Monday, March 13, 2006

Faustian Deals and Magical Clipboards: Ray Ozzie's Ultimate Mashup

Faustian Deals

Many of us are still pretending it is nothing but a harmless win-win exchange deal: The Internet Giants (Google, Yahoo, AOL, MSN...) provide us with free services that we like, and in return we allow them to implant ads wherever they see fit; we gain a choice of great, free services, and they make their living through advertising - a fair deal.

Only, there always has been an untold and implicit addition to that deal – some kind of a devilish exchange in which we trade our Personality and Identity (as reflected in our data) in return for those free services. Devilish - because once the pact between a user and a Giant is signed it is as irreversible as the pact Dr. Faustus had with Mephistopheles. The Giant's confines become a prison for life.

Clearly, such serious allegations demand factious supporting arguments. I'll start, than, by making sure we're on the same page regarding the equation between Data and Identity. Let's take Google, as an example (we can take instead any of the Internet Giants). By using Writely, Gspace/GDrive, Gmail, Gtalk, Google Reader, Google Base, Google' search history, Google's Accelerator, Blogger and so forth, I am, for all practical purposes, disclosing my own self in its digital format. What Google is getting in return for its portfolio of free services is a concrete, tangible virtual self. How do they treat this precious asset – do they consider it a deposit, a gift, or probably they consider these virtual selves as part of their own estates? Let's find out.

Here are three simple tests that allow us to asses whether a Giant-User deal is a devilish one or not. All the tests refer to a scenario in which a user has been using a Giant's free service for a while.

Test#1. Can the user reuse her Data as she wishes?
Test#2. Can the user get his Data out?
Test#3. Can the user destroy any traces of her Data from the repositories of the Giant?

Based on my experience, these three tests usually fail. It's a lockdown! An asymmetrical relationship. Once our Data is at the Giant's confines it can be reused only as part of the Giant's processes (and see Organizing the Information of the World for an analysis of this exact issue).

Getting the Data out encounters numerous obstacles: it is impossible, or impractical, and/or inaccurate. Impossible: in the early days of Gmail, Contacts could only be imported into Gmail but not exported (again, this is just an example). Impractical: I don't know of any practical way to export mails out of any free mail service. Inaccurate: sometimes, as it's the case with some photo sharing sites, the exported content is degraded in quality. Briefly, there's no easy way to take the data and run.

As for destroying user's data stored in the Giants' repositories, I'd say "forget it". Check out Gmail Cancel Account, for instance - you won't find a single word about purging or destroying your mails.

To sum up, the whole situation is paradoxical. We, the users, create Data which practically we do not own. As Dave Winer pointed out: "We're the users in a user-generated content" We are not the owners; the Giants are, or behave as if they are.

Free (as in Freedom)

Clearly, these services are not "free, as in freedom", though I doubt this alleged freedom ever existed nor that it will exist one day. And yet, many voices were questioning the Giants-Users relationships, righteously claiming that the Users should have complete ownership and sovereignty in regards with their own digital Personality and Identity. Interestingly, there's one Giant who openly discusses these issues, and surprisingly it's an ex-bad-guy: Microsoft.

Last November, Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's CTO, published a post on the Simple Sharing Extension (SSE), a Microsoft extension to RSS that enables bi-directional synchronization. In that post, Ozzie admits that "The websites, services and servers we build seem to all want to be the “owner” and “publisher”; it’s really inconsistent with the model that made email so successful and the loosely-coupled nature of the web".

Ozzie speaks here about the entire software industry and the way applications are designed (and consequently built): applications are not designed as placeholders for user information, but rather as the owners of that Information. Therefore, they are not provided with means to share, export and destroy the Information they store, unless, of course, it is part of their processes.

When it comes to Microsoft, things were really bad, as Gary Edwards points out:
Microsoft made their billzillions from tying information to specific application and platform versions, and tying those to hardware and API references, charging a premium for the licenses needed to facilitate the exchange and interchange of documents. Just the opposite of the Internet centric Google model.
Though I agree with Edwards' description of Microsoft, I entirely disagree that Google is making any difference whatsoever. The sheer usage of standards (opendoc, openoffice, atom, rest etc.) doesn't make a company an Information Liberator! I think the three tests above prove it well.

