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We Are (About to Be) As Gods. Can We Get Used To It?

By - January 14, 2013

Last month I finished another of my “must read” books - Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, by George Church and Ed Regis. While the authors don’t veer into the religious, a reader can’t help but ponder the unknown and the supernatural – because the book rather calmly takes a fair amount of what we take for granted as pre-determined in our lives  - disease, death, the nature of how things become what they are – and without too much fanfare, declares them soluble.

Church is a highly regarded geneticist with dozens of innovations to his credit, Regis is a talented science writer. Church provides the book’s voice, authority, and personal anecdotes, Regis its structure and rigor.  The combination works, though the first few chapters are a bit rough if your high school chemistry is rusty. Each time I returned to it, I found myself enjoying Regenesis, and I can’t say that for many non-fiction books I’ve read lately.

Why? Well, in the main, because the subject matter is so … revolutionary. Church and Regis liken it to the “greatest story every told” – the story of life, how it came to be, and how we – as perhaps life’s most capable expression – are close to figuring out its essence and bend it to our will. As they write:

The appearance of DNA some 3,900 million years ago makes it the most ancient of all ancient texts.

Church and Regis lay out how the human race is taking control of the core mechanisms of biology – including DNA, protein expression, and even the creation living organisms, and then draw what they believe are inevitable conclusions:

…we stand at the door of manipulating genomes in a way that reflects the progress of evolutionary history: starting with the simplest organisms and ending, most portentously, by being able to alter our own genetic makeup.

But the impact of synthetic biology doesn’t stop there. Leveraging tools now in early stages in labs and for-profit companies around the world, we soon will be able to harness what we understand to be the very laws of nature – for example, the forces which conspire to turn an oak seed into a mighty tree. If we understand DNA and its expression entirely, then why can’t we program a seed that “grows” into a house? Or create swarms of bacteria that convert waste into clean energies? Or reprogram our DNA such that we never suffer from a viral disease?

In short, the potential of this relatively new science is mind-bending. And according to the authors, we stand at the brink of a massive leap forward – analogous to where we were with digital technology back in the late 1970s. And the connection to digital is more than analogy, it’s central: core to synthentic biology is the ability to turn DNA into information, manipulate it using computers, and then express it back out to biological agents. In fact,  this bio-information loop is fundamental to “Regenesis” – and to the field of synthetic biology itself. And while we may be accustomed to the exponential acceleration of digital information processing, it’s got nothing on our progress in genetic technology, which is accelerating at four times the speed of Moore’s law:

In 1980 commercial DNA synthesis services were available, at the going rate of $6,000 for a small amount of product, only about ten nucleotides long. They were used either to find valuable genes in cellular RNA or to synthesize them. By 2010 we could make a million 60-nucleotide oligos for $500. Just as the global appetite for reading DNA seems insatiable—growing a million-fold in six years and still increasing—the appetite for DNA synthesis, or “writing,” will probably grow similarly and go in many unexpected directions.

For Church and Regis (and many others in the field), this is where the practice of engineering comes in. When the digital world exploded onto the scene in the mid 20th century, engineering wrestled it to the ground and helped us create extraordinary new things like computers and the Internet (and all their attendant applications), all based on having cheap, mass produced components like CPUs, hard drives, monitors, and the like. Biology has been stuck in a “pre-digital” age for much of the past century, but is about to burst forth as the strictures of engineering are applied. “Engineers normally had access to an ordered supply of well-defined, interchangeable, off-the-shelf parts, specification sheets, system plans, and so on,” the authors write. Until recently, such tools were not available to those who wished to construct life.

That, the authors argue, is about to change. (Church even goes so far as to encode his book – billions of times over – into DNA. Quite a parlor trick. You can read more about that here).

The book goes into far more than I’ve touched upon here. At times it preaches, or is flip, or dismissive of potential risk or counter-argument. But overall, this is an important work, one that introduces the basic elements for a debate I believe we’ll be having as society for the next few decades, if not longer. Because let’s face it, we’re not going to stop futzing with DNA, or computers, are we? So as Stewart Brand famously declared: We better get good at it.  

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age by Steven Johnson (review)

Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart (review)

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage (review)

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (review)

The Corporation (film – review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (review)

 

 

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Phones! Now With Multitasking! Why Mobile Is About To Have Its Web Revolution.

By - January 13, 2013


While at CES last week, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel with four extraordinary publishers – all FM authors. The topic was “2013 Trends” and I got to hear Anand Shimpi (of AnandTech), Brad McCarthy (of The Next Web), Elaine Fiolet (of UberGizmo) and Leander Kahney (from the Cult of Mac) expound on what they’d seen in Vegas.

It was a great conversation (and yes, I wish we got it on video, but alas, we did not, it was a private event for FM clients) – but one thing that Anand said really struck me. Mobile devices, he pointed out, were a few cycles behind their PC counterparts in computing power, but were rapidly catching up. A couple more generations from now, many of the “compute constrained” services that so far have been absent from mobile will start to emerge.

And that gives me hope in so many ways.

If you read me closely (and have a decent memory, which I do not), you will recall that I am no fan of the early mobile ecosystem. “AppLand,” as I’ve pejoratively called it, does not act like the web. You can’t easily link those little chiclets called apps together, you can’t share data between them, you can’t, as a consumer, enjoy the serendipity and wonder of what the open web brought the world in its first few iterations.

