Few thoughts about Aral Balkan’s speech [u]

Before I start, this is a video you really should watch (entirely):

Aral Balkan (you can follow him here) provides a clear, deep description of the current state of our digital life talking about devices, services, commodities, their relationship with us as persons and the role of few big players in this ecosystem.

One of his key points is the open/close dialectics and I agree with almost everything he says. Only two things make me think, that I’d like to share.

One

One consideration is missing from his reasoning: most closed environments are build on top of open technologies (FreeBSD is the core of MacOS X, Android is based on Linux and Java, Google runs on Linux servers, Facebook uses php; only Microsoft relies almost entirely on proprietary technologies).

This isn’t particularly interesting “per se” – unless we think of it as a key point. Is it?

Two

The project of a new phone is bold and, while I’m unimpressed by the device itself, I love the idea behind it: because if they succeed they will be able to provide not just a device but a whole experience and an environment – and by this I’m thrilled. This could be a game changer.

We have scattered technologies that need a vision to create an integrated experience. This vision relies on a top-down approach and, as Balkan says, it can’t be democratic: someone has to make decisions, to keep things together, to create something that isn’t just a sum of parts.

But people is scared by the new. Big players know this so well that most of their success is based on trojan horses. You start with an iPod because you just want some music to listen; few years later you own an iPhone and a Mac and the process was seamless. Almost no learning curve required.

(Disclosure: I’m an Apple brainwashed fanboy)

My worry is: can this approach be a commercial success, even if it achieves its goals of good experience, integrated environment and ownership of data? I don’t say it can’t, I only wonder how easy would be the path.

So what?

Back to number one: is the massive use of open technologies in closed environment just a coincidence? Is it relevant to this topic? I think it could be.

First of all, open technologies are created by enthusiasts for enthusiasts – and who runs big data infrastrutcures is an enthusiast. Big, “closed” players recognize the value of openness because they use it a lot. They just keep closed or semi-closed the way they use them for themselves, when this affects their core business. But there wouldn’t be any Google, Facebook or Apple (as it is now) if it wasn’t for open technologies.

I think there’s room for a trojan horse here. Instead of starting from a device that needs an integrated ecosystem from day one (possible, but very difficult to achieve), we could build this ecosystem using existing elements and offering the experience starting from a single – but nodal – service or application.

I’d think at this approach as even bolder than the previous one, if it wasn’t for Dropbox.

People at Dropbox found a soft spot where no one was (or no one was providing a good experience – .Mac’s iDisk was a real suffering and let me stop here and be polite). They stuck there, doing one thing and doing it very, very well. They declined billions and kept being independent. There’s a plenty of choice now but Dropbox is still the most supported one, first of all among developers – which means apps, which means users, which means user experience. And they’re building up from this. Moreover, their business model looks pretty fair to me (free basic services – the trojan horse – and a premium paid service that turns out to be sustainable for them).

They caught the next big thing. Is a phone the next big thing? (I know, Aral Balkan thinks of it as a door, not as the room – still is it the right door?).

Another good example of this is Instapaper. Safari added a “Save for later” feature for offline reading, but I’m still using Instapaper. If you’re very good at what you do, even your platform of choice can’t compete with you. Moreover if you need interoperability.

Each time a new player presents itself as an alternative, it has a very hard time against the usual suspects who know how to adapt and to use leverage from their dominant position. But when an open service is available, big players easily integrate and support it – or are anyway forced to allow for this support (Apple doesn’t support Dropbox, but doesn’t block it either because it would enrage its customers).

Can a vision be build up from specific applications and/or services, something the average user would use right now and include into his workflow – not as an alternative to closed environment but as something these environments lack?

Again, here is an example about Dropbox. I hate iCloud, I really hate it. Dropbox is reliable and cross-platform: I can use it on my Mac, from almost any iOS app (just Apple apps don’t support it – guess why), from a PC, from the web. I don’t even need a device of mine.

Open technologies are powerful but hard to use and scattered. We need a vision that works as a glue and that balances with a top-down approach the absolutely preminent bottom-up approach so common in free software.

But as I said they are powerful and their power resides largely in their interoperability, in their being (often) platform-agnostic. And since we’re in the time of connected devices this is not an accessory.

And this is what closed environment structurally can’t provide: real, full interoperability. They need to build a whole, vertical world to preserve this experience. They stumble when adding bricks they’re not used to deal with (Apple with social and cloud, Google with UI and hardware, Microsoft with thinking outside the box, Facebook with almost anything that is out of its bubble). They balance lack of experience with massive firepower. Thay adapt, copy each other, tend to create a series of vertical alternatives very much alike (even if their business model is pretty different one from another). But they need a minimum of openness because if they close too much they suffocate.

Let me describe also a failing project: OpenID. OpenID is (was? it works, but who uses it?) an open standard that allows people to log into, let’s say, a website with no need to provide their information to that website. You create an account with an OpenID provider (Yahoo! is one, for example – but you can choose your favorite one) and if the website supports OpenID you let Yahoo! manage the login process. One password, same ID for each site, good control of your data, safety.

One thing happened, though: Facebook. Most websites (and then apps) found easier (or more productive) to implement a “login with facebook” form instead of supporting a growing, relatively unknown and not so friendly login technique. OpenID is dead in the water. Websites now offer a login with Facebook, twitter or Google+ as long as the usual registration process – and sometimes they don’t even provide the usual registration process.

Facebook proved that becoming a standard in an area gives you the power of becoming a standard in any close enough area, even if you didn’t think about it earlier.

Final thoughts

Can a phone be the answer? No clue. Do I have a better idea? No I don’t. If I’d have it, it would be me speaking at LXLJ. So these are just random thoughts and Balkan seems to have a pretty clear vision and I’m sure nothing of what I wrote is new to him. What matters though, is that his description of the current situation is awesomely true.

Let’s keep an eye on this project, then. And let’s keep talking about this, because it is important and it affects our own lives much more than we see at a glance.


Update [2014-01-10 22:10 CET]Aral Balkan has been so kind to read my post and even reply on twitter. Here is what he says:

and

I was missing one point, so I thought an update was due: of course Balkan describes a vertical approach and hardware is a key component; I underestimated this fact in my reasoning; actually you can’t proceed down this path if you don’t include the hardware.

What I found myself talking about is instead kind of an horizontal approach (I thought this afterwards). I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, though; moreover, when dealing with new structures, lines are sometimes blurred.

(And thank you Aral for taking the time to reply!)