There's clearly a need to liberate the Information from their silos, and thanks to Dave Winer, who doesn't believe in passive preaching, the web had turned into a RSS pipe. Yet RSS is a machine-to-machine protocol, and so there's still a need to provide the users with a simple way to take their Data and run. RSS will most probably be the infra-standard, but it is not an end-user' solution.

The Ultimate Mashup

Last week Ray Ozzie published what is a direct sequel to his November' SSE post, titled "Wiring the Web". "This is where my head has been at the past several months", says Ozzie, "I’ve been wondering, 'what would it take to enable users themselves to wire-the-web'?".

Users will not wire the applications of the web - they are users, not geeks! What Ozzie's referring to is a simple way for users to take their Data from one app to another. Wiring the Information of the Web: the ultimate mashup architecture. No APIs, no Feeds - just Information on User Interfaces and an ability to take it from one UI to another. To me, that's the most evident requirement (and see An Acid Test for Enterprise Architcture, as well as other posts in this blog), but I don't remember any Giant discussing it so openly - after all it might become the magic flute saving Information from the Giants' silos. Indeed, for a company that was said to miss the Web 2.0 Wagon, that is a sweet sort of revenge.

In Ozzie's vision, there's some kind of a Live Web Clipboard through which Structured Data, i.e. semantically agreed Information, is tunneled. This is practically impossible nowadays, as Ozzie explains:
"The excitement on the web these days is all about 'structured data' such as Contacts and Profiles, Events and Calendars, and Shopping Carts and Receipts, etc. In most cases, the structured form of this data, which could be externalized as an XML item or a microformat, generally isn’t. It’s trapped inside the page, relegated to a pretty rendering".
So Microsoft, through Ozzie, is talking about an infrastructure that not only will enable users to take their data with them but will also enable a seamless porting of that semantically agreed data into another application. Everyday Users without any programming skills will be able to reuse and move around their Information as they see fit.

We can see the Infrastructure of the future shaping up: RSS+ SEE, Semantic Web, i.e. semantically agreed XML structures embedded inside the RSS Feeds, and then some kind of a Web Clipboard that will allow the Ultimate End Users Mashups.

I had a strong déjà vu when reading Ozzie's Wiring-the-Web, with scenes from Minority Report, where Tom Cruise stands in front of multiple room-size screens moving Information rapidly from side to side. Ozzie's demo and documentation of the Live Clipboard are certainly not hinting at that, but who knows: maybe Ozzie had a similar déjà vu?

Minority Report Clip [watch the first 5 seconds... that's the best I could find]


Blogger Meir D said...

Muli, great post, agrre with all of my heart.
Meir Deutsch

4:18 PM  
Anonymous Robert W. Anderson said...

Great post -- great blog. One of the things that I'm interested in is that I assert that I own my data (and agree to share it with these providers). The provider should tell me what they do with the data, and I prefer services that don't lock me in. These are roughly the principles that the AttentionTrust is trying to get people to adopt.

5:26 PM  
Blogger Muli Koppel said...

Hi Robert,
Thanks for your comment.
It's interesting what you're saying about AttentionTrust. I thought that they are dealing with the capturing of the gestures (clickstreams) generated by the user as part of his visit to a site, feed etc. I didn't know that they are also dealing with the capturing of the explicit content a user is creating within a service, such as mails, photos, documents etc. Also, while it's easy to capture clickstreams, I don't understand how they plan to capture content.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Robert Anderson said...

My point wasn't really that the AttentionTrust solves this problem, but that their principles get at the root of the issue: who owns the data.

You are correct, the AttentionTrust is not trying to capture content; however, they aren't actually trying to capture clickstreams either. They are trying to give users control over their own attention data. If this means an Attention Recorder, OK, but that recorder is just a tool to help the user understand their attention data and to possibly participate in markets for that data. The existence of the recorder helps users assert to the silos (e.g., Google) that the user also owns a copy of that data. I wrote a post on the recorder recently AttentionTrust != Spyware.

Freeing ones content from the silos is a whole different matter. I think that users need to assert that they won't use services that attempt to "own" their data. For example: I recently started using GMail. I know that I can get my data out using POP. That is OK for me. If I could never get the data out, I never would have tried GMail in the first place.

6:02 PM  

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