But I think that will change. As devices increase in power and capability, entrepreneurs and developers will push to where value lays unearthed, and they’ll most likely follow a well worn path.

One example? Multitasking.

I’ve been in this business a long time, long enough to remember when the idea of having more than one application running at the same time on a PC was a Very Big Deal. Apple finally rolled out that capability with its System 7 in 1991. Yes, you read that right – 1991! That was when you could run applications in separate windows on a Macintosh, making it easy to cut and paste between, say, Microsoft Excel and Word, or Adobe Illustrator and the Quark publishing package.

Given it was more than 20 years ago that you could, as a consumer, easily cut and paste between applications on a PC, it’s pretty funny to see how Samsung is currently marketing its Galaxy Note II “phablet” (or “Flablet”, as Leander called it on the panel). The heart of the commercial is this: You can run TWO apps AT THE SAME TIME! WOW! And you can cut and paste between them!

All I can say is this: If it’s 1991 in mobile land, that means just one thing: 1993 is right around the corner. The World Wide Web is about to hit mobile apps. It’s about time.

Predictions 2013

By - January 07, 2013

Mssr. Nostradamus

One week into the new year, it’s again time for me take a crack at predicting what might come of this next spin around the sun, at least as it relates to the Internet ecosystem. Last year’s predictions came out pretty well, all things considered, but I took an unusual tack – I wrote long posts on each of the first six, and then shot from the hip for the last one. Those last shots were pretty hit or miss, as you might expect.

This year I’m going to try something new. Instead of trying to get everything right – which often means being practical and reining in some of my more obvious biases – I’m going to make predictions based on what I wish would happen. In other words, below are things that I hope occur this year, even if the chances of them happening may be arguably slim. In the past I’ve edited out a fair amount of this impulse, as I was aiming game the odds in my favor. But for whatever reason – perhaps because this post marks my 10th year of predictions – I feel like airing it out and seeing what happens. So here goes.

2013 will be the year that….

- We figure out what the hell “Big Data” really is, and realize it’s bigger than we thought (despite its poor name). Asked in 1995 whether the Internet was overhyped, John Doerr famously said “It’s entirely possible that the Internet is underhyped.” He was right, by a long margin. This past year, no secular trend has been more hyped than “Big Data.” But very few of us even know what the hell it is. This was also true of “the Internet” in 1995. But I’ll say it here, for the record: The role of data in our personal, social, and commercial lives is far larger than the current hype. It’s bigger than the Internet – it’s as big as big can be defined, because data, in the end, is our way of defining every single entity that matters to us, and then making that liquid to to world. This is really, really big – Matrix narrative big, big in every nuance and meaning of the word. And 2013 will be the year we look back on as the moment most of us came to that realization. Related to this, we as consumers will begin to make more and more choices based on how companies treat data, in particular, on whether those companies allow consumers to control data. Smart companies will begin to market on this distinction.And yes, this is very much at the heart of my work this year.

- Adtech does not capitulate, in fact, it has its best year ever, thanks to … data. Ever since Terry published his Lumascapes on ad tech, we’ve all been waiting for the capitulation amongst those VC-backed companies. The reasoning goes something like this: There are way too many similar companies chasing the same opportunties, and far too few intelligent buyers or markets for samesaid companies. But what if the capitulation came, and no one noticed? That’s what’s going to happen in 2013. Plenty of companies will be sold, either for profits, pushes, or parts, but far more will launch and/or lean merrily forward, serving their niches well and building out their businesses, figuring out how to better leverage my first prediction. There will not be a systemic collapse in adtech, because adtech is one of the most important and edifying developments in marketing since search – the namesake of this site. In fact, given that I’m trending toward hyperbole, let me say it straight up: Besides the Internet itself, the ecosystem we are creating through adtech may well prove to be the single most important digital artifact we’ve ever created – more important than search, because it subsumes it, more important than the financial system, because it’s far more open and accessible. If we get adtech right, we may well be creating the prototype for how we manage all that “Big Data” in our lives, across all aspects of human endeavor – transportation, energy, finance, healthcare, education – pretty much anything that has a marble building in Washington DC. Of course, by the time this happens, no one will call it “adtech” anymore, but trust me – adtech is an artifact of a future we’ll all be living in soon.

Google trumps Apple in mobile. Sure, Android has already gotten larger market share than iOS, and lots of tech pundits (myself included) are making loud noises about how the Nexus 4 is a winner. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. Apple still beats all comers when it comes to revenue, margin, and perception. But in 2013, what I wish for is that Google takes Apple’s crown. And here’s how it could happen: First, Google comes out with a device (maybe it’s with a partner like LG for the Nexus 4, but more likely, it’s a real Google phone, from Motorola) that is just inarguably better than Apple’s, and, it’s available at scale. The Nexus 4 is close, but it’s a half step toward what Google really needs – they need the Next Big Thing. You know, what the Razr was back in the late 1990s. What the iPhone has been for five years. And I think they’ll do it. Next, they need to recommit to their focus on interoperability and openness in operating systems. Google needs to actively promote a vision that is 180 degrees from that of Apple: Open, interoperable, accessible, ungated. This allows for real innovation in UI, services, and apps. Google will win by highlighting things that only Android-based devices running Jellybean or later can do: you (consumers and developers) can interact with digital services and content in a web-like fashion. On Apple’s bespoke devices, you get whatever Apple thinks you deserve. Lastly, Google will openly license the hardware platform of its world-beating phone free to all of its partners. Yes, that’s crazy, but it also gives Google the ability to win the PR war with Samsung, in particular, and continue its long record of taking what used to be costly, and making it free (it also won’t hurt Google in its endless antitrust battles around the world). Google shouldn’t fall into the rabbit hole of thinking it’s a hardware sales company. That’s Apple and Samsung’s (and HP’s and and and…) cross to bear. Google is software and services company, period end of sentence. (And yes, media is software and services).

