Yesterday Robert Scoble once again declared that the Open Web was dead. His argument was that Apps and proprietary black holes like Facebook are absorbing all the light (read: users, attention, value, investment) and taking our beloved open platform right along with it. In his post, he kindly (but incorrectly) named me as the only person who really cares about the Open Web. While that's flattering, I think he's wrong about me being the only one who cares.
But he is right about the Open Web. It's in real danger. URLs are fading into the background, native Mobile apps are all the rage and Facebook threatens to engulf the web into a proprietary black hole.
But I think there's a bigger problem going on right now. Not just with the web, but with silicon valley (as stewards of the web). We've lost sight of the things that matter. We're obsessed with quick wins, easily digestible VC pitches, stock options and flipping for a Ferrari.
There's more to this game than that. Let me touch on some of the things I see going on.
- Lead not just cheerlead In our obsession with being seen by our micro-audiences as 'thought leaders' or 'futurists' it's always very tempting to watch which way the wind is blowing and shout loudly that THERE is the future. Like a weather vane, it's easy to point the way the wind is blowing, but our biggest, best opportunity is not to declare a popular service 'the next big thing' just because a few visible people are hanging out there. Rather our collective and individual responsibility is to help articulate a direction we think moves the state of the art forward for both the web and for society at large. Something, as leaders of this field, we believe in. Just like VCs develop an investment thesis, we should all have a vision for where the web is going (and how it should get there) and actively seek out, support and promote quiet heros who are building something that moves the needle in the right direction.
- Add to the web's DNA Almost every startup I see today is focused on building an 'App' and calling it a 'Platform'. Too often (almost every time) though, these apps are nothing more than proprietary, incremental and niche attempts at making a quick buck. We need more companies to think deeper. Think longer term. What are you doing to change the fabric of the web's DNA forever? How can you contribute to the very essence of the Internet the same way that TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML, JS and so many other technologies have done. Even proprietary technologies have provided valuable evolutions forward - things like Flash and yes, even FB. How are you going to live forever? This is why Facebook used to call itself a 'Social Utility' instead of a 'Social Network'. Mark Zuckerberg was never content to be the next Myspace Tom. He wanted to be the next Alexander Graham Bell. And now he is.
- Don't just iterate, innovate Of course, someone has to build Apps. We can't all be working at the infrastructure layer. But too many of the Apps we chose to build (or champion) are incremental. As startup founders, investors and influencers it's so easy to understand something that can be described as the 'Flipboard of Monkeys' instead of thinking really hard about how a completely new idea might fit into the future. Sure there are plenty of good business and marketing reasons why you shouldn't stray too far from the beaten path, broadening it one incremental feature at a time, but the core essence of what you're working on can't be yet another turn of a very tired wheel. If you're shouting 'Me too' then you're probably not thinking big enough.
- B2C, not Ego2C Silicon valley is clearly a B2C town. We all love the sexy new app that our mother might eventually understand. Something we can get millions of users to use so we can show them lots of ads. Besides the fact that I think we should focus a little more on B2B, the problem is we're not really a B2C town at all. We're actually more focused on what I will call Ego2c. That is, we pick our favorite apps based on how famous the founding team is OR how easily we can use the app to build yet another niche audience for ourselves (and brands/marketers). It would be a tragedy if the social web revolution boils down to new methods of PR and marketing. But that's what we seem to be obsessed with. As soon as any app from a famous founder gets released we give it tones of buzz while plenty of more deserving projects get barley a squeak. If the app gets a little traction (typically the ones that have Ego mechanics baked in) you see a million posts about how marketers can exploit it. Inevitably the app developers start to focus on how to 'increase social coefficients' instead of how to help human beings make a connection or find utility in their lives.
