connect to are a few massive closed ecosystems, we will have squandered the opportunities that come when everyone is connected with a powerful, media rich pocket computer.
We are on the verge of a potential evolutionary step in our journey towards a smartly connected culture with IPv6. I don’t pretend to grasp the technical side but what little I understand about IPv6 suggests we could reach a point where our default connection becomes peer-to-peer and not through centralised hubs as gateways. Every device will have a unique IPv6 address and if we have systems in place along the lines of StatusNet where they are distributed and share common, open communications protocols, we could have the next big thing in our digital social experience: a truly distributed, dynamic and open social Web. A planned update to LibreOffice demonstrates what this sort of Web could look like: imagine that you could collaborate on a document in a similar way that you do in Google Docs with multiple people contributing to a document at the same time but where the updates are distributed using a peer-to-peer model based on XMPP as the transport protocol (apologise if I am mangling the technical terminology). XMPP is the same protocol that powers Google Talk and a couple other open instant messaging services and what makes it possible for you to talk to someone using Google Talk from some other XMPP-based service. This model removes the central server we rely on to co-ordinate and distribute the updates and, instead, we just use common protocols to maintain meaningful connections.
I don’t think that sort of system is far away, technically, but applying that model to a social Web experience faces a substantial challenge in the form of the sexy, closed and better integrated social experience we have today in the form of Twitter, Facebook and so on. Until the open systems that hover on the periphery drastically improve their integration with each other and can present a better and more coherent experience to end-users, they can’t begin to tackle the awful future that awaits us as the current social giants become more entrenched and dominant in their respective areas. In other words, if the open source communities don’t get their design, usability and functional shit together, we are going back to the days when you couldn’t send an email to anyone else because each system talks a different, proprietary language.