The Internet enables frictionless (but accountable) payments, enabling all manner of business models that previously have been unnaturally retarded. Closest to my heart is payment for content, of course, but beyond media, 2013 will be seen as the year a number of forces converged to push paid services to its rightful place next to advertising as a core driver of the Internet economy. I know PayPal et al are already massive businesses, but frictionless they are not. Nor do we have a solution that crosses platforms and devices in a manner that doesn’t give pause (or headache – for example, there’s no way to track what you’ve paid for across the Internet, if you happen to use more than one service). But as I said, many forces are converging to enable such a dream: First, consumers are now accustomed to paying for services and even content online. We have Paypal, Amazon, Netflix, Xbox, various media paywall experiments, mobile devices and their app stores to thank for that. Second, one word: Square (and the companies it is disrupting or pushing to new innovations, including card companies like American Express). Third, major consumer-facing online platforms based on “free” – Google and Facebook chief among them, though Twitter is a potential player here as well – will begin to press their customers for real dollars in exchange for premium services. Facebook is already doing this with its promoted posts, Google with paid services around its Apps for Business. I expect both will either try to buy Box, or forward their own Box-like services in 2013. (Don’t get me started with Apple’s iCloud.) The short of this one is simple: For 15+ years, we thought mostly otherwise, but paying for services online makes sense for both customers and businesses. You all know I believe in advertising, but I don’t want to live in a world where marketers are footing the bill for everything we do digitally. That’s not good for anyone, including marketers.In 2013, the flywheel of paid will start to spin in earnest, driving down costs, but increasing overall revenues.

Twitter comes of age and recommits itself as an open platform. Twitter has confounded critics and naysayers for years, and nowhere more directly than in its developer base, who were given plenty of reasons to complain last year. Several key proponents of the service have publicly left the service, even going so far as to start competing paid services that feel more “pure.” I applaud these services, but I think Twitter is playing a longer term game, and 2013 will be the year it becomes apparent. Twitter knows a couple of things to be true: First, it cannot execute all the goodness possible in its ecosystem on its own, it needs great developers. And second, its competitive advantage, compared to Facebook or Apple (and even Google, at least as it relates to G+) will be its relative openness. So the company will clarify its sometimes confusing rules of the road for its developers this year, and some breakout new services will emerge (key to this is defining what the unit of value is for the Twitter ecosystem – IE, how does one build a business that relies on Twitter if you don’t know whether that business is in a fair value exchange with Twitter?). I’ll even go so far as to predict that Twitter will once again hold a conference for its developers (something it did once, a few years ago, then abandoned). Also, Twitter will reconfirm its commitment to being “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” and get itself into some good old fashioned tempests with Big Overbearing Governments and Corporations, much to the delight of folks who used to cheer Google for doing similar things in the past. And as I referred to in my previous prediction, I think it’s entirely possible that Twitter begins to test or even roll out paid services across its network this year. This makes sense for any number of reasons, one of which has to do with diversifying revenues in advance of an IPO, but the other is simply part of the secular trend I note above. Twitter is a technology-driven media company, and strong media companies have both subscription and advertising businesses. And let’s be frank: when advertising is not 100% of your revenues, you can afford to be more open and transparent in your business dealings.

- Facebook embraces the “rest of the web.” Even as Facebook continues to be, for the most part, a world apart from the principles and ideals of the open web, I believe 2013 will be the year it realizes it’s OK to share – bilaterally – with The World That Isn’t Facebook. That means making it really easy to export your identity and data, for example – competing on service, not lock in. And creating a kickass web-based advertising network/exchange. And  learning how to play nice with the hundreds of thousands of publishers out there, pro, semi pro and amateur, who create the value that drives so much engagement on its core platform.

- By the end of the year, Amazon will have an advertising business on a run rate comparable to Microsoft. Amazon doesn’t like to talk about its advertising business, but it’s already large, and 2013 will be the year it breaks out. It will be smart, programmatic, data-driven, and rapacious.

- The world will learn what “synthetic biology” is, because of a major breakthrough in the field. When I met last year with Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, he was emphatic about a field where he felt extraordinary breakthroughs might occur: Microfluidics. Given his enthusiasm, I’ve spent a fair amount of time learning from folks active in the space, and reading up on what the larger implications might be. Without going too deep into it, microfluidics are an important enabler to the synthetic biology movement, about which you may learn far more by reading George Church and Ed Regis’ Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. I’ll be writing a lot more about this field later in the year, it’s filled with wonderful, talented people who, as a group, remind me of the folks who built the digital revolution in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The analogy is more than poetic, it’s quite literal as well. This year, it will become apparent as to why.

Well, I’ve gone on for more than 2000 words now. And yes, I’m avoiding making predictions about Yahoo, or Tumblr, or any number of others, though I certainly have opinions on them. But I think that’s enough for one year. If I could summarize my wish list for the Internet through these predictions, it’s this: More open, more real breakthroughs, and more deep understanding of the true importance of the industry in which we all participate.

Remember, these are predictions that I wish will come true. Happy New Year. Now go make all this happen, willya?