- "Users don't care" Speaking more specifically about the Open vs. Closed debate, too often we hear the criticism "Users don't care about open". This is absolutely true and the reason why most open efforts fail. Users don't care about open. They care about utility and choice. This is why the only way to continue propagating the open web is to work with BUSINESS. B2B. Startups, Media Brands, The bigco Tech companies. They care about open because the proprietary winners are kicking the losers ass and that usually means there are at least 1 or more other guys who need a competitive advantage. They need to team up and build, deploy and popularize the open alternative. That's why open always wins. There's always plenty of losers around who are going to commoditize the popular closed thing. As technology leaders we're paid to care about things users don't care about. Things that shape the future. While users, in the short term, might not care, we should dare to think and dream a little bigger. As a case study look at Android vs. iOS. iOS is more profitable for a single company, but the other is now a force of nature.
- Death is just a stage of life Just because something is no longer interesting doesn't mean it's dead. Its spirit, and often times the actual technology, lives on, one layer below the surface. RSS is a great example of this. RSS's spirit lives on in ActivityStreams and the general publish/subscribe model. It is powering almost every service-to-service interaction you currently enjoy. Is it dead, or has it simply become part of the DNA of the Internet? Could RSS (or something like it) be better exposed higher up in the stack, absolutely, but that will take some time, thoughtful execution and influencers who are willing to champion the cause. The same is true for OpenID and OAuth.
- The Arc of the Universe Is long but It bends towards Open The battle of Open vs. Closed is not a zero sum game. Both have their time. It's a sin wave. First, closed, proprietary solutions come to define a new way of fulfilling a use case and doing business. They solve a problem simply and elegantly and blaze a path to market awareness, acceptance and commercialization. Open, however, always follows. Whether it's a year, a decade or a century, Open. Always. Wins. The only question is how long, as an industry, are we going to keep our tail tucked between our legs in front of the the great giant proprietary platform of the moment or are we going to get our act together to ensure the "Time to Open" is as short as possible. It takes courage, co-ordination and vision, but we can all play our part to shorten the time frame between the invention of a proprietary app and the absorption of that value into the open web platform.
- Acknowledge reality FB has won. It's done. Just like Microsoft won the Desktop OS (in part handed to them by IBM), so too has FB won the Social OS (in part handed to them by Microsoft). For now. Acknowledging the truth is the first step to changing it. The only question now is how long we're all willing to wait until we get our act together to turn the proprietary innovation of the 'social graph' into part of the open web's core DNA. We need to recognize our power. They have ~1B users? The open web has more. Chances are that the major website or brand you work for has plenty of its own users as well. Are you going to send them to FB, or are you going to invest in your own .com. Trust me, I know it's really, really easy to take what you're given because you're too busy putting out a million fires. But as technology leaders I challenge us all to build something better. We're the only ones who can.
- [Edit] Don't kill Hollywood Did you catch the YC post calling for silicon valley to kill hollywood. Not only was this reckless and short sighted, it's the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Instead of trying to kill or cannibalize media companies and content creators, how about we work with them to create the next generation of information technology. They have the audiences+information and we have the technology. Instead, most silicon valley companies, by virtue of their B2C focus, are too busy leaching off major media instead of finding ways to help transform it. Sure most of them move slowly - but move they are. Move they must. Helping them is very profitable. I write more about this on the Echo blog - calling it 'Real-time Storytelling'
- [Edit] Today's data portability problem When I started the DataPortability project the issue of the time was personal data portability. That's not the case anymore. While user-centric data portability is still being done via proprietary mechanisms it's a) actually possible and b) moving more towards open standards every day. The real issue right now is firehoses. Access to broad corpuses of data so that 3rd parties can innovate is only possible through firehoses (for now). To put it another way, the reason Google was possible was because the open web was crawl-able - for free - with no biz dev deal. The reason FB was possible was because the open web allowed any site to spring up and do what it wanted to do. Today, too much of our data is locked up in closed repositories that can and must be cracked open. Google's moves to exclude other socnets (besides G+) from their search results until they had free and clear access to them might be inconvenient for users in the short term, but, as a strategic forcing function, is in the best interest of the open web long term.
End of rant.