Related:

Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did

With Google’s 2012 Zeitgeist, You Won’t Learn Much. Why?

By - December 13, 2012

Guess what? This guy was big this year. Really!

I think readers know that on balance, I’m a fan of Google. I recently switched to the Nexus 4 (more coming on that front as I settle into really using it). I believe the company has a stronger core philosophy than many of its rivals. Overall, given that it’s nearly impossible to avoid putting your data into someone’s cloud, I believe that Google is probably the best choice for any number of reasons.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t criticize the company. And every year about this time, I end up doing just that.

Because the annual Google Zeitgeist came out this week, and I’ve spent a bit of time digging into it. And once again, I’m pretty disappointed.

In the past I’ve criticized Google for failing to ask interesting questions of the massive amount of data it collects on search patterns each year. Once again, this lament applies. I honestly do not care what top ten TV Shows, Sports Stars, Songs, or even People we collectively care about, because there is *never* a surprise in those results.

But Google knows so much more….and could really tease out some insights if it cared to. Imagine if Google took its massive search query database and worked with some of the leaders in the open data movement to mine true insights? Sure, Google would have to be careful about how it released the data, but the output would be extraordinary, I’d warrant.

Instead, we find out that Gangnam Style was a big deal this year. No shit!?

But it gets worse. Not only is Zeitgeist rife with pop culture fluff, as you drill down into it by country, eager perhaps to find something interesting, it turns out Google has chosen to eliminate certain potentially sensitive categories altogether.

For the US and most other countries, for example, there is a “What is….” category, which shows the top search queries that start with “What is…” For the US, the answers are

  1. What is SOPA
  2. What is Scientology
  3. What is KONY
  4. What is Yolo
  5. What is Instagram
  6. What is Pinterest
  7. What is Lent
  8. What is Obamacare
  9. What is iCloud
  10. What is Planking

But is there a “What Is…” for Saudi Arabia? Nope. China? Uh-uh. The United Arab Emirates? No sir. Egypt? Move along.

Hmmm.

Oddly, Google did provide “What is…” was for Singapore, where people living under that “benign dictatorship” were interested in the same things as the US –  “What is SOPA”,  “What is Scientology” and, for politicians, who is “Mitt Romney.”

For the US only, you can drill down into all manners of other categories past the main page, including News, Science, Tech, Humanities, and Cities. Those are pretty interesting categories, but Google only provides them for the US, which is a shame.

Furthermore, I find it interesting that Google, with all of its translation technology, does not have a translation button on the results pages for countries where the majority of the searches are in languages other than English. This is most likely due to political sensitivities, because if you run some of the results through Google Translate (do you believe I had to do that?!), you get some stuff that I am sure does not please the regimes of countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

For example, here are some of the top searches for Saudi Arabia, translated (roughly I am sure) by the Google Translate service:

Student outcomes Arab Idol insurance Ramadan Series 2012 Mohamed Morsi explosion Riyadh Burma Free Syrian Army Shura Council tornado Sandy

But again, you aren’t going to get much more insight into what Saudi folks are *really* thinking about, because Google failed to ask the interesting questions, like those it has in the “News” section of the US Zeitgeist. I’d sure be interested in “Political Gaffes,” “Election Issues,” and “News Sources,” in Saudi Arabia, China, or the UAE.

In fact, for Saudi Arabia, Google has ommitted the “Top News Searches” box that is on several of the other country pages (even Egypt). Instead, the topics for Saudi Arabia (besides trending searches and people) focus on sports and entertainment stars, fashion designers, TV shows, and the like. Deep, Google. Thanks.

Now, the datasets are different for each country, and it may be that Google simply didn’t have enough trending data to surface interesting political insights for these controversial countries.

Somehow, though, I don’t buy that. This set of lists feels extremely human vetted – I’m guessing an awful lot of hand wringing went into chosing what to show and what might prove problematic to Google’s best interests were it to see the light of day.

If that is the case, I urge the company to have more courage. I bet if Google open sourced its query data sets (eliminating any chance of PII getting out, of course), I bet academics, data scientists, and just plain interested folks would let loose an explosion of insight. Pop up the rainbird of data, Google, and let the ecosystem flourish. We’d all be the richer for it.

For Microsoft, The Worm Turns Through Apple

By - December 11, 2012

(image) Wow. That’s about the sum of my initial reaction to this story from ATD: Exclusive: Microsoft Pressing Apple to Take a Smaller Cut on Sales Inside Office for iOS.

The wow isn’t that Microsoft is trying to reduce the 30% cut Apple takes on every dollar that flows through the iOS ecosystem. That’s to be expected, though I very much doubt it will happen.

The wow, to me, is how massively the world of software has changed, in particular as it relates to Apple and Microsoft.

I started covering this space in 1987, when Apple was a heroic underdog and Microsoft ruled the world. Apple built bespoke computers that struggled for marketshare in the face of the Windows hegemony. Microsoft, on the other hand, eschewed hardware but built lots and lots of software. Its core profits came from the PC software and OS businesses, but it also had a small division that made Macintosh applications. Because Microsoft’s Windows OS was a major competitor to Apple, we reporters would constantly speculate that Microsoft was was close to pulling its support for the Apple platform, just to  hasten the demise of Apple’s competing offering.

In fact, at one critical juncture in Apple’s history, Steve Jobs practically begged Bill Gates to keep making software for the Mac, then cut an investment deal with him which kept Apple in business.

But regardless of whether you bought a Mac or a PC, once you had your computer, you then bought applications for it – separately, and without any platform tax. The PC and the Mac were what Jonathan Zittrain calls generative ecosystems – anyone could build a business on top of IBM or Apple’s computers, and Microsoft certainly did.

If you had told me back in 1987 that within one generation, Microsoft would be forced to give Apple a 30% cut of its software revenue just to be available on the iOS platform, well, I would have told you to step away from the bong. What a ridiculous notion!  But that’s the way the worm has turned – Microsoft is now at the mercy of Apple, and is playing a high-stakes game of chicken. On the one hand, it needs to distribute its apps on iOS devices (iOS is particularly important to Microsoft’s cloud ambitions, and that is at the heart of this dispute). On the other, Microsoft’s DNA – remember Ballmer has been there since 1980 – is violently opposed to Apple’s pay-to-play business model.

It’s actually possible that Microsoft could abandon its commitment to building for Apple – but for entirely different reasons than any of us might have imagined some 25 years ago. Fascinating stuff.

Locked and Bloated

By - December 05, 2012

(image Vator News) Companies get big. Companies gain market dominance. Companies slowly pivot from their original values. Companies justify those shifts with nods to shareholder value, or consistent user experience, or inconsistent implementations of their platforms by (former) partners.

It happened to Sun. To Microsoft. To Apple. To Google. It happened in the entertainment business, it’s happening in agriculture, for goodness sake.  Now it’s happening to Facebook and Twitter. (The latest example: Instagram CEO feels Twitter card removal is the correct thing…).

I don’t have any problem with any of that, it is to be expected. The services all these companies provide are great. They’re simply wonderful. And as they get big, they get public, protective, and defensive.

I just wish these companies all had one thing consistently in common: That they let us get our data, our content, and ourselves out of their platforms if we wanted to, in a painless, one click fashion.

Imagine a world where that was possible.

A long, long time ago, at least in Internet years, I wrote a piece called It’s Time For Services on The Web to Compete On More Than Data. This was almost five years ago – January of 2008. I was contemplating the rise of Facebook and the social graph, and Google’s nascent response. In the post I argued that Facebook should let us all take our social graph wherever we want, because the company will win not on locking us in, but in servicing us better than anyone else.

Oh, how utopian that all sounds.

Now, pretty much every major Internet player is scrambling to lock us into a cloud commit conundrum. Even Twitter, in certain ways – it wants content viewed on its platform, not others’.

Again, imagine a world where coming and going as a consumer was a given, a right. Imagine that when I left Apple’s iPhone for Google’s Nexus 4, all my iTunes purchases followed me (and yes, I mean apps too). Is that too much to ask for? Really? Then you must not be an entrepreneur, because this kind of lock-in is ripe for disruption.

Five years ago, I predicted that Facebook would fail if it insisted on locking our social graph into its service:

With one move, Facebook can change the face (sorry) of this debate by making it falling-down easy to export your social graph. And I predict that it will.

Why? Because I think in the end, Facebook will win based on the services it provides for that data. Set the data free, and it will come back to roost wherever it’s best used. And if Facebook doesn’t win that race, well, it’ll lose over time anyway.

Time is ticking. It won’t be this year, it won’t be next. But the day will come when differentiation is based on service, not data lock in.

Writing Every So Often: The Personal Essay Makes A Comeback

By - December 04, 2012

Browsing Hacker News, which I’ll admit I don’t read very closely (because, well, I’m not a hacker), I saw an interesting headline: I quit Twitter for a month and it changed my thinking about mostly everything. Well, that’s going to get my attention.

I clicked through and noted the author’s name: Adam Brault. I don’t know Adam Brault (at least, not well enough to recall reading him before), but with a headline like that, I sure wanted to read the piece. It’s quite a thoughtful rumination on his snap decision to stop using Twitter for the month of November.

Some of what Brault said didn’t resonate with me, not because I disagreed, but because it’s clear he uses Twitter in a very different manner than do I. He follows people closely and feels a connection to them that I rather envy. I follow more than 1200 people, and I’ve become a bit inured to the resulting torrent.

For me, Twitter provides a first level filter, and I then use various second-order services to tame my feed. Those filters (news.me, Percolate, Flipboard, even TechMeme) depersonalize my consumption habits. No one human voice regularly makes it into my second-order filters (but a lot of publishing brands do). In short, I don’t have much personal social capital invested in Twitter, even though it’s a very important part of my life.

Brault, on the other hand, noticed that he had perhaps too much personal investment in the people he followed in Twitter. From his essay:

I had one moment of weakness last month, when I logged into my other, private Twitter account, just to check in on what the 20 people I follow on that account had been up to recently. Within minutes I felt depressed, as I learned there was a conference canceled because people attacked it as a sexist speaker lineup and the organizers just folded rather than wade through the deluge of attacks or try to fix things… I just felt horrible for those organizers… and there was nothing I could actually do other than feel bad. It served no one any benefit and it just derailed my evening….

…I’ve realized, Twitter is outsourced schizophrenia. I have a couple hundred voices I have consensually agreed to allow residence inside my brain.

Reading that passage, I felt something – I empathized with Brault. I remember what it felt like to be connected like that. And I realized I have never been connected in that way through my “new” social media. Facebook has always been a wipeout for me, LinkedIn a utility. The only “social media” I’ve ever deeply cared about are personal blogs – which for most folks younger than 30, are usually understood to be artifacts of a pre-Facebook, pre-Tumblr, pre-Twitter era.

Writing out loud on a regular basis is not for everyone. It takes a fair bit of focus and commitment to maintain a site where you write essays for public consumption. Brault mentions that it took him at least three hours to finish his post. In the early days, tons of folks took to the blogging medium, but over time, many burned out. But I sense people are coming back to this form, because it’s a pleasure to write out loud  every so often. It needn’t be a chore, in fact, it should be joyful. I’m guessing Brault – a software and web developer by trade – has taken true pleasure in the social expression his essay has allowed.

Call it a hunch, but I think a new generation of creators are realizing that if something is really important to them, then it’s worth taking the time to write a longform essay – one that best resides on a site that is theirs.

In the blog-only era of the early 2000s, folks like me had our personal site, and we also watched a set of sites that we truly followed. RSS was our Twitter, and we carefully pruned a list of other folks who we’d check each day. I let about 40 or so “voices into my brain” each day, and those voices mattered to me, a lot. Most of us even created “blogrolls” – links to folks we felt were worthy of attention (really – remember those?!). And when someone wrote something noteworthy, others in the network might write a response, always with a link back.

This pattern still happens, of course – that’s what I’m doing now. But it happens far less regularly, and without the clear social network that used to define communities of blogs. Those early communities have been eclipsed by professionalization (I remember following what Mike Arrington wrote each day, before it turned into TechCrunch The Site, for example), but also by burnout and by the easy dopamine hits of Facebook and Twitter. Add to this the lightweight reblogging ethos of Tumblr, and the recent rise of bespoke platforms like Medium or SVBTLE, and we no longer have robust communities of individuals calling and responding in bursts of essays, each emanating from a unique, independent place on the web. I think the world’s a bit poorer for that loss, even as it has become a far richer place overall.

Reading Adam’s essay, I mourned a little for the way it used to be. I’m keenly aware that I’m sounding like a nostalgic, but I take heart in this rising class of “every so often publishing.” If only there were a better way of surfacing all this good stuff….hmm.

Meanwhile, Brault’s essay had another wonderful insight worth repeating:

It’s pretty simple: if I have my email turned off and I set aside a day with no meetings and no commitments other than to the work that’s on my mind, I am going to do very good work, using my best creativity, and will produce in good volumes.

In a day with even one simple standup meeting, I feel like the entire day’s focus has a layer of thought dedicated to that meeting—light stress and perhaps some preparation fills up more than the specific calendared time slot….

…I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought.

That’s how everything I’ve ever felt was meaningful about my entire life came to be—either people I’ve come to know, things I’ve learned, or stuff I’ve created.

I feel exactly the same way. If I have just one call on a day I’ve cleared for writing, the day feels tainted. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

Circling back to the point of this post, I believe that the personal-site-based essay is making a comeback. I’m finding all manner of great pieces of writing lately, stuff that’s just too good to simply retweet and forget. Like this from Vibhu Norby (I promise to write a response soon, it’s an important topic). It was on a personal site that I rediscovered Craig Mod. When I did, I added his feed to my creaky old RSS reader. I just did the same for Norby. That made me think of Matt Haughey, one of the more wonderful early bloggers. Turns out, he still writes every week or two on his site. But, far as I can tell, Matt’s site has no RSS feed. Adam Brault is on Tumblr, so no RSS there either, at least that I can find. I’ll do my best to visit from time to time, but man, I’d sure rather have all his stuff pushed my way.

Of course, the debate about whether or not blogging and RSS is a dead medium has been raging for years. Clearly, RSS is no longer a universal standard. Regardless, I find it comforting that when someone with a truly unique point of view has something important to say, they often return to their own site to say it there. I hope they all keep writing. I’ll be listening.

Can The Future Be Perfect? It Can Certainly Be Better

By - November 29, 2012

As my 2011 review of his Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation proves, I am a Steven Johnson fan. So it was with relish that I settled in to read his latest release: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age.

Steven had already told me the premise of his book – the first he’s written since moving to my neck of the woods in Marin, California (I hope we can keep him from going back to Brooklyn, but we’ll see…).

In short it’s this: the evidence has become overwhelming that a new form of political expression is developing, an expression deeply informed by the gravitational pull of the Internet (for more on that, see Steven’s piece in the Times: The Internet? We Built That).

Johnson sought for years to give this concept a name, and last year settled on “peer progressive.” He describes how he came to the term:

Slowly but steadily, much like the creation of the Internet itself, a growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that governed the design of the Net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems— the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools. You can see in all these efforts the emergence of a new political philosophy, as different from the state-centralized solutions of the old Left as it is from the libertarian market religion of the Right. The people behind these movements believe in government intervention without Legrand Stars, in Hayek-style distributed information without traditional marketplaces. Ron Paul’s rallying cry was too simple; progress is not just a question of choosing between individuals and the state. Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks. Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange…

…We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network. We are peer progressives.

Johnson’s use of the term “Legrand Star” is a reference to one of two consistent tropes throughout the book: A “Legrand Star” is a centralized, hierarchical approach to problem solving or decision making (named after the French rail system, which ran out to the country in direct lines from Paris). A “Baran Web” is a decentralized, peer network approach (named after Paul Baran, an early Internet pioneer).

As Johnson notes in the book, Future Perfect is something of a career-long work – his examples all stem from things he’s noticed over the course of more than a decade of writing books. It’s as if he had a big folder of anecdotes gathered over the past 15 years, each labeled “This must mean something,” all patiently waiting to be turned into this book.

Like many of us (I will admit an easy attraction), Johnson has for years felt disconnected from the political process. The polarization of political discourse seemed detached from what many of us were feeling on the ground – example after example of good things getting done by networks of diverse people working toward common goals. In Future Perfect Johnson organizes proofs of such work, some well known (Wikipedia), others surprising (he reinterprets the “Miracle on the Hudson” river landing as the work of an extended peer network. You’ll never think of frozen chickens in the same way again).

In this book Johnson acts as something of a peer progressive Johnny Appleseed, each new narrative another seed which plants the concept more firmly in a reader’s mind. Employee-owned companies perform better than Wall St. driven firms – peer networks for the win. Prize-driven, open-source advancement of science births commercial space aviation, and may solve even larger issues like our society’s approach to pharma research – again, peer nets FTW. Our cities are clogged with traffic, peer networks can re-route our transportation grid. Our news is Legrandian, but peer networks can not just save journalism, but improve it to the point of far higher value to each citizen, down to the hyperlocal level. Patents are a blight on true innovation, peer networks are helping us clear our intellectual property acne – peer networks FTW!

Toward the end of the work, Johnson writes a passage that sounds absolutely radical, if taken out of context:

The modern regime of big corporations and big governments has existed for the past few centuries in an artificial state that neglected alternative channels through which information could flow and decisions could be made. Because we were locked into a Legrand Star mind-set, we didn’t build our businesses and our states around peer networks that could connect us to a much more diverse and decentralized group of collaborators. Instead, we created a mass society defined by passive consumption, vast hierarchies, and the straight lines of state legibility. It didn’t seem artificial to us, because we couldn’t imagine an alternative. But now we can.

But after reading Steven’s book, and living through many of the same stories as has he, I have to say, I wholeheartedly agree.

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart (review)

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage (review)

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob Reid (review)

Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (review)

The Corporation (film – review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (review)

Craig Mod on Subcompact Publishing.

By - November 28, 2012

The Verge pointed me to Craig Mod’s manifesto on “Subcompact Publishing.” It’s a must read if you care about where digital publishing might go.

It’s a wonderful, thoughtful piece. It’s why we have this web thing. Go read it.

Oh, and my favorite quote:

Content without a public address is non-existent in the eyes of all the inter-operable sharing mechanisms that together bind the web.

On Open Platforms, Wifi, Home Automation, and Kitty Litter

By - November 26, 2012

At least this platform is open….

(image Shutterstock)

The world needs more open platforms. The term is  loaded, but it’s worth unpacking. To me, an open platform is a consistent opportunity space where anyone – without prior permission – can attempt to create value, and the market gets to vote on that attempt.

When the Clinton administration declared the Internet a “free trade zone” in 1997, it helped create one of the most powerful open platforms in the history of business. Anyone could set up a website, sell their services, wares, or their snake oil, and the market sorted out the winners and the losers.

But an open platform doesn’t necessarily mean a free one. The last time I checked, Comcast is still charging me $65 a month for my “high-speed business” Internet connection. Once I pay that fee, I am free to launch any site I want and consume any content I desire. Comcast has no say in the matter (so far).

Another wonderful example is the Global Positioning System (GPS), once the realm only of the United States military, but now the driver of countless commercial opportunities around the globe (again thanks to decisions made during the Clinton administration).  Anyone can access civilian GPS data – it’s open and free to all. Had this system not been in place, my weekend would have been less interesting – I could not have tracked my family’s hike across a mountain in Marin, checked into my writing retreat this morning on Foursquare, or effortlessly mapped my route to the new restaurant where I met a dozen friends last Saturday night.

Over the years we’ve seen the rise of semi-open communications-driven platforms, some of which have been built on top of the Internet (think Facebook), others which were built on top of regulated, oligarchical networks like those of the cell phone carriers (think iOS ). These systems are open to developers, but subject to stricter rules and oversight by corporations (Facebook and Apple, for example).

But sometimes platforms rise out of unexpected places. That’s the story I want to tell today.

This tale is based on an open platform of sorts – or at least, re-imagining an existing platform. In this case, that platform is the home – and in particular, the wifi-enabled home.

A report issued earlier this year found that 25% of homes worldwide have wifi installed. In the US, that figure is much higher – 61% of US homes are lit by the airborne Internet. That’s a pretty astonishing number, and it continues to climb. Wifi-lit homes are now a platform waiting for innovative ideas to hatch. Last week I got a chance to chat with someone behind one of them.

Kevin Ashton is best known as an RFID pioneer, and for coining the terms “The Internet of Things.” But what many may not know about the British-born engineer and entrepreneur is his current work on home automation. Two years ago he sold his cleantech startup Zensi to Belkin International, a 30-year old computer networking and accessory firm in Los Angeles. Belkin’s a pretty traditional company, to be honest, but that may be about to change.

Zensi specialized in monitoring a building’s electrical information, tapping into the structure’s electronic grid and sampling the “voltage noise” that spikes across the wires. That noise turns out to be pretty valuable information – every electronic gadget has a signature, and by paying close attention, Ashton’s startup could reliably determine the energy use of every node node on a building’s electronic network. That energy “can be presented to the energy user in a way that can be very beneficial,” Ashton told me.

Ashton’s first customers wanted some pretty simple data. “Nothing more than knowing the total energy consumed in the building,” he says. But Ashton knew a lot more could be done with the information, if he could just open the platform up a bit, and instrument it with a few more useful appendages.

That’s what he and his team have been up to over the past two years at Belkin. This past summer Belkin introduced WeMo, a home automation system that plugs into any outlet and allows you to control electronic devices over the Internet. The system consists of a plug, a motion sensor, and an iOS app. It’s pretty rudimentary – you plug any device you want to control into the WeMo outlet, and that device becomes controllable via the iOS app. But add in the motion sensor and you  combine the ability to turn things on and off based on the ability to “know” some action has occurred. That’s when things get interesting. Now portions of your home have remote eyes and hands, in a limited sense. WeMo’s sensors  can “see” motion and “act” on what they see by turning things off and on.

Belkin’s promotional site for WeMo shows all kinds of uses for the system: keeping your dog off the couch while you are at work, easing your mind about whether or not you turned off that curling iron before leaving the house, automating when heaters or lights are turned off and on, etc. It’s all very cool, but it suffers from the same problem that plagues all early platforms: Early adopters and hackers love the system, but most consumers aren’t going to go to the trouble of buying, coding, and installing the Wemo system just so they can turn the lights off and on, or ease their mind about an errant curling iron.

What WeMo needed was the power of an open platform, and a community that could come up with uses for the device that the company never imagined.

When WeMo launched, Ashton told me, “we didn’t have many good ideas what people would do with it.” Ashton and his team knew that “lighting up” a home with new sensory appendages could ignite a big change in how people interacted with their living spaces, but instead of taking a proprietary approach to innovation on Belkin’s new platform, they created a free, open API for Wemo, and partnered with IFTT (If This Then That), an internet service that enables anyone to create rules-based actions triggered by data from any number of sources. A simple example of an IFTT “recipe” is this: “If (I post a photo to Instagram) then (put a copy of it into my Dropbox).”

IFTT is a small but thriving community of tens of thousands of folks weaving new kinds of connections between our digitally disparate lives, and Ashton’s team figured tapping into this group might provide Belkin with some novel ideas for WeMo.

They were right. There are nearly 200 WeMo recipes on the IFTT site, ranging from “Text me if my door opens!” to “Post a Facebook status message anytime someone reaches for the cookie jar.” But the one that really got Ashton’s attention is this: “Tell me when it’s time to clean up the litter box.” It’s one of WeMo’s most-used recipes (and it turns out, it did come from within his team, but not until the IFTT connection was established).

“When we were developing (WeMo),” he told me, “there was absolutely no way that anybody – in a focus group or in our think tank – was going to come up with that as an application. If they did, we didn’t think it would be meaningful.”

At the moment, the number of people who have employed the kitty litter recipe can be counted in the dozens. But that’s a function of WeMo’s total installed base, which is still small. That base will likely remain small until a few inter-related things change: First, WeMo-like sensing needs to get cheaper and more accessible. For now, fitting out your house with a full complement of WeMo devices runs upwards of $1000, and the devices are used mostly by a small group of motivated hobbyists (not unlike 3D printing or the Arduino platform). But if sensing devices are built into electrical outlets as a matter of course, and/or are easily retrofitted into existing homes, the presumption that your home is “smart” could tip in a matter of years.

Also, consumers must begin to expect WeMo-like functionality from their homes and devices. The kitty litter recipe is a small but leading indicator of such a shift. Ashton tells me, for example, that he already has inquiries from pet lovers about promoting WeMo – just for its role in helping humans take care of their cats. As the number of hacker-driven recipes for WeMo uses multiplies and device prices and ease of installation diminish, the home sensing revolution could be right around the corner.

Thirdly, the platform wants more data – the more, the better. Imagine if WeMo also had access to all that energy sensing data built into Zensi’s original products. Because the Zensi technology “knows” the signiature of every electrical device on the home network, it “knows” when you’re watching TV, or using the microwave, working at your computer, or firing up the oven. Making all that data “knowable” opens all manner of innovative applications, again, most of which Belkin alone couldn’t dream up all by itself.

But if all this is to happen, it’s critical that access to home automation devices and data remain on an open platform, where innovation can occur unimpeded by conflicting commercial or regulatory imperatives. At the moment, anyone can create a recipe for WeMo, without Belkin’s approval. Ashton says he’s committed to that philosophy – one that he hopes informs far larger issues than curling irons and kitty poop. “We are open to anything that adds value to the system for our users,” Ashton told me.

It wasn’t a natural act for Belkin to open up the WeMo platform.  The company’s CEO has run the company for 30 years, and has never done anything like the IFTT experiment. He took a risk by allowing Ashton’s team to create an API. It’s not a bet the company move, but Ashton believes it augurs a larger change happening across many industries. (GE, for example, is embracing this idea, as are IBM and many other large companies).

“If you can create a business in which other people’s business is adding value to your product, more people will buy your product,” Ashton says. He compares that to traditional, vertically integrated companies that try to control every aspect of their product’s expression (like most automobile manufacturers.) Ashton predicts that all industries will eventually tip toward a more horizontal, open platform approach to business. “In one generation,” he asserts, “this model will win.”

All this reminds me of a book I recently finished – Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age. I’ll be reviewing that work shortly, but Johnson’s point is simple: if we are to solve our largest societal problems, we need to take a more peer-driven, open-platform approach to business, politics, and culture. With WeMo, Belkin’s taken one small step in that direction. I expect many more